I would know how to raise a girl – after all, I had grown up a girl in this world, and in the Catholic Church. If I had a daughter, I could teach her how I had learned to navigate this world.
But as the divine plan would have it, I saw at my twenty-week ultrasound the unmistakable evidence that I would be mothering a son instead. I felt like I was in uncharted territory. Our son, by virtue of his maleness and the color of his skin, would move through the world with so much privilege thrust upon him. But the flip side of privilege is the baggage that masculinity in our culture drags along behind it. There’s a never-ending pressure to be tough that seems to start as soon as boys are born. Emotions are verboten. Anything associated with women and femininity is met with derision. The obsession with maintaining masculinity has even, tragically, led to a child’s death.
In the months leading up to his birth, I agonized over things like whether or not he should be a Boy Scout, knowing that they ban gay youth and adults from scouting. I had to face everything I’d struggled with in the Catholic Church, but from the opposite side – how much more difficult would it be to explain to my son our complicity in the inequality faced by women and LGBT Catholics in our church? Even more vexing, we lived in a diocese that allowed churches to ban girls from serving at the altar. Would he grow up with the split identity so many Catholic girls had before him – that girls could do anything boys could do, except for when they were at church?
How would we teach him to be the man we hoped he could be? There is no road map for parents, least of all for a radical feminist trying to raise a Christian male. While the Christian tradition has often been at the forefront of maintaining rigid ideas of masculinity and gender roles, clinging to outdated gender essentialist ideas to justify everything from the male-only priesthood to opposing same-sex marriage, the Catholic tradition, through the communion of saints, gives our sons the gift of diverse manifestations of masculinity to emulate: Benedict’s contemplation and study, Thomas More’s commitment to his daughter’s education, Oscar Romero’s commitment to non violence and social justice. Not least of all, there is Jesus, who so often chose compassion over toughness, who wept openly, who stood in solidarity with women and others who were marginalized, and who rejected privilege and power as the Son of God to die among common criminals.
While my spouse and I continue to struggle with how we will raise Liam to be unafraid and free to explore his identity in a culture so anxious about masculinity, we know that there is room even in the most unlikely of places, our faith tradition, for him to grow, explore, and redefine what it means to be a man.
Johanna Hatch is a feminist activist, writer, and amateur hagiographer. She currently resides in Wisconsin with her spouse Evan, son Liam, and their mostly blind dachshund.