“Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” — Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1845
THE writer with two of the “pushy” females in his life.
I HAVE three things in common with former president and certified macho man Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada: the same birthday, facial hair, and the constant presence of women. But while he may believe being constantly around women is a good thing and could be a much needed boost to one’s masculinity, it’s a situation I have ambivalent feelings about.
Well, I probably won’t have that dilemma if we were talking in terms of a harem, where all the world is made to revolve around one truly lucky guy, the center of attention of sensual ladies (wives and servants) whose job it is to always ensure his personal satisfaction. But a harem — at least, as far as Western writings imagined it to be — is so archaic an arrangement, and chauvinistic at that. Besides I’m no royal, blue-blooded heir of a sultan. My only dubious link to royalty is the name I was christened with, one I share with my dearly departed father and two younger brothers: that of a Macedonian hunk of a conqueror and emperor who was also said to have loved males more passionately than his wives. Hmmm …
But I digress. As I was saying, I’m surrounded by females round the clock, every single day of my chaotic life, and most times I feel like I’m in an unenviable position. Over at our humble Tandang Sora abode, members of the female species outnumber me three to one: my wife Mira and our two daughters, Marlee, 10, and Kaya, five. At work, I am the only male employee in an office that has always suffered from gender imbalance since it was set up almost two decades ago. In fact, it was only when I joined the PCIJ back in 1994 that the center’s male staff population swelled to a high of three. But the number would soon dwindle back to two when Howie Severino left in 1997 to join GMA-7 to venture into broadcast journalism, and to just my solitary self late last year when we had to let go of our driver-messenger.
I say unenviable because I haven’t been dealing with ordinary females here. My colleagues at the PCIJ, past and present, are strong and aggressive women who do not subscribe to the myth of male superiority. That is why I’ve always maintained that the women’s liberation movement had long raised the flag of victory in its struggle for gender equality over at the Center.
So it is at home with Mira and already to some extent our two daughters, who both exhibited a discomfortingly mean streak at an early age by yelling “Ayoko sa ‘yo! (I don’t like you!)” whenever they woke up in the morning and the first thing they saw was me. (Who wouldn’t?)
That morning ritual is already a thing of the past now that they’ve grown into adorable young girls. But, like their mother, they surely know how to demand my attention, albeit in contrasting ways. Marlee often resorts to silent, irritating tantrums, while Kaya is the screaming banshee foreboding my impending doom should I fail to comprehend or miss out on something she said.
Not that I’m really complaining about the “pushy” females in my life. My personal and professional relationships with them, I do acknowledge, have only made me strive to become a better man, or person. But I think it helped that I was also somehow brought up as a “soft” man — the ’90s term for males trying to get in touch with their sensitive side.
AS THE second child in a brood of six (three girls and three boys) and the eldest among the boys, I assumed more responsibilities compared to my sisters, something not quite typical of a Filipino family. In our household, my sisters had it easy as they were confined only to the house to perform domestic chores. It was I who became my hardworking mother’s trusted assistant, who helped her tend our grocery store, dutifully ran errands for her, and even did the marketing. By the time I was just 11 or 12 years old, I already knew my way around the Divisoria market where we bought most of the goods we sold. I would wake up early to open the store, which was located in a neighborhood far from where we stayed, and attend to the morning sales before I went to my high school classes in the afternoon. After school, I would go straight to the store and mind the shop until it closed at 10 or 11 p.m.
Because both our parents worked, it was also not strange for my siblings and I to have learned to cope by ourselves. That’s how I acquired the skills of doing the laundry and ironing the clothes. Cooking came to me much later, although I believe it’s in my genes, an inheritance from my father who was quite a fantastic conjurer of gastronomical surprises.
