Is it paternal instinct that makes men watch and protect?

MIKE LITTWIN

December 18, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

You don't hear the phrase the "man of the family" anymore. It's gone the way of Girl Friday and other remnants of a bygone, politically incorrect era. You remember the movies, though, of that time. The father is going off to war. Or, sometimes, he has a dread disease against which he has fought a valiant and yet inevitably unsuccessful fight.

Anyway, it's your basic departure scene. Dad calls in the male child, cues the music and intones, "Son, you're going to have to be the man of the family now."

Nobody had to be told what that meant. Never mind that the kid is maybe 9. He has the man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do gender. What he's gotta do in this case is protect Mom and Sis and be a Man in Dad's absence, even though he can't tie his own shoes.

Through stifled tears -- men aren't supposed to cry -- the son takes the mantle from the father, and we know that somehow all will be well.

I've been thinking of this generic scene a lot lately. An uncle just died, leaving only one male in my particular branch of the family older than I am. That means I'm the patriarch-in-waiting. It is just what my mother told me. "That leaves only Uncle Leonard and then you," she said. I knew what she meant.

A close friend of mine just lost her father. There were left only women in the family. And so, the mother turned to the son-in-law (it's what she knew) for strength. As it turned out, it's what he knew, too. He took charge. He provided the shoulder to cry on. He was the man of the family. It was the role, he discovered, he had been raised to play, although he never would have believed it. After all, he's an equal-rights supporter who even, occasionally, vacuums.

Like me, he grew up not so long ago, but in an age well before feminism when gender was often destiny. In my own peculiar family dynamic, I was the smart son and my sister the beautiful daughter. I was supposed to be Secretary of State (you see what happened). She was supposed to marry a doctor. It took her some years to get in touch, as we would come to say, with her intelligence, and now she's working on her doctorate.

When the family got together, say on holidays, the women stayed in the kitchen, even when they weren't cooking. The men were in the den watching football and teaching their sons valuable lessons, like how to make noises with your armpit.

Between downs, we were also taught that to be a man meant to protect your family from danger and to step forward in times of crisis. It was never put into words. It was a subliminal message that, for all I know, may have come directly from Johnny Unitas on the TV screen. Weren't men always the heroes?

I didn't think the lesson had stuck with me. I'm a modern guy. My wife and I share responsibilities.

But the summer before last, we were renting a beach house with another family when the hurricane hit. It wouldn't be so bad that we had to evacuate, but we had taken precautions. Brought in the patio furniture. Taped the window from which, if you leaned way over to the left, you could see the ocean.

Anyway, it was in the middle of the night, when the wind really began to howl, that I made my way up to the living room to sit watch. At almost the exact same time, the other father in the house arrived. We sat watch together.

My friend said this was what men did. That it was instinct. That it went back to cave man days. This protective instinct, he insisted, was the male equivalent to the maternal instinct.

I told him he was nuts, that it was a learned experience. I thought I pretty much clinched the argument when I asked: Hadn't he watched Johnny Unitas when he was a kid? Finally, he had to admit that he had, but still stuck to his guns. And so, we stayed up the entire night, playing gin, arguing, watching the wind, as our families slept.

The next morning, when my wife saw us, she told how one of her favorite childhood memories came during a hurricane when her father rousted the family in the middle of the night to move them downstairs to the exact place he had calculated was the safest place in the house. She felt safe. She believed he could protect her. It was how we were raised.

But maybe it will all change. Society is changing -- even Hollywood, if a little more slowly. Heroes can come in all sizes and shapes. Many of our daughters have been raised to believe the man of the family can actually be a woman.

Instinct? Learned experience? It may take another generation, and a few more hurricanes, to know.

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