Three months into quarantine — and deep into what felt like our 500th Zoom or Blink or Google Video lesson — my husband and I finally began to give up. The endless online classes were not only taking a toll on our family’s sanity, they no longer seemed to be working. Our toddler sons couldn’t hold still, office matters constantly distracted us adults, and the increasingly warm weather beckoned our brood out of the house and into the great outdoors. Or at least what passes for the outdoors in Manhattan.
And so, we reckoned, what about home-schooling? Or maybe just a few educational tricks and tasks we could adapt from a formal home-schooling syllabus. With so many families shut inside during the pandemic, we figured there must be some decent curricula available online or in print. But how would we find one with proven results? Who could tell us which text would actually engage our restless little guys?
The obvious place to turn was Facebook; more precisely, the pair of private parenting groups I use for any kid-focused conundrum: one for gay dads, and one for moms in our neighborhood of Manhattan. Spoiler alert: I may live in New York City, but I am not a mom. But no matter. Since our twins were born in November 2016, I’ve found this mom group to be incredibly warm and unfailingly helpful. Yes, I am a gay dad, but NYC Moms is a lot larger, and the mind-hive there never fails to deliver what I need, usually in a matter of hours.
Whereas the moms had been generous and helpful, the dads were mostly dismissive, aggressive, competitive, and rude. None of them seemed to have actually considered my request and nearly all made it clear that they, strangers all, knew what was best for my sons.
So I placed a post on both pages, the exact same language, the exact same request. “Friends,” I wrote, “we are looking for a decent syllabus we can use to teach our 3.5-year-old twins all the things they are missing in school. Is anyone using a syllabus for some home lessons they can recommend[?] Thank you!” No need to alter the wording, I figured; there was nothing inherently “momish” or “dadish” or “gayish” about the ask.
The first replies came from the moms: Simple, straightforward actionable answers filled with enthusiastic anecdotes and easy-to-Amazon product recommendations. As always, a few even offered to connect with me directly, while some suggested informal group classes for kids my sons’ age. I took notes, responded with thank-you’s, and got ready to swipe and buy.
But then I turned to the Gay Fathers page and could not believe what I found.
Whereas nearly all of the moms had responded with actual suggestions, which suggests they actually read my post, dad after dad brazenly, blithely, bullyingly told me that I had it all wrong.
“No syllabus for 3.5-year-olds,” chimed in Chad. “Fairly useless,” chortled Kris. “Play with them and enjoy them,” wrote Theo. “School lol. Play in the sandbox, blocks, basic art,” added Gene.
And on it went. One gay dad after another inveighing upon me to forget actually educating my kids and opt for paint and sand and building blocks instead — as if we weren’t already using them, as if we never played with our sons. I was struck, not only by the chutzpah of these complete strangers criticizing my dad choices, but the stridency and conviction of their unsolicited advice-giving.
Because it wasn’t enough to merely tell me how to parent, these fellows insisted on edifying their obnoxiousness with mini-snippets from their CVs. Remember Kris? He made sure to point out that he had multiple degrees in education. Then there’s Paul, who’s a “teacher, school psychologist, and elementary principal.” And let’s not forget about Branston—yes, Branston—who’s not just an educator, “but a product of a Montessori day care/preschool!”
Unsurprisingly, I’d soon had enough — and let the group know that this wasn’t helping. Listen up, men: Unlike the moms, who actually answered my question, you dads have failed to deliver. Nearly 40 comments in, I see lots of dad-splaining and very little action. Needless to say, things got nasty. “If you don’t like the good advice that it’s probably too early for 3.5-year-olds to be subject to a syllabus,” sniped Chad from a few comments earlier, “then don’t crowdsource your parental responsibilities to a social media platform.”
I didn’t realize I had.
Baffled and bruised, I tried to make sense of it all. Whereas the moms had been generous and helpful, the dads were mostly dismissive, aggressive, competitive, and rude. None of them seemed to have actually considered my request and nearly all made it clear that they, strangers all, knew what was best for my sons. Suffocating under the weight of compounding WTFs, it finally dawned on me: This is it! This is what the people mean when they speak of toxic masculinity!
Despite being, perhaps, the ultimate minority — Black, Jewish, gay, beefy — I’m not a big fan of progressive jargon. For me, terms like “privilege,” “gaslight,” “intersectional,” and “heteronormative” feel more like conversation stoppers than starters, imprecise gibberish used to silence dissent and stifle intellectual discourse. “Toxic masculinity” was part of that, part of a larger trend I’d dismissed by adding a mental hashtag: #woke. But there it was, naked and raging, a whole Facebook post filled with the most toxic, macho nonsense I’d ever encountered. All from fellow gay dads, and all directed at me.
Needless to say, I woke up.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stereotyping aside, gay men have always had a reputation for being catty. And now there’s hard data to back up all that cattiness: According to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, gay men often scrutinize each other almost to the point of affliction.
And that was how I felt, scrutinized and afflicted. Because these men — these men who I’d sought out for support — not only failed to help me, but tried to shame me along the way. If this is how men make other men feel, I pondered, what kind of damage are they doing to women? And how can I make sure I’m not doing this damage myself? How can I ensure my masculinity isn’t toxic?
Although I might not have all the answers, one thing for certain is that while it may disproportionately impact women, toxic masculinity also imperils men — even gay men—whom many assume should know better. Rather than allowing men to be of service to one another, toxic masculinity renders them their own worst enemies: Dismissive, empathyless, status-conscious jerks unable to lift each other up for even the most innocuous request (like, say, a preschool syllabus).
It’s sad and it sucks, especially amid renewed national civil rights tensions and a virtual pride month that finds so many LGBTQ folks under quarantine and perilously alone.
More than a week after my unanticipated parenting skirmish, I’ve yet to tiptoe back into the Gay Fathers page. As for my newfound #wokeness (sorry, that hashtag doesn’t fall off so easily), I’m so rarely around other humans these days that I haven’t fully used it yet. But that’s the thing. I don’t need to test-drive positive masculinity, I just need to live it. With the moms — particularly my own — who inspire me to be a more gracious, patient, and generous dad. And the dads who are helping me, a son who grew up without a father, design my own style of fathering filled with empathy, compassion, and a strong dose of patience.
Mostly, however, I hope to serve my fellow gay fathers in ways they were not able to serve me. Not because I’m better at it, but because I need them just as much as they need me. Even as celebs like Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen make gay parenting appear almost common, most of us regular gay dads have few allies and even fewer role models. I hope to break this cycle of isolation — and dilute the potency of toxic masculinity.