What My Newborn Son Taught Me About Masculinity

Actor Justin Baldoni with his wife, Emily, last June in Beverly Hills.
Actor Justin Baldoni with his wife, Emily, last June in Beverly Hills.

Last spring, my wife, Emily, and I found out we were pregnant with our second child, a boy. Like many parents, we felt the momentary panic of realizing we were going to be responsible for the well-being of not just one but two human beings for the rest of our lives (no big deal). Emily and I, along with our wonderful 2-year-old daughter, Maiya, rode the waves of emotion that pregnancy brings with it. There was joy, anticipation and nervousness; prayers for a healthy baby and utter wonder that we had managed to somehow create another human being. 

What a miracle.

But there was another emotion building inside of me as my wife’s belly expanded, one that no one ever talks about. It was an emotion that my dad and the other men in my life never prepared me for, probably because as men we aren’t supposed to feel it: terror.  

My fear sprang from the knowledge that as he grew, my son would naturally emulate me, just as I had emulated my dad and he had emulated his. It’s just what sons do. As role models go, I’m not the worst-case scenario: I’m committed to my family and my work, to showing love and being of service wherever I can. I’m far (very far, I assure you) from perfect, but I do my best.

Still, I wanted my son to grow up watching me do what I do best, but I also knew he would see me doing things that reveal my insecurities, too. Like everyone, I have a shadow side, a side that only the people closest to me get to see; a side that I am working on exposing so that some light can get in. This op-ed is a part of that exposure. While there is a long list of things I may not want my son to emulate, just the thought of him growing up watching me spend hours at the gym, counting calories, watching my carbs, criticizing my reflection and making self-deprecating comments about my skinny, beaten-up legs and misshapen nose was enough to make me feel like I had already failed, and he hadn’t even been born yet.

To put it bluntly, I knew my son would see the fraught relationship I have with my body and that eventually he might begin to emulate that, too. In that respect, I didn’t want him to be anything like me. I want him to know better, feel better and do better than I do.

It’s no secret that in our culture, masculinity means physical size and physical strength. “Manly” men have broad chests, six packs and arms that can lift a Fiat. “Real men” can protect themselves and their loved ones from danger. And real, manly men aren’t scared ― of heartbreak, of losing a job or of the new life their wife is growing.

My garage is filled with free weights, yoga mats, a treadmill, an air bike and other equipment designed to give me the big, powerful and lean muscles that society tells me I need to be a man. But despite my workouts, I don’t see that manly man in the mirror. Instead, I’ve long seen a skinny and unpopular kid. I’ve seen an awkward teenager who was teased at school, hid his deep-seated insecurities under a facade of confidence and never felt like a “real man” because he was scared of his own sensitivity.

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I’ve spent a lot of time, energy and sweaty nights in the gym attempting to banish this insecure kid to the nether regions of my psyche, but he’s never really gone away. Even after I started developing more muscle mass, he was there in the mirror telling me I wasn’t enough. My muscles weren’t a mark of my masculinity, but a shield to protect — and maybe even hide — this boy. While I have the privilege of an amazing job (where I’m paid to take my shirt off on television now and then), I still look in the mirror and sometimes catch myself saying things that I would never utter to anyone else: You’re lazy. You’re weak. You’re not good enough. You’re not man enough.

I was surprised to learn that the cultural conditions that contributed to my insecurities are a relatively new phenomenon. On a recent episode of my show, “Man Enough,” I spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Roberto Olivardia, who explained that the demand that men should look like Greek gods didn’t really emerge until the 1980s, with the rise of stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Before then, the American masculine ideal looked something like the Marlboro Man — a tough and rugged loner. But with the 1980s came Rambo, The Terminator and advertisements populated by shirtless beefcakes. Plastic surgery among men skyrocketed and hyper-masculinity became the new norm, particularly as steroids — previously available only to elite athletes ― became widely accessible.

Boys and men heard the message loud and clear: Now that every man could have this body, every man should have this body.

I totally fell for it, and because my body didn’t match cultural standards, I became a deeply insecure adolescent. I subscribed to every fitness magazine I could get my hands on, and my kitchen was filled with the latest protein supplements, pre-workouts and creatines that the super ripped guys on the covers said I needed to buy to look like them. Years passed; I became an actor, a husband, a father. I traveled the country and spoke to kids about spirituality, following your dreams, self-confidence and making work your service. Still, I found that my own self-esteem rested in part not only on how I looked, but on how hard I worked to achieve that look, as my work ethic was also a measure of my masculinity.  

A scene from "Man Enough."
A scene from "Man Enough."

Growing up in the Baha’i faith, I was taught that true joy comes from the spiritual world, not the physical, and that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. When Emily got pregnant a second time, I was 34. I had learned over time that I am the most content when I focus on my spirit and not my body, but even with a deep spiritual practice, there were still days when I felt like less of a man (and human) if I missed a workout or if my T-shirt felt a little baggier than normal. Combine that with an occasional binge on that Double Double from In-N-Out with animal fries, and my self-worth would plummet.

Recognizing this disconnect between my spiritual principles and my destructive thought patterns was the first step toward healing. As the saying goes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. The next step, one I still work on and one I will probably work on the rest of my life, is non-comparison — engaging in thoughts and habits that remind me the only person I’m competing with is myself. This lesson is particularly challenging when there are millions of shirtless Adonises collecting likes on social media.

Self-love was the next step, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Emily, who showed me that unconditional love is real. Her love — the way she demonstrates patience, really hears when she listens, calms me with just a knowing look, nurtures our family and loves us no matter what — has taught me what love really looks and feels like. She has shown me that I am worthy of this love, and that I am so much more than just my body. Emily made me feel safe enough to introduce her to the sad, skinny kid inside me. When I did, she loved him unconditionally, too. Because of her, the shame and embarrassment I harbored for decades has begun to dissolve.

Through this process, I came to understand that the part of myself I’d always considered weak was, in fact, one of my greatest strengths. Developing compassion for myself — seeing that at the core of my suffering was a deep desire to be wanted, accepted and loved — has helped me develop that same compassion for others. I came to see that ultimately we all want to feel that we are enough.

I’m here to tell you that you are. Here, today, right now. Enough.

Maxwell Roland-Samuel Baldoni was born on Oct. 18, 2017. He’s perfect, with tiny toes, huge eyebrows like his daddy and a smile that melts me every day. He is enough, just as he is. I still want to show him what healthy masculinity looks like — that muscles aren’t power and that vulnerability isn’t weakness, but the source of true strength.

I am still learning that myself. There will be moments when I mess up, judge myself, forget some of what I’ve learned. And of course, I am still scared. But at only 3 months old, Maxwell — in all of his enoughness — is teaching me that I am enough, too.

Justin Baldoni is an actor, director, and entrepreneur. He plays Rafael on CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and recently launched “Man Enough,” a series that explores what it means to be a man today.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.