Men aren’t the only ones responsible for teaching our boys how to be men. And based on many of the interviews I’ve done thus far, the men who seemed to be most sensitive to this reality are men either raised by women or men raised in families where the women took the initiative to raise their sons according to their own definitions of masculinity.

As Pillow Talker Asad, a late-twentysomething of Caribbean descent, explained:

Although the men in my family were really good at building and fixing things, it was actually my mother who taught me how to have male qualities. She taught me to love sports, brought me to the baseball games and monster truck rallies, and got me into cars and motorcycles.  My father wasn’t into them. He didn’t really play football or anything like that. She was the one who had me watching football every Sunday.

The same can be said for me, although my experience was a bit different from Asad’s. For most of my childhood, I had to pay dearly for being raised by women. When it came time to interact with other boys, I was frightened and fascinated. I often failed at the cardinal rule: prove why you’re tougher, stronger, and cooler than everyone else. I didn’t see the point in competing, I didn’t like physical contact or to be touched without my permission. And, most importantly, I was way too accommodating and optimistic. You add that to my petite frame, baby face, and the swish in my walk, and I was a dead man walking.

From six until about 13 years old, I was tortured in school. Boys and girls shot the other f-word in my direction at any time or place, whether it was in the middle of a math teacher’s lesson or while I walked down the hall. And when I made it home, I was beaten up in the neighborhood just about every day on the way home from the bus.

On the special days I managed to slip off the bus unnoticed and fun with all my might home before anyone else, I was spared until I was brave enough to go outside). I suppose the saddest part about all of it was that I was so good at covering it up. No one — not even my mom — knew what was happening. But when we moved from out of the projects, something changed. I had developed an an uncanny ability to “read” people.

Since I’d pretty much learned how to fight from getting jumped, I was no longer afraid of fighting. I actually ended up enjoying it. The boy who used to hate even getting dirt under his fingernails now felt a strange sense of pleasure from the battle scars of neighborhood wrestling and street football. I was still petite and had softer features, but I could morph into a torpedo and level the playing field with even the biggest of guys. I wore my chipped tooth, scrapes, and bruises like badges of honor.

I still had people who would try to terrorize me. But the difference is that I also had people that they never expected as allies: jocks and rough necks. So when my tormentors would bark, my allies would bite. I didn’t deliberately search them out, but when you do a lot of wrestling in different neighborhoods and play quite a bit of street football, you build bonds with folks and they respect you.

But my physical prowess wasn’t what built those relationships, I was often a wild card at best, and I still got my ass kicked occasionally in the ring or on the football field. It was something else: my ability to listen and be empathetic.

We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other–male in female, female in male… (James Baldwin)

Now, a lot has changed as I’ve gotten older–and so has my own interpretation of masculinity. And although I’m not necessarily out playing street ball or wrestling with the guys in the neighborhood, I still have my moments where I wonder if I may be coming across too soft or feminine.

As a working professional, I’m known for my ability to be akin to a bulldozer when it comes to getting things done. But more so than that, I pride myself on knowing when to push and when to listen. And since I work with middle and high school students, being able to stop, listen, and help build someone up is a lot more important than making someone do what I think they should do.

When I was younger, I tried everything I could to hide what didn’t fit within the little black box of masculinity that my peers strived to embody. But now, I like to think that a lot of my success and happiness as a person is because of the attributes some would consider more feminine.

If we really wanna go there, The Pillow Talk Project is a perfect example; sitting and listening to people share their stories isn’t exactly considered to be on the same level as a professional athlete. But when I eventually interview some of them, I’m sure they’d agree that part of their own success is due to embracing the woman and feminine characteristics within themselves.

So, I’ll end this with the powerful words of the prolific James Baldwin, who I think was not only a man before his time but someone who really understood the greatness that resides within us all when we’re able to embrace our full selves–both the masculine and feminine, the man and woman in all of us–and not just elements limited to one gender expression:

We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other–male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

And although it could never come close to the life-changing power of their presence, let this post be a humble and gracious “thank you” to the strong women raising men!