These days, my part in the division of labor at home — given that we’ve renounced the need for a house help — consists mainly of washing the dishes, ironing the clothes, and bringing Kaya to her preschool (same as with Marlee when she was that age). Cooking rice and brewing our morning coffee are also part of my daily to-do list. I haven’t been able to whip up dishes as often as I’d like to but I make do occasionally. Meanwhile, domicile cleaning and maintenance, like child-rearing, is a partnership arrangement.
I also remember defying my father, a macho in the mold of Erap, who wanted me to engage a boy of my age in a fistfight because he had teased and made my younger sister cry. But it was just not in my nature to resort to a contest of valiant testosterones to resolve matters. Unfortunately, in those days, such hesitance was sure to mark one as being effeminate or even homosexual — something my father used to bring up to challenge my “manliness.” But he always ended up frustrated, and I kept all the bones in my hands unbroken (the better to type out stories, mop the floor, and stir the stew).
Perhaps my elementary years in an exclusive girls’ school — the Immaculate Conception Academy of Manila admitted boys from kindergarten up to Grade IV — somehow prepared me as well for my now predominantly female world of work and family. So when I reached college, societal change-seekers who at the same time question the culturally imposed concept that males are the superior gender appealed to me more.
WITHOUT THE baggage of a patriarchal mindset, it was therefore not difficult for me to shun men’s mythical superiority over women both at home and in the workplace. Decision-making is a shared responsibility between me and Mira in our partnership as husband and wife, as well as father and mother to our two daughters. Never did it bother me that my superiors at the PCIJ were females, even if they were more aggressive, more driven and competitive, some more adept at high-level mathematical abstractions than most men, including myself.
Not that I am an underachieving PCIJ staff (I’ve had my modest share of recognitions as one). But the old cultural assumptions of male superiority are simply out of touch with present-day realities. It has to be acknowledged that women, particularly in this day and age, can be as capable as men, or even better. In the same way that men can be as sensitive or nurturing as women, or probably even better.
It’s not surprising that to this day male superiority is still explained away as something natural, alluding to the differences between men and women that favor masculine attributes and denigrate the feminine. But studies have argued that men and women are not necessarily different as the differences rather vary from individual to individual. Whatever differences there are, researches have shown, are not absolute (save for the sex organs) and have more to do with biology. Men tend to be more aggressive because they generally have larger, stronger muscles. With this biological structure comes more muscle tension, which needs to be released in terms of activity. In comparison, female sensitivity and responsiveness to human situations are thought of as built-in feminine characteristics because they arise from this apparent absence of hormone and muscle tension that explains aggressiveness in men.
What women lack in aggressive behavior, they are said to compensate with the ability to engage in sustained activity — a behavior rooted in their distinct biological rhythms that in turn originated from the prehistoric division of labor that assigned the hunting task to men and the gathering to women. That probably explains the workaholic bent among women, particularly as I’ve been witness to at the PCIJ, and, well, maybe the “slave-driving” when they become bosses.
This just goes to show that even “enlightened” men still encounter rough sailing in the seas of estrogen that they have to navigate every day. In the main, it’s less stressful if you just roll along with the “givens” that have to do with other biological differences. Like when they have their monthly periods and the lunar influence is strongest, and so you just become their object of hate for no apparent reason (at least to me). There is also the midlife/menopausal phase to prepare for, although we’re now being told men go through menopause as well, and suffer midlife crises of their own.
I will not deny though that there were instances in the past when I felt a sense of being left out simply because I am male. Added to the fact that I was not part of the power structure then, I often wound up blissfully uninformed and uninvolved in whatever was being cooked up by the cabal of women around me. Even today, it is inevitable that I will get outvoted in many instances (yes, doing this piece was one of those). Thankfully, my collection of females at home gang up on me more to tease me, like exchanging whispers in my presence because they know I resent that.
Anyway, when all seems too unbearable in the land of women, there are enduring standards for male behavior that men can always resort to: strength and silence. I, however, take more to the latter. Not because I am a stereotypical man of few words. It’s just that women find it annoying.