I took him by the hand and led him through the kitchen, then along the hallway and to the bottom of the stairs. I stood up on one step, smiled at him, then wrapped both of my arms around him in a giant hug. “This is what it feels like when you hug me,” I told him. “And this is why I love your hugs.”
He’s bigger than me. Not by much, but enough. Just large enough that he can make this almost-six-foot-tall woman, who usually feels too large for everything around her, seem temporarily delicate and small. Feeling small isn’t usually top of my priority list: I like making noise, taking up space, telling raucous jokes and getting rounds in. I like spilling dirty secrets and screaming with laughter and getting angry when things piss me off.
I am not delicate or quiet or small. But sometimes I am vulnerable.
And when I’m vulnerable, feeling physically small amplifies the sensation of being protected. Being hugged. Being surrounded by the flesh and scent and cosy-jumpered shoulders of someone who really loves me.
When I’m sad, and he hugs me, I know it’s OK to cry because he tells me it is. Over and over, he says it’s fine: he’s got this. He encourages me to weep and dribble and generally soak his clothes with the snotty outpourings of my own grief, and then I feel smaller still. More protected. Safer. Like he could shrink me enough to hide me in his pocket, where I’d curl up in the fabric next to the warmth of his skin, and sleep until I decided to wake up.
Usually I’m weaker than he is on so many different axes. I am anxious, he is calm. I am poor, he is rich. I am small, he is big…
Wait a second! I’m big. I am nearly six foot tall! I have big arms and shoulders and soft jumpers too! More importantly, I am big mentally as well as physically: I can look after him like he looks after me. I forget this, frequently, because he likes me to need him, and as a consequence he doesn’t often allow himself to need me in return. It’s partly his personality – he enjoys being able to be the rock that others can lean against, and he prides himself on being able to wrap a friend in a hug and just let them be held for a while until they feel better. Telling them “it’s fine. I’ve got this.”
But it’s also partly conditioning. He’s been trained throughout his whole life to believe that he should be strong and stoic. That he’s there to be leaned on, and to hold me when I cry, and use his powers to make me feel safe, never letting on when he feels unsafe himself.
And I’ve bought this lie too, to a degree. In a rational discussion about it we both know that it’s OK for men to cry, and to feel vulnerable, and to need big hugs. But when life keeps flinging things at you, sometimes you stumble, and fall back into the patterns you’ve been groomed to repeat since you were little. He gets so used to protecting me that we both forget: support is not a one-way street.
In fact, quite the opposite: it’s vital to know that caring is a two-way street. To know that the people in your life who lean on you can be leant on in turn. To make sure that the ones who are always told ‘be strong’ know it’s OK to be weak sometimes, or scared, or unhappy, and that none of these things detract from the protection and love you give elsewhere.
We’re all small and weak and vulnerable sometimes. But even when I’m feeling small and weak, I can make myself big for him. And often the very act of having to make yourself bigger for someone – picking up the shield and becoming their protector – can be enough to remind you that you weren’t as weak as you thought you were in the first place.
So I take his hand, walk to the stairs, and stand on the bottom step. Then I look down at him and wrap him in a cosy-jumpered hug, and whisper that it’s fine.
I’ve got this.
Today is International Men’s Day, why not mark it by checking out the Calm campaign, which is aimed at tackling dangerous stereotypes about men which can have a significant impact on their mental health. Or listen to this incredible audio from the show Mansplaining Masculinity, by Dave Pickering. Or go find a man you love and let him know that you’re there for him.