‘Putting beauty back into men’s lives is essential’: what having children taught me about being a man

After my eldest child was born, my mother – having watched me change nappies, or gently lower the baby’s body in the bath, or rock the warm infant to sleep – said to me: “You’ve got a lot of empathy!” An unspoken “actually” hung in the air, suggesting that my having empathy had previously been a hypothesis in need of substantiation, like evolution before the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Compare this with a loudly spoken random man on the bus last weekend, who hollered at me, as I was wiping my youngest child’s face and nattering to him: “Mate, you’ve got the voice of a woman!”

I shrugged and said “riiiiight …?” and he added: “No offence intended!” And none taken. Or, at least, not with the contention itself, so much as the need to voice it at all, let alone bray it at me in front of other passengers and my own child. Of course, the reason people occasionally take it upon themselves to have a pop at me about my parenting in public – this man wasn’t the first – is the same reason for which other people have gaybashed me. That’s because they see me performing un-masculinity in public.

In both cases, there is roughly the same balance of instinct and purpose going into that: as a queer man I have a feyness in my voice, demeanour and body language that is simply a part of my being, but I also enjoy performing my gayness. In a similar way, it has turned out that I tend quite naturally to be a rather mild parent who “mothers” his kids, but I also find it symbolically important to make a display for my boys of being gentle, tender, vulnerable and honest.

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Caspar Salmon.

A lot of this stems from my sexuality, not least in practical terms. My children’s gay mothers and I were not able to have kids by accident – on the contrary, these are the most intentional children since Jesus – and so I was able to put a fair bit of thought into the sort of father I wanted to be. There have been wonderful fathers in history, of course but in general the role has, I think, been bound up with harmful ideas of authority and discipline, which imply violence. I was keen to mark a shift with that. On top of this, I am happily exempt from the very basically Freudian notion of resenting one’s children because they render your wife less sexually available to you, simply by dint of not fancying my children’s mothers.

Something else I may do differently: I spend a not insignificant amount of time telling my boys they are beautiful or lovely – mostly because they are, and I am the sort of person who likes to give a compliment – but also because I know as a gay man who wants to be beheld and not just be the beholder, that men starve each other of niceties. We can go days and days without a remark on our loveliness coming to brighten an otherwise forlorn hour at work. It literally kills men to have to think of themselves as instigators of action rather than objects of attention. Think how many boys’ names have traditionally referred to work and power (Liam meaning “protector”; George meaning “farmer”; Arthur meaning “courageous”) while girls’ names signified beauty and virtue (Grace, Constance, and all the flower names). Putting beauty and goodness back into men’s lives is essential.

Being a parent, being a queer man, and being a writer with a somewhat public profile, give me the same sense of responsibility, and a way of practising what I preach. My writing on cinema comes back, again and again, to questioning the violence of films, the unthinking straight masculinity of the form, and boosting what I consider a cinema that reacts against these things. In the same way, I know I can say that, whatever faults I may have as a parent (I’m forgetful, messy and disorganised, I can’t drive, my flat doesn’t have a garden or contain enough snacks or toys), I have never caused them to be afraid of me.

At the same time, I’m aware how basic these things are, and that mothers do all this stuff all the time without blinking an eye and get no praise for it. It’s a completely absurd and embarrassing measure of how toxic men have been for millennia that any kind of attempt to be sweet towards children, to cuddle them, for instance, is seen as in any way abnormal. Yesterday I was reading my oldest child a book on the train – something I would think of as absolutely bare-minimum parenting – and a man stopped to compliment me. Consider this the obverse of the guy who harangued me last week: men have historically done so little with their kids that any kind of interaction with them at all is deserving of comment, positive or negative.

Of course, I’m sure I’m unwittingly passing on some sort of poison of my own, which will be revealed to me in time. Larkin wrote that “man hands on misery to man”, which is probably still true, but I’m not sure he is right that “it deepens like a coastal shelf”. Perhaps – and forgive me for being Pollyannaish – the misery can be checked, can plateau. Perhaps we can stop it from worsening.

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