When his girlfriend said she was pregnant, Andrew Riutta responded by saying he didn’t want to be a father. But her determination to have the baby anyway gave Riutta the courage to face his inner demons and embrace the gentle side of being a true man.
I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region known for its harsh winters and profound isolation. Many of my relatives immigrated there from Finland and Sweden in the latter part of the nineteenth century—in search of a better life, I suppose. Most of the men worked as farmers, miners, or lumberjacks, while the women stayed home to cook and sew. And pray.
My grandfather could be quite jovial at times. On first impression, you’d never know that he was an uncompromising and often brutal sort. My father was much the same, and so—naturally—it was instilled within me that a man is only worth his brawn: work for ten hours or more a day, don’t complain, but then settle the score late at night with a twelve pack and foul mouth. For years I walked around with this chip on my shoulder, believing grit alone could suffice as a disposition for living. And just like my kin, I stumbled in and out of the types of jobs that left me with rough and callused hands—thus authenticating myself as a loyal son. A true man.
In the summer of 2000, my girlfriend informed me that she was pregnant—that we were pregnant. Recognizing that this was a situation I would not be able to muscle my way through, I immediately felt the blood leave my face. It seemed I was standing on unfamiliar ground. At that moment, I told myself I could never be a good father, and so it would probably be best if I didn’t even try. I explained my feelings to my girlfriend, but she simply said she’d have the baby with or without me. There was so much courage in her eyes that I quickly realized it was something I’d never really had. So I decided to give it a chance. To give myself a chance.
Next month, our daughter will be ten years old, and although my hands are still very much callused from the many abrasive things they’ve held over the years, my daughter has taught me that these hands are more than capable of the softest touch—and only within this capacity do they reveal their actual strength.
I believe most every man has stood toe to toe with himself in the bathroom mirror, shadow boxing in an attempt to maintain those many myths that say he must be unbreakable and unafraid. But I also believe every man owes it to himself, as well as those he loves, to turn away from that mirror, and instead gather his strength from a willingness to be as gentle as he can possibly be in this increasingly hostile world.
Andrew Riutta lives in northern Michigan with his eleven-year-old daughter, Issabella. He is a recent recipient of the William J. Shaw memorial prize for poetry, and in the spring of 2009, he began working on a book to be titled Something Shaped like a Rocket.
Homepage photo illustration by rachjose via morgueFile.com.
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