I'll never forget the moment. It was a Tuesday night, late in the fall of 1979. My mother had finally kicked out her alcoholic boyfriend, who for three years running had terrorized the little apartment that housed my mom, my sister and me. Wednesday was trash day. And in my tiny family's understanding of that era that meant it was time for the "man of the house" to take out the trash.
So there, in that moment, my embattled mother declared it: I, all of 9 years old, was now the "man of the house".
I immediately felt uncertain, scared, and confused.
How do you take out the trash? What if I screw it up? Is it too heavy for me? Will I be able to lift it into the big dumpster, the one across the cold and dark apartment complex parking lot?
Realizing that the situation - and that new mantle which had been bestowed upon me - called for stoic action, I quickly and uncomfortably swallowed each and every one of those fearful questions. They filled me up and weighed me down - for decades, if I'm being honest. And yet the trash needed taking out.
So I took out the trash. On that night, every Tuesday night afterwards, and metaphorically until I was well into my adult life.
Finally in my 40's, bearing a crushing sense of defeat in both my personal and professional lives, marked by divorce and career burnout, I decided to set down that mantle and start over again.
I have felt scrambled many times over as I rearranged the letters of my life to better fit who I really am. I continue to clarify that identity, to reclaim the person I have been since before I was 9 years old, when I was bestowed with meanings I could not possibly comprehend.
So today I continue my series of posts that explore the different ways we as men, and us as people in general, can interpret the words that are used to define us. Without further adieu, here are seven telling variations on that particular scramble of letters that makes up "man of the house":
1. Unsafe Home Tho
Let me preface this first variation with a disclaimer: I know, believe and trust that my mom was doing her absolute best to love and care for me with all of the tools she had in her possession. And at the same time, I have realized that it wasn't safe for my psyche to take on the notion of being "man of the house", even in a limited fashion, at that young age.
Kids are meant to be kids. There is plenty of time for us to experience the world outside of the sweet bubble of innocence that we often call "home". Puncturing that bubble at a tender age, as my mother did out of ignorance, made it such that my home wasn't a haven for me.
2. Human Foe, Those
Growing up poor in a wealthy town, living in apartment complexes when my peers lived in big houses, I was already aware of how different I was. I compared myself in so many ways to the kids around me. And in every way, including this odd new power I had been granted, I felt inferior. My enduring sense of being different seeded in me a wariness, a sense that all others were foes, and I was always waiting for their next taunt or look of disdain. Being "Man of the House" offered no protection from that.
3. Uh Oh, Often Same
As I grew older my experience seemed to coalesce with that of my peers. We were all gaining independence, at first simply being able to ride bikes down to the pizza shop by ourselves, then part-time jobs and cars offered us a longer tether into the world away from our parents. And still there was a difference for me. I moved about more freely. While in the moment that seemed cool, I later realized that I longed for the caring ways that my friends' parents tugged on them to remind them that they were still kids. I missed out on that tug.
4. Houseman He Oft
In my 50 years of life, I have called at least 25 different places "home" for a substantial period of time. I was bestowed with the label "Man of the House" in the 4th place I called home. As it turns out, the enduring nature of the "house" part of the phrase has been just as elusive as the "man" part was for so long.
5. Fame Hones Thou
In that way-too-early bestowing of the "man of the house" mantle, there were clearly some gifts. Chief among them was my ability to endure hardship and get things done. That skill set provided me many moments of "fame" - if you'll allow me to define that word I somewhat loosely.
Overcoming my late bloomer status athletically to star on the varsity baseball team as a senior? Yeah, I honed my skills to become the "man of the starting rotation" that year.
Fighting my way through a disorganized first decade in the work world to eventually become president of a multi-million dollar tech company? I continually worked on my craft to become the "man of the house" in my workplace.
I have worked so hard to hone my edges. I can persevere to achieve. I know how to be scared and do it anyway.
6. Oh, Tune Of Shame
Just because I can, doesn't mean I should.
You could probably put that quote on my tombstone and I'd be satisfied. It's a good message for me.
However, I often did, when I shouldn't have. I continued to carry the mantle of responsibility for way too long. In fact, I kept taking on more and more as a way of proving my worth.
Underlying all of that "doing" was a word that we don't often want to own: shame. I held shame around being different than others from a very early age. It terrified me, so much so that I needed to hide it.
That mantle of "man of the house"? It gave me a golden opportunity. It offered me the twin practices of stoic achievement and perfectionism as ways to soothe myself and make me feel worthy. And I took damn near every opportunity to practice those for the next 30 or so years of my life, until they finally broke me.
That quote above might even sum up my life story, but only if I were to leave my course unaltered.
7. Humane Fest? Ooh!
Ok, here's our last - but absolutely not least - anagram. And it's the most important one because what we all want most in life is to be loved.
Being humane to ourselves means acting from a place of compassion, starting with us and radiating outward, to minimize our collective pain.
Grinding my way through life inside an identity that I never claimed, nor was ready for, never worked for me. The dictionary includes a definition of the word "humane" as "inflicting the minimum of pain". Another definition invokes the offering of "compassion or benevolence".
When I finally laid down that old mantle I found a more humane way of being waiting for me. I began to recognize my self-inflicted pain and offer myself compassion instead. And frankly, it feels like a party (a "fest") to be living within that persona! Ooh, indeed!
What identity are you carrying that you are ready to put down?
How could that act of surrender create more benevolence in your life?
If you know what that is, what is holding you back from releasing it?
Please know that I realize it's hard to change the oldest parts of you. And yet I invite you to consider the new words and meanings you might be able to make from whatever label you were given all those years ago.
Going inside those words with deep compassion and benevolence will bring you towards love, both for yourself and for the world around you.
Jim Young is a coach who helps men get their lives - and their true, unmasked identities - back. Because coaching can feel too vulnerable for some men, he also offers online courses that help men start their journey into rediscovering themselves.
When Jim isn't coaching, he can be found being himself. (He's also himself when he's coaching.) That includes goofing with his ridiculous teens, learning more about how to love with his partner, playing with words, and making laughter for live audiences with his improv comedy troupe.
If you're curious to know more about how you can spend less time providing for other people's expectations of you and more time loving the life you are creating for yourself, get in touch with Jim. He's always happy to share how he did that for himself and offer up ideas that might work for you.
[Special thanks to the folks at the Internet Anagram Server. Jim couldn't have written this post without them.]