One of the most prominent memories I can recall from my childhood is sitting next to my father during Sunday Mass. I remember laying my head on his arm, his wool blazer rough against my cheek. The earthy smoke of the incense would burn my button nose and I’d try to bury my face in that scruffy wool. Sometimes I’d run my pudgy finger down his arm until I reached the end of his sleeve; and I’d study his meaty, callused hand next to my pink and sweaty palm. He’d close my hand in his, holding it still atop his leg. I’d gaze up at the paintings covering the Gothic arched ceiling, admiring the shimmery gold halos surrounding the angels and saints above us, protecting us. As the choir sang, my dad would share his hymnal with me, tracing his finger below the lyrics, and I followed along with every word.

On one Sunday in particular, when I was a little bit older (and a little more self-conscious), I was sitting in a creaky pew, listening to the chorus sing; but when I looked up at my dad, he was wiping tears from his eyes. I didn’t ask him what was wrong or show him any kind of comfort. I just turned my head, pretending not to notice. I looked to see if any of my friends were sitting nearby or if the boy I liked had seen my father crying. I slid away from him, embarrassed.

But now, looking back, I’m ashamed that I ever felt that way.

As Father’s Day approaches, and as I reflect on my relationship with my father, I am reminded how important it is to have these sensitive male role models in a society that’s plagued by toxic masculinity.

At an extreme level, you see this behavior in the violence of mass shootings and terrorism, such as the killing of 49 people at an Orlando night club just one year ago. We also saw it a few weeks ago during a special congressional race in Montana. On the eve of the election, Greg Gianforte, the man running to represent the state’s at-large district in the U.S. House of Representatives, reportedly grabbed a reporter by the neck and slammed him to the ground because he didn’t want to answer a question about health care. Instead of repulsion, some voters reacted to the candidate’s actions with an enthusiastic, “Hell, yeah!” They said they were even more inclined to vote for him now. Some pundits even made the reporter out to be a wuss because he reported the alleged assault to the police. And Gianforte? He’ll be a member of Congress soon.

We can even see this domineering alpha portrayal by our president. The man appears to be obsessed with this antiquated symbol of male dominance: the handshake. On any given day, he can be seen awkwardly yanking around world leaders, knocking them off balance, in an attempt to assert superiority. But it really just looks silly.

Whenever I’ve been around this kind of man or energy β€” whether it be in high school hallways, in relationships, or at work β€” I’ve felt like I needed to make myself smaller in order to make room for him. I’ve been made to feel like I should hide parts of myself so that he doesn’t feel threatened. At times, I’ve been made to feel insignificant.

But my dad has never made me feel small or put me in a box. When I wanted to be like my Boy Scout brother, he let me design and race my own pinewood derby car. When I wanted to score goals on the soccer field like Mia Hamm, he played “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses on the way to every game to pump me up. When I wanted to put on a dress and go to prom, he told me I was beautiful.

And when I told him my sophomore year of college that I no longer wanted to go to law school, and that I wanted to be a writer, he said to follow my dreams.

My dad has taught me that masculinity isn’t contradicted by compassion. He’s shown me that there is strength in expression, and if someone tries to make me feel small, not to tolerate it.

I’m thankful for my dad and the example that he’s set for me and my siblings. I’m grateful that I can go to him when I’ve messed up and find understanding instead of anger. I’m glad that in a world dripping with misogyny, he’s demonstrated acceptance and kindness.

So, happy Father’s Day, pops. Thank you for always wiping away my tears, and never holding back your own.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]

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