07/07/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Makes a Man

It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release, I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love" to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Mychal Smith talks about his family:

What Makes a Man

by Mychal Smyth

My father has been married to my mother for 25 years and they have never separated. He attended my high school graduation and paid for the college degree I have yet to receive. I even know his date of birth and social security number, if I ever decided to steal his identity.

Despite being a constant presence in my life, I have never felt like I really know who my father is.

He raised me to the best of his abilities and through the years I've learned to appreciate all that he was able to provide. I've never gone hungry or lived homeless, and for the most part have lived a typical American middle-class life, akin to something you would see on "The Cosby Show." Yet a part of me still resents him for being so unavailable to me, emotionally.

Granted, my father was able to teach me how to shoot a basketball, drive a car, wield a hammer, and deliver the infamous "birds and bees" speech. I understand the value in learning these things and am forever grateful that my father was around to teach them to me. But I needed more. Now more than ever, I find myself asking, God mostly, "Why didn't my father teach me how to love? Why didn't he teach me about heartache, sadness, or even joy? Why, in all the lessons he taught, did he never once open up about his own feelings? Why couldn't he show me how to deal with pain? Why did he never cry? Why didn't he show me any emotions?"

Simple: he didn't know how.

No one ever took the time to teach him. These aren't skills that are typically passed on to men. Acknowledging one's feelings is not something that adheres to the rigid and unflinching definition of masculinity that restricts the exploration of those feelings in favor of "toughness." In general, men are expected to stifle themselves emotionally, ignoring the existence of any feeling that does not fit into the established masculine paradigm.

A man can be angry, but never sad. A man can lust, but never love. A man can, and should be, feared, but never show any of his own. These are the lessons my and many other fathers learned, and they are the same lessons they are passing on to their sons.

What most fail to realize is an emotionally absent father can prove to be just as harmful as those who are physically absent, leaving young men, such as myself, to figure out difficult and confusing emotions without guidance. We can turn to our mothers, but if they have bought into the same archaic ideas of masculinity as men, where does that leave us?

The answer: in a place where we are forced to raise ourselves. Often in this situation young men end up mimicking the same damaging behaviorial patterns established by the previous generation. They lock up their feelings, keeping them locked tightly inside their chest until they reach a point where they can no longer contain them. At this point they engage in reckless and destructive behavior, hurting those closest to them and killing themselves.

A select few, and I would like to include myself in this group, choose differently. We choose to be open. We choose to acknowledge our full selves. We choose to define masculinity on our own terms and adjust it to fit our lives, not the other way around.

While I grew up with my father being "present," he didn't exist as an immediate male role model to inform my emotional growth. As such, I was put in a situation where I had to teach myself how to feel, how to love. I've made more than a few mistakes along the way. I have said and done things to people that, if I had better counsel, I would have known better not to do. I have allowed the confusion and frustration to overtake me at times, leading me to a place of unfathomable depression.

But I rose from it. I learned how not to keep my emotions caged up inside. I found ways to express myself, through writing mostly, that freed me from the constricting ideas that compose the popular idea of masculinity. And even while bucking that tradition, I have held my head high and called myself a man. I am an imperfect man, of course, but a man who is willing to admit that and search inside of myself to correct what I can and do the best to not allow the rest to hurt anyone too terribly.

I think I've done an OK job raising myself. I haven't killed anyone, that I know of, and I've brought myself back to life on numerous occasions. I think I'll make it just fine.

Still, I wish I knew who my father was.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer currently based in Virginia Beach, VA. He blogs for and is a contributor to This is his first contribution to the Huffington Post and he is grateful to Rebecca Walker for the opportunity. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at