Fathers Have A Role To Play Too
In the past year or so, there have been quite a few newspaper reports of child suicides. There was the 15 year old boy who killed himself after being investigated for molest. There was another Pri 5 boy who jumped to his death on the day that he was supposed to collect his results to show his parents. Recently, the Yale-NUS student who killed himself was also male. It occurred to me then that boys seem more likely to kill themselves than girls.
Statistics do show that to be true. Girls have more suicide ideation. Boys have more suicide action.
I have always had an intuitive sense that boys are emotionally fragile. When The Daughter was little, she would cry at the slightest provocation. Things then happened around her. People would comfort her, and whatever stimulus that was causing the tears would be removed immediately. The Son was different. He would bear it stoically, clenching his fists and showing no emotion as much as possible. He would try to cope. We were also less gentle with The Son because he was a boy and we all expected him to be a real boy.
This was especially true at swimming class. Mr. G was an ex-Navy man. We sent The Daughter to him for swimming lessons. She sat at the edge of the pool, looking afraid. Mr. G noted that The Daughter was afraid. He opened his arms and sang, "Tell XXXX I love her... Tell XXXX I need her..."... and then he said, "Jump! I will catch you!" The Daughter never looked back.
When it came to The Son's turn, he sat at the pool looking brave. Mr. G (being an ex-Navy man) gave no quarter to a fellow male. He ordered, "Jump!" and my son swallowed twice and jumped. I knew he was afraid but I did not want to intervene because no Mother wants a cowardly son. The Son went through multiple dunkings and twice, he tried to explain to Mr. G his difficulties. Mr. G said, "I don't want to hear your explanations." After EIGHT weeks of weekly terror, The Son broke. He climbed out of the pool gasping through his tears and locked himself in the shower cubicle. There was no way to make him go back to Mr. G's swimming class. He had had ENOUGH and had taken action.
I felt bad for him so I promised that I would teach him to swim myself. Frankly, I was amazed that he tolerated hell for 8 lessons without any tears until that last day. When he broke, he really broke. After Lesson 1, I left The Daughter in the care of Mr. G to go and do my own things. Up until the 8th lesson, I was sitting under an umbrella, eyes fixed on my son. I somehow knew how afraid he was and I worried. He did not cry and looked like he was coping so I let the lessons continue.
With boys, you don't see it coming.
It isn't just social pressure that requires men and boys to be strong. Boys themselves don't want to look weak. I chatted with The Son one day when he was in Primary 4.
Me: You're so cute, my son. You're just like a teddy bear. If you were a teddy bear, what kind of teddy would you like to be? Winnie the Pooh? Yogi Bear?
The Son (frowning): I don't want to be cute. I don't want to be a teddy bear.
Me: Huh? Then what would you like to be?
The Son: I want to be a big tree. It is big and strong.
So, boys tend to hide their emotional pain. They don't speak of their fears or what is shredding them apart inside. Over time, I learnt to discern the signs of my son's emotional distress in the way he held his shoulders and the line of his mouth. I would act immediately. For example, if he were talking to an adult and I noted his distress, I would go and stand next to him to eavesdrop on the conversation. Invariably, the adult was either asking him some uncomfortable questions or teasing him unkindly.
When he came home with a poor report book at the end of P3, I also knew that his heart was breaking inside. No one else knew. To any other's eyes but mine, The Son looked like he did not care. Only I could recognise those shoulders and the line of his mouth. The Husband has the same shoulders and line of mouth.
Male bodies may be stronger. Their hearts and their psychology are not. Mothers with boys must be aware of this and act accordingly to protect their sons (or at any rate, don't hurt their sons unnecessarily). Boy or girl, a child is a child and there is only so much a child can take without breaking.