Fear of Men

March 01, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--He begins the story in a reluctant, roundabout way by reciting the small ad he and his wife had placed in the newspaper:

''Working couple seeks loving, energetic child caregiver for two delightful, active, pre-school children, ages 3 and 5. Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.''

There was nothing unusual in the words themselves although these two careful parents had labored over them for hours. Nor was there anything unusual about the calls they received.

The applicant pool was a small one, a mix of possible hits, misfits and maybes. He and his wife scanned the voices on their answering machine listening for the magical tune of someone in harmony with their son and daughter.

On day three, ad three, they finally heard a resume, a set of credentials that sounded promising to their anxious ears. A college student was looking to combine morning classes with an afternoon job that came with room and board. The student loved kids, and was willing to commit for a year.

There was just one thing, said this father, looking down at his hands. The voice on the answering machine was a baritone.

Suddenly this man who could write the book on feel-good fathering and shared parenting, was struck with doubt. This father who wanted his own son to grow up to be a man-who-was-good-with-children, asked himself: Do I trust another man?

He knew where his gut anxiety had come from. The news was oozing with gruesome stories of abuse. There were stories about Roman Catholic priests -- the men called Father -- and what they did to sons. There were stories about scoutmasters and school-bus drivers and teachers.

The overprotective flesh that covered his parenting body was now at war with his head. For the first time, he found himself guilty of bias -- against his own sex. No baritones need apply.

I wish I could tell you that this parent was the only one who felt the backlash of sexual assault striking across his own consciousness. But he isn't. Last fall, a woman who runs a child-care center told me of her long search to find and hire a man -- a male role model, a father figure -- for the children. What surprised her the most was the reaction of the parents to her new employee.

For every two who seemed pleased, another was suspicious. Some called her aside to ask why he wanted the job, whether she had checked his resume, and if he seemed too close to the children.

The nagging suspicion of men has spread like a thin sheet of ice over the world of children. A friend talks of the day he went to school to pick up his niece and got the fish-eye. ''They did everything but fingerprint me,'' he says.

A coach writes that he no longer hugs the girls on his winning basketball team. A mother tells me that a baby sitter asked that she, not her husband, drive her home. The girl had been told to trust no one. Or to be precise, no man.

In a Maryland county where a high school teacher admitted having sex with his students, the word went out. ''No hugging, no placing an arm around a shoulder,'' said one male teacher. ''No touching.'' Another teacher put the end to his ritual have-a-good-day hug.

In this world, women have also been found guilty of sexual abuse. But it's mostly men who are the abusers and so it's men who are suspected.

The ''Do Not Touch'' sign couldn't come at a more confusing moment. The billboards along the path of social change are, after all, carefully marked with instructions teaching men to express affection.

We want men to be caregivers. We say that fathering is a hands-on occupation. Raising children is a two-sex affair. We expect more from men than the jock's pre-emptory pat on the rump. Real Men Do Hug.

But at the same time we are telling men to touch, we're telling them to watch what they do with their hands. Our desire for male affection is balanced against the fear of male assault -- as if we couldn't tell the difference. We prize men who nurture children for a living and we doubt them. It's a double message for an entire gender.

The father completes his confession. He and his wife finally picked a soprano to care for their children. They fine-tuned their politics and convinced each other that she was the best candidate -- of either sex.

But in his own baritone's voice, there is a hoarse edge that wasn't there before. Another man is suddenly much less sure of what gender lessons are being taught those ''delightful, active pre-school children, ages 3 and 5.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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