On Gender Roles and the Family

As an immigrant, I lived in a dangerous neighborhood and went to a failing elementary school. My parents were too busy working, and my most basic notions of masculinity came from machismo; my neighbors and classmates encouraged me to objectify women and take pride in brute physical strength. In fact, I was bullied because I failed to meet those expectations.

My own story is one of many who grew up in Bushwick. Kids my age either had working parents too busy earning just enough money to pay for essentials or lived with a single parent, usually their mother. Either way, the majority of kids lacked sufficient care and guidance from their parents and instead looked to prevailing cultural models of masculinity and femininity as paradigms of behavior.  Thus, boys were taught to glorify strength and the objectification of women and girls were taught to conform to absurd, degrading values of artificial beauty at the expense of being called ugly, disgusting, and shameful. It is no surprise for me to say that these perverse values manifested themselves in high schools in my neighborhood that were fraught with abusive relationships and drug abuse.

All this to say that the disastrous lives of many of my, now adolescent, peers were the result of being instructed about gender norms that continued to influence their lives. These gender norms arise from the reality of sexual difference. The interplay between the social aspects of gender roles and the biological grounding was the subject of my previous article: “A Beautiful Thing: Sex and Sexual Ethics.” In it, I claimed that we need to frame sex, gender, and marriage under the concept that a human is a unity of body and mind. From this definition, I argued that a person’s gender should correspond to his or her sex and that marriage is a mental, spiritual, and bodily unity that is structured toward procreation. The marriage is then part of a larger good, the family.

The family is the fundamental unit in human society. We all are part of a family that ideally constitutes our closest bonds. Thus, the family should be the environment in which children learn proper gender norms from the behavior of their parents, which they will act out in their own relationships. This creates a virtuous cycle that preserves the family.  

My thesis can be likened to an African proverb, often cited by Cardinal Robert Sarah, which says, “Man is nothing without woman, woman is nothing without man, and the two are nothing without a third element, which is the child.” That is to say that in the family, man and woman fully express their complementarity through fulfilling their respective gender roles as they raise children who depend on them for guidance, support, and love. In this way, being in a family teaches them not to think, “What are my entitlements?”, which is fundamentally selfish, but, “What are my duties?”, which is fundamentally uplifting.

First, by participating in marriage and forming a family, we demonstrate what it means to be male and female. These refer to the gender norms I elaborated on in my previous article. These gender norms, or patterns of behavior, arise from general social-biological differences between the sexes. While some gender norms put degrading expectations on men and women, I believe it is possible to glean from respective cultures and find a general framework for viewing gender norms. In prescribing these gender norms, I am in no way implying that women are inherently inferior to men. I am saying that because of the complementarity of sexes, males and females have differing norms of behavior and obligations toward each other.

One norm is masculinity. Masculinity is not a license or freedom to demonstrate superiority, self-exaltation, and chauvinism. Rather, masculinity says that by virtue of being male, you have a sense of responsibility to lead, protect, and provide for women in appropriate way. By “a sense of” I mean that the man must affirm his responsibility. Thus a disabled man may not be able to put food on the table as easily as a nondisabled person, but he can still try to lead, protect, and provide for his family emotionally and spiritually.  

Men’s servant-leadership takes on many forms, from a father caring for the emotional development of his wife and children to a father admitting his mistakes and asking his wife for help. In short, it entails the husband putting the concerns of others above his own. The consequence is that leading is not dominating women but rather a work of self-sacrifice, humility, and initiative. Similarly, I am not suggesting that a wife can’t financially provide for her family, but that the man should feel the primary pressure to provide, materially and spiritually, for his household. Even in couples where the wife provides financial support, the husband should work and affirm his responsibility.

On that note, as a man, it’s difficult for me to address femininity; however, I believe I can make some conclusions. The essence of femininity is a sense of responsibility to nurture and care for worthy men; that is, men who properly uplift their family. Like men, women have to act in a certain way. This disposition is one that gladly receives the leadership of the husband, and strengthens him by offering support in a compassionate manner. Adopting such a stance does not mean being a rubber stamp that approves of a man’s actions, but instead means correcting a husband and encouraging him to conform to the definition of masculinity offered here. In contrast, a father in a patriarchal household would not accept help from his wife, fearing that would damage his value, and the wife would only have power granted by her husband. In my model, the wife has a primary duty to help the husband provide for, emotionally support, and manage her family. Thus in the family, the married couple complement each other by supporting each other in ways they are best physically, emotionally, and mentally fit to do.

This complementarity finds its deepest fulfillment in the raising of children. As a married couple, a husband and wife have a duty to protect, provide, and care for their offspring. As such, the use of contraception is strongly advised against because contraception intentionally stops the natural fulfillment of marital union. Rather, it is better to have sex on infertile days since that does not thwart the procreative aspect.

Moreover, under this framework, abortion is immoral because it violates the obligation of the mother and father to protect and care for human life, especially their own. According to my thesis, the child exists not in a regular relationship with the mother and father, but in a special one that ties the mother and father to raise the child. The child builds the marriage up, encouraging the husband and wife to fulfill their roles in his/her rearing. In this way, the raising of a child is the meaningful outcome of the love of the mother and father and the roles they act out. In turn, the child has role models and is instilled with proper forms of behavior that he can act out as he or she grows.

Consider my own neighborhood’s children, especially the boys, who lacked this structure and because of it were left alone to make sense of their relationships, purpose, and identity. As a result, many turned to drugs, reckless relationships with other people, and even self-harm. Since the community was poor, those kids could not afford to make the reckless decisions they committed. They needed a cohesive family structure with a father that would teach boys how to treat women and lead their own families, and a mother that would teach girls how to treat and correct men, and care for their own families. Such a dynamic would have given them a higher chance of moving out of poverty. In fact, the nonpartisan Child Trends reported in a brief summarizing research done in 2002 that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, in stepfamilies, or in cohabiting relationships have a higher risk of poor outcomes due to, in part, the instability of those relationships.

We all exist as part of a family. As such, we need to pursue the ideals I outlined here in our own family. We need to cherish our filial relationships. For many of us, this means that we may have to re-prioritize our time and behavior to spend more time with our family. Though this may be difficult due to the pervading forces in our society, it is what is ultimately best for all of us. In the end, we must all strive to express our deepest virtues and truths about who we are as male and female through the family.

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