What's a Real Man Anyway?

Raised in a culture that praised machismo above all else, I had to answer that question for myself.

(Image credit: Archives)

WHEN I WAS 12 years old, I watched as my father fell to the ground one night in the middle of coaching soccer practice, having just torn his Achilles tendon.

I then watched him hobble to our car, get behind the steering wheel, and drive himself to the hospital.

Yep, you read that right: The man's calf was no longer attached to his heel, but he drove himself to the hospital.

Tough guy, my dad, although he would find that description redundant. You see, my father was born in Ecuador, and as a Latin man raised in a machista culture (what we here in the U.S. know as "machismo"), he doesn't believe in showing vulnerability. Ever. I mean, the only time I've seen him come remotely close to breaking down was when he danced with my baby sister at her wedding —and even then he managed to hold back his tears, boasting afterward about how he had kept it together.

"Crying shows weakness," he would tell my sister and me when we were growing up. And then, just to make sure his message was clear, he'd add, "Real men don't cry."

That was one of many "real man" beliefs that my father ingrained in his daughters. For although machista culture —defined by extreme chauvinism, in which men are expected to be socially (and in some cases, physically) dominant over women —is on its way out across Latin America, many of its hallmarks linger. Even among American Hispanics, men are often expected to be braver, stronger, and more powerful than women, which explains how, on the one hand, my father could raise me and my sister to be independent, educated, and ambitious, but on the other hand remain stubbornly fixated on the idea that the guys we dated should be, well, macho men.

In my dad's fantasy world, we would each bring home a son-in-law who could wrestle an alligator with his bare hands and then stitch up any wounds the beast had inflicted.

In the actual world, he hoped for men who would make more money then we did and who would be offended if we tried to pick up the dinner check. His real man was always the unquestioned leader, be it on the dance floor or at home. And while it was all well and good for my sister and me to be what he quaintly called "career women," it was also understood that he would frown upon our husbands if they changed baby diapers or did any household chore other than taking out the trash.

You need to let a man be a man, he'd explain.

On that, I agreed with my father; after all, if I didn't love the many unique qualities men possess, why would I have bothered to date them?

So I spent years dating men who fancied themselves macho. Interestingly enough, none of them were Latino, but what they had in common with my father was their desire to be the boss. In college, I dated a guy who tried to dictate which friends I could hang out with and thought nothing of listening to my answering-machine messages when I was in the shower. Then there was the sports agent who expected me to be available whenever he called —and flew into a rage and came looking for me when I wasn't. And don't even get me started on the guy who thought that my only role in bed was to make sure his needs were met.

What these experiences taught me, unequivocally, is that if anyone was going to have control over my life, it was going to be me and me alone.

Which explains how I ended up with my live-in love of three years, Brian, whose family came over from Ireland a few generations ago. Brian is a sensitive artist who cooks me dinner almost every night and cried right alongside me when we saw War Horse. He does his own laundry, and when he buys the movie tickets, he lets me pay for the cab ride home —and vice versa. He asks for help when he needs it, whether he's fixing the sink or designing a website, and respects my opinion as much as he does his own.

In short, he is almost the exact opposite of what my father told me my partner should be.

So what does my dad think of the relationship? Well, let's just say he once let it slip that Brian is not the kind of man he ever thought I'd end up with.

And if I'm going to be honest, I don't know that I ever thought I'd end up with someone like Brian, either. I mean, look: I'd be lying if I said I never feel a slight pang when, after a romantic dinner, I reach for the check ... and Brian lets me take it.

In those moments, I hear my father's voice in my head.

You need to be with a real man, the voice says.

And then I look at Brian and think about how well our relationship works and how happy it makes me, and I can't help but smile.

Because in Brian's value of me as an equal, I know that a "real man" is exactly what I've found.