5 father-son pairs on the power of vulnerability

Gillette hands

(This Thanksgiving Day, we showcase the beauty in powerful father-son relationships. Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Fathers and sons around the world share a unique bond. To explore this sentiment, Very Good Light has partnered with Gillette, a brand that’s over 115-years old. Through the years, Gillette has celebrated fathers and sons and the power of their relationship, generation after generation. The brand’s latest campaign, “Your Best Never Comes Easy,” continues the message in 2018 and beyond, depicting how a father’s love and encouragement can pull a son through any obstacle. According to recent research commissioned by Gillette, supportive fathers play an especially outsized role in helping their sons achieve success despite adversity. Below, we came together to highlight five father and son pairs from across the country. This Thanksgiving, each share their unique and empowering stories of overcoming one big obstacle in life thanks to the support they found in their shared bond.

(James Mays, here with his son, Jaynen in Las Vegas. James says he only became a man after he became a father. Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

As James Mays will tell you, he only became a real man when he became a father.

His own father was out of the picture. And he had to navigate manhood while growing up in Los Angeles with his mother, two sisters and female cousins.

“I went through that manly man thing,” he says to us from Las Vegas, on a recent weekend. “I was in the house with just ladies and I needed to prove that I could be a man without a man around.” They weren’t supposed to cry. They were tough. They had it all together.

SEE ALSO: 5 guys get real about modern masculinity

And so, when he had his own son, Jaynen, he was compelled to raise him in a way he’d imagined his own father would have. “I felt I had to prove to myself what a father was from what I learned from other people’s fathers,” he tells us. That meant being a “hard figure,” always having everything figured out, being strong and not asking for help with physical things like moving furniture.

“Men aren’t supposed to care about that. It’s a handshake, not a hug. It’s being distant. But Jaynen taught me affection and how being a man was about providing love.”

“I was channeling that old school 50’s dad – I go to work, come home, eat dinner and get the remote,” he tells Very Good Light. “I’ll tell you what to do. I know the answers. I’m the strong one.”
Being emotional or sensitive – or soft – were unacceptable.

It wasn’t until his young son began showing his physical affection that James was able to redefine what being a man was all about. “My son would give me hugs and say, ‘Dad, I love you,'” he recalls. That very act started to thaw James’ wall.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbHXIN6EzWo

Soon enough, James found that the intimate moments – the cuddles during movies, the hugs goodnight – became commonplace. “Men aren’t supposed to care about that. It’s a handshake, not a hug. It’s being distant. But Jaynen taught me affection and how being a man was about providing love.”

“Men who are comfortable with displaying care, nurturance, and healthy emotions also model healthy masculinity for their sons.”

James admits this is far from what he believed was considered the norm. “I grew up watching guys like (All In The Family’s) Archie Bunker. Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor. Martin. All men who were macho, masculine, fronted for their boys. Being sensitive became a joke.” Today, James says that the new definition of strong fatherhood is being vulnerable. “It’s about opening up and admitting that you, as a man, don’t always have the answers. But that’s okay.”

James joins a growing movement of fathers who have rejected previous notions of hyper-masculinity, and instead are providing their sons with emotional support. This new generation of men are redefining what fatherhood means – and therefore changing the face of masculinity altogether. Because when it comes to father-son relationships, historically, it’s been fraught.

Jaynen and James Mays

(Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

For hundreds of years, the very concept of fatherhood was being the sole breadwinner, which often meant that there was little to no time to build relationships with children, says Dr. Wizdom Powell, associate professor at the department of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

“In the past, ‘good’ fathering was largely associated with breadwinning and economic provision,” she says. “Men were not incentivized to share in the broader socio-emotional development of the children or household responsibilities.”

The relationship, then, became determined not by love or nurturing but rather, defined monetarily. Masculinity, for these fathers, meant clocking in and out of work and being sole provider. An article in Psychology Today goes so far as to describe that “all fathers’ functions were economic,” and that role was taken very seriously – often to an extreme. Fathers, especially in low income to middle class settings, felt their sole purpose was to economically support their families. This, in turn, led to families without present father figures, or ones who felt distant and emotionally detached even when they were physically there. The repercussions were vicious – and lasting. The cycle of emotionless fathers bred emotionless sons who became adults who would do the same to their children.

“Men are socialized to display toughness and this socialization carries over to their fathering roles and expectations,” says Dr. Powell, to Very Good Light. “Men who are comfortable with displaying care, nurturance, and healthy emotions also model healthy masculinity for their sons.” In other words, she says, caring men become caring fathers.

“I used to think men weren’t supposed to [be vulnerable],” James tells us. “Men don’t care about those things. They don’t care about emotions or feelings. Today, he’s learned that being a strong man is not about physical strength or a lack of emotions, rather, the opposite.” Jaynen’s generation is more in touch with who they are,” he tells Very Good Light. “They have a lot less hate and more understanding. They’re able to communicate with each other more openly. When we don’t deal with affection or feelings it cause a huge void. Jaynen allowed me to learn that.”

Jaynen and James Mays

(Photo by Michael Mutuc/Very Good Light)

Though science proves how crucial relationships are from a developmental standpoint, they fail to explain the phenomenon of the deep bond between a father and son. For that, we turn to the abstract, the metaphysical – the spiritual. Below, we explore how other fathers and sons, like James and Jaynen, are redefining masculinity through the act of vulnerability.

Each pair recounts one specific story of how they got the other through a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Each story is unique and proves just how fathers and sons – and their intimate relationships – are powerfully changing for the better.

Al-Tereek, 44 and Jai, 16, New Jersey

Al-Tereek and Jai Battle

(Jai, on the left, and Al-Tereek, on the right, photographed in downtown Manhattan. Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

Jai Battle is a 16-year old with a diverse array of interests.

He’s varsity on his track team, a member of model U.N., is in the string orchestra. He’s also become an inadvertent activist. That’s because in Jai’s hometown of Montgomery, NJ, he is one of only a handful of people who look like he does. Just 2% of the town’s population is African American.

Being categorically the “other” has become the norm for Jai. Sometimes, it’s being asked where he really came from. At other times it’s being called the N-word. That occurred at an early age, an experience that Jai recalls as being both shocking and confusing.

“This is what it’s like to be black in America.”

“‘Scrub the black off,'” someone told him. As Jai recalls: “He said to do so with soap so I could be cleaner, as if being black was dirty.” When he came home, upset, it was his father Al-Tereek, who sat him down to unpack what just happened. It wasn’t an easy conversation, Al-Tereek remembers. But it’s one that he’d been waiting for. He’d gone through experiences like Jai’s himself, and to have to finally talk about race, blackness and American culture was something he was prepared for.

“This is what it’s like to be black in America,” he said.

Al-Tereek and Jai Battle

(“Fighting just fits into the negative stereotype of black people who are all aggressive and angry,” says Al-Tereek to his son, Jai. Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

The conversation was far from easy. “The reality is that we’ve been in America for a long time, we’ve been black for a long time,” Al-Tereek tells Very Good Light. “One thing that I’ve tried to learn in my lifetime it that when these things occur, it’s mostly based in ignorance. Especially if it’s from a child,” he says.

What proceeded was a calm explanation on what Jai could do. It wasn’t to fight back, he explained. It was to educate and be a good example of what a loving individual could be. Besides, Jai had no other choice, he said. To fight back was a losing battle. “Fighting just fits into the negative stereotype of black people who are all aggressive and angry. That other kid might just be ignorant and go home without any baggage. But Jai becomes that angry black kid who now has to be monitored.”

Instead, Jai learned that it was through equipping himself with black American history, acknowledgment of his own identity and his family that allowed him to overcome.

(Photo by Bukunmi Grace/Very Good Light)

“We are spiritual people and we understand that these things exist,” Al-Tereek tells Very Good Light. “But what we can do is just keep becoming the best of examples, to make sure we get to the places we need to be. More so, know your history and your counterparts. That will help you keep moving.”

Today, Jai says that being able to rely on his father empowers him. “My dad taught me that being different is an asset, and that I’m a powerful [vessel] for change.”

Robert and Dave Christopherson, Utah

Dave and Robert Christopherson

(Dave, on the left, and Robert on the right, grew up bonding over airplanes. Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

Before Dave Christopherson could walk, he flew.

His father, Robert, was a pilot and would take his children out on frequent trips in the friendly skies. Dave’s fondest childhood memories include going in and out of airports, flying impromptu to places like New Mexico, while spending quality family time above the clouds.

The two were inseparable ever since Dave met his father at an orphanage in El Salvador. “I always joke that he bought me,” Dave says with a laugh. “In all seriousness, we really got along during my younger years, we really understood how lucky we were to have each other.”

But things changed as Dave grew into his own as a teenager. In the midst of finding his own identity, the two began drifting apart. They would argue and have frequent disagreements. “We butted heads,” Dave recalls. “He was really stubborn and so was I.”

“My house, my rules,” Robert would say in the heat of the moment. And so, after turning 18, Dave decided he’d leave his home altogether in hopes of finding himself. One thing he wouldn’t do was fly planes like his dad, he thought. Ironically, he’d find himself joining the Air Force months later.

“I had no desire to go into flying, but my dad influenced me for sure,” he tells Very Good Light.  “Once I joined the military, he saw I was doing something with my life and that’s when our relationship started to get better.”

Dave and Robert Christopherson

(Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

It was during flight training that Dave truly realized how much he needed the strength his father-son relationship could bring him. As Dave explains it, getting through flight school and pilot training is a grueling process.
“Picture yourself in front of the computer with your headset, joystick, two pedals and you have to keep this line centered in middle of the screen,” he explains. “Then there’s a headset that tells you words and asks things like what was the third letter of what was said.”

The days were long and the materials covered were completely abstruse. Most days would start at 5 a.m. and go for more than 12 hours. “I’d show up and I would have been studying for a test for a couple of hours, then I’d need to fly and do certain maneuvers,” he says.”It’s really stressful because if you get three strikes you’re out.”

 “My dad means the world to me…”

The stress became almost too much and anxiety set in. Dave found himself on shaky ground. He was struggling to pass his exams and was on the brink of being kicked out of the program. That’s when he picked up the phone to call the only person who could help: his dad.

Gillette father son

(Photo by Christine Jun/Very Good Light)

“You’re really smart.”

“You got this.”

“I believe in you,” his dad assured him.

“He’d remind me of who I was and where I came from,” Dave recalls.

But more so, it was his unconditional love that pushed Dave through. “What really helped was when he told me that he loved me, and that whatever happens he’d still love me and still think I was awesome.”

Those words of wisdom and love got Dave through. Today, Dave’s a full-time pilot. But more than any lesson he learned, his father taught him how to be a man. “My dad means the world to me,” Dave says. “Though I didn’t see it growing up, he has good quality morals. And has great values and he means the world to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.”

Joshua, 59 and Jacob Yi, 23, Georgia

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Jacob gives his dad, Joshua, a piggyback ride, photographed in downtown Duluth. Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

Ever since he was young, Jacob has been a guy to always work for what he wanted.

He graduated with honors. Attended his dream school. Was always at the top of his class. And so, when he graduated last year with a degree in chemistry, he thought that he’d easily step into his next role: medical student.

But things didn’t work out as he’d hoped. While all of his best friends moved away and were accepted into graduate school, it was Jacob who found himself in a position he’d never been in before: uncertainty.

“I don’t want to compare myself to others, but seeing my best friends move on and progress in their lives while I was still waiting for my future to begin was difficult,” he tells Very Good Light. “I felt left out and pressured to start something quickly.”

It’s during this time that Jacob had painful bouts of self-doubt. He didn’t have a Plan B. For a student who’d excelled, met and exceeded test scores, his situation was not only frustrating but cut deep.

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

“I felt like a failure.”

It was here that he leaned on his father, Joshua, for guidance. In a world that seemed to be spinning out of control, it was his father who became the constant he needed to stay grounded.

“Our Korean culture isn’t vocal about self-worth.”

“I’m never the vocal type and I don’t bring my concerns straight to my dad,” Jacob says. “So it was really amazing that my dad actually confronted me one day about how I was really doing, which allowed me to open up.”

His father, who received his own Ph.D. years before, empathized with his son. He, too, went through years of education, heartache and adversity.

“Don’t compare yourself to others,” Joshua recalls telling his son. “Your experiences are valid, too. You’re growing, learning and always progressing. Don’t discount this period in your life.”

This affirmation, Jacob says, is what allowed him to pull through.

Jacob and Joshua Yi

(Photo by David Yi/Very Good Light)

“Our Korean culture isn’t vocal about self-worth,” Jacob admits. “We focus on being humble to an extreme. But in that moment my dad told me outright that I, too, am worthy of a great life – no matter what that looks like.”

“More than anything, I told him that I believed in him,” Joshua chimes in. “More so, I didn’t allow him to forget his dreams of being a doctor. If you really want to do this, go to the end and try your best, I said. Don’t have any regrets.”

It was this moment in Jacob’s 23-years of life that he realized that his father really cared about him. “I never thought my dad could understand me like a friend,” he says to Very Good Light. “It’s ingrained in our Korean culture that a dad is here [higher] and you, as a son, are here [below]. But he’s someone I can truly be vulnerable with, without judgment. He’s always on my side. I can be safe with him. And his love allows me to love myself.”

Matthew and Chandler Sparks, Colorado

Matthew and chandler sparks

(Matthew, left and Chandler, right, grew up racing and hiking in the mountains of Colorado. Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Asthma could have slowed Chandler Sparks down, but his father, Matthew, wouldn’t allow it.

“Resiliency is a learned skill and I have always wanted to teach my children to become resilient people,” explains Matthew to Very Good Light. “This skill can be applied in all aspects of a person’s life, especially in difficult times or situations.”

As a child, Chandler experienced asthmatic symptoms and often times had difficulty breathing. It didn’t help that he and his entire family lived in Colorado, one of the highest elevations in the country. To help him overcome, Matthew signed himself and his son up for annual races to strengthen his breathing muscles.

“I’d gained this newfound confidence in myself.”

“Of course, we listened to what our doctor said about his lungs,” Matthew says. “But my personal goal was to build up his lungs and his overall physical health. We wanted him to start walking then running. The lungs are a muscle and the more you use it the stronger it becomes.”

At first, the races were intimidating. Chandler was understandably timid, would stay close to his dad in fear that an asthma attack would hit him, clutching to his inhaler. By the 6th grade, he started gaining a little confidence by wanting to go faster. In the 7th, he started running in front of his dad. By the time 8th grade came, he was off running on his own. Soon enough, he no longer needed his inhaler.

It was a big moment for both of them.

Matthew and chandler sparks

(Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

Years later, it was Matthew who leaned on his son Chandler for help. He was training for the grueling Ragnar race, one that goes for 200-miles. With so much intense training, Matthew injured his knee. He didn’t know if he’d get to the race. But Chandler wouldn’t let him quit.

“I challenged him to do some outdoor elevation training,” Chandler recalls. Matthew admits he was very nervous but accepted the invite nonetheless. At first, they took it slow by hiking Quandary Peak, the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains. After, they completed the Decalabron Loop, a challenge that hits four 14,000-feet mountains in a single hike. Throughout it all, Chandler was there, cheering his dad along.

Gillette father and son

(Photo by Aly Curtis/Very Good Light)

“I needed a push and he was checking up on me in a caring manner,” Matthew says. Chandler was leading the way, tending to his dad at every turn. It was in that moment that Matthew took everything in and saw the bigger picture. Everything came full circle. “Watching him take the lead and guide me instead of me guiding him was such a joy.”
Weeks later, Matthew joined the Ragnar race and finished. “Surprisingly, my knee did feel better,” he says in retrospect. “I’d gained this newfound confidence in myself and it was because of Chandler, who taught me what it means to be resilient.”

It’s okay to not be okay.

In partnership with Roman

Masculinity: let’s talk about it. From the inception of our site back in 2016, our mission statement has been to redefine masculinity. A year and a half later, masculinity is now front and center in our national conversation. It’s why we decided to launch our first Masculinity Week. We’ve partnered with a company that shares our values with Roman, a company that’s redefining the relationship men have with their own health. They believe that the more we talk about, communicate, and confront our problems, the more empowered we’ll be. This week, we’re introducing important stories unpacking masculinity and how we, as men, can empower one another. We’re in this together.

men's Mental Health

There are real strides happening with men and identity in our modern age.

We’re changing the definition of what it means to be a man, be independent, think for ourselves and express ourselves authentically. As we’ve written all week, masculinity and its definition are beginning to open up its doors to become less rigid – and that’s really changing our world. But there’s still something we’re not talking about enough: mental health. Statistics show that guys are less prone to seeking help than women and because of this. According to the American Psychology Association, 9% of American men experience some kind of mental health symptom ranging from anxiety to depression but only one in four will actively seek help.

“It’s really difficult to talk about mental illness especially if you’re male and  harder to talk about it with friends,” explains Sachin Doshi, the director of development at Mental Health America, to Very Good Light. In his research, Sachin says that men will only ask for help if they feel they can reciprocate the favor in some way. “When they feel it’s one-sided, it makes them feel weak. Men in general, feel they can fix problems themselves, almost like working on a car or fixing a tire. And a lot of the times that means trying to figure things out.”

Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide.

But when it comes to mental health, figuring it out on one’s own rarely has a positive outcome. It’s why, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that men are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide. Among all suicides in this country, 4/5 are by men. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death for men 25-34.

“It’s cultural, men traditionally have that mentality of being fiercely independent and providers,” says Dr. Nathaan Demers, VP and director of clinical programs at Grit Digital Health. “It’s not okay to not be okay in our society.  Our culture reinforces everyone to be doing well. When someone asks, ‘how are you doing? Instinctively, we respond with, ‘it’s good, it’s great.’ Our culture reinforces that. We need to make it more okay to not be okay.”

Such conditioning comes from how Americans are taught to view mental health in general, says Dr. Wizdom Powell, the director of the Health Disparity Institute at the University of Connecticut. “Men are also taught very early on that they should just work it out themselves,” she tells us. “We need to be more comfortable with being vulnerable and reframing how men treat boys. Imagine if instead of talking to a young boy and saying to just ‘walk it off,’ we could ask, ‘are you okay?’ Think about the differences with responses and how vulnerability can change those norms.”

Dr. Powell points out to how our culture treats women and men differently. “Women are socialized to form relationships and bonds,” she says. “Men are taught to work it out. Problem solving with men and women are so different and that’s a critical part of the issue. Mental health also, in general, is not designed for men in mind.”

Which is why Sachin believes that though there are so many mental health and suicide preventions PSAs or campaigns, they’re not effective.

Among all suicides in this country, 4/5 are by men.

“Research shows that men respond differently and are less likely to respond to traditional campaigns,” he tell us. “They respond if you don’t have traditional mental health language and doing so with humor.” It’s one reason that a campaign called Man Therapy has been so effective at making mental health a little more palatable. The campaign, which received $1.2 million from the Center of Disease Control, is normalizing mental health for men in a way that has never been done before. 

“The traditional hands of doom and gloom aren’t going to work with men,” says Dr. Demers, who works with Man Therapy. “We need to make it much more approachable.” The site includes humorous tidbits, yoga and breathing exercises all from an approachable character named Dr. Mahogany, who is branded to be “part therapist, part drinking buddy part football coach.”

Since its launch, the site has had over 1 million hits and 300,000 men taking a mental screening. “A lot of our research we have to talk to men in their language. We know that we need to speak to our target demo in the language they’re interested in. If I’m talking psychology babble and clinical terms they shut off and are like, that’s not for me.”

This normalization is what is helping to save lives, Dr. Demers says. “I think the first thing as a culture is conveying the fact that we are all in the pool of mental health together. It’s like cholesterol levels and checking up on that – we want to make it a part of your overall well-being.”

But a huge obstacle is that most people still don’t view mental health as something that’s important. “We’re talking about changing culture,” he tells us. “Twenty years ