When I was little boy growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, my idea of a what it took to be a man was formed by the stereotypes I watched in the movies and on TV. I wanted to be a combination of Dirty Harry, James Bond (Sean Connery only) and the Fonz. Men were brave, good at sports, made lots of money, had pretty women, disciplined their kids and could kick-ass when needed. So I set out on my plan and course to manhood, checking off each quality on that list along the way.
Originally Published on The Good Men Project 08-30-2015
As I went through my twenties, I felt like a real man. I was brave enough to graduate from a top Ivy League graduate school. I was running a large photo supply business, I had a pretty blonde wife with 5 kids, a membership at a prestigious country club (with a golfer of the year title under my belt), and after many years of karate, I could actually kick some butt – but only if necessary.
But my list and life dramatically changed in 1996, when I was 33 years old. My wife, and mother of our 5 little children, left us permanently. After one of the longest lasting divorces in New Jersey history, I had full custody and sole responsibility for our 5 children – and was bankrupt.
My heart was broken, my mind was blown and my ass was kicked. I felt unloved, lonely, confused, and overwhelmed. I desperately wanted to run away like a scared little child from what looked like a 20 year prison sentence ahead with my youngest then still in diapers.
I have spent these past 19 years raising my children as “Mr. Mom” and “Mr. Dad,” while running my business and finding a way to still play golf on occasion. My list of qualities of what I believe it takes to be a man has evolved, to say the least, and put me on paths I never could have imagined – like writing this piece today.
My kids are all in their 20’s. Four have attended top colleges, one is just married, one helps run my business, and most gratifying to me, all five are successful, happy and kind human beings despite their odds. We all love each other and stay close to each other.
Here are the top 7 things I learned along the way:
- A man is thankful. I am grateful every day I have had these kids in my life – wonderful human beings. They pay me back daily with their love and success.
- A man learns to trust. I trust in something outside of myself. I was never spiritual before but when my life as I planned it fell apart, what did I have to lose by trying.
- A man is inspirational. I inspired my kids to do their best. I inspire the people I work with. I inspire myself to do my very best every single day – a few days better than others.
- A man learns to let go of anger. I worked little by little at getting over my rage and bitterness. I started taking responsibility for my part in this. I’m not saying I’m l00 percent there, but my writing, my putting my heart and soul into helping other men and women is a part of my healing.
- A man is desperate. I wouldn’t really know desperation until I had children. In particular when I had to care for them myself. I am desperate for their success – for all five of them to live healthy, happy and autonomous lives. It is that desperate desire that supplies the willingness to sacrifice, to get them there.
- A man stays physically healthy. I work hard now to keep myself in tip-top physical condition. It’s not just about me. It’s also about being there for a long time for the ones you love.
- A man is humble. I found out I don’t control everything. I don’t know everything, I’m not the bravest and I make mistakes. My life is a process, and if I am open to it, I can improve every day.
Life would not have been such a difficult and painful learning experience if I had some idea what was ahead for me.
Here are the top 7 things I wish someone had told me about being a man when I was young:
- It’s not just okay, but essential to ask for help and it’s smart to walk away from “help” that is unsolicited or seems motivated by the wrong reasons.
- Not everything is straight forward or logical. It’s perfectly okay to trust your (fatherly) male instincts.
- Anger is a wasted emotion and drains your energy. Letting go of your anger sets you free and on the path to success.
- Life isn’t going to be fair and things won’t work out like they should – frequently.
- Overcoming life’s biggest problems and challenges is going to provide you with the greatest personal growth.
- Material possessions will not provide happiness. Happiness comes from within you, the people in your life, and the experiences you have.
- Being a father to 5 children and raising them to successful adults would provide more happiness and satisfaction than anything else I could have done with my life.
Being a man is not a checklist of things you acquire or your conquests. It absolutely has nothing to do with anything that is stereotypically male or macho.
A man is open-minded to learning and improving, cares for others, can express his feelings and tries to be the best human being he can be.
I did not know that 19 years ago. I only know it now because when I look in the mirror, those are not only the qualities of the guy staring back at me, they are the qualities of which he is most proud.
WHAT DO YOU WISH SOMEONE WOULD HAVE TOLD YOU ABOUT BEING A MAN AND A DAD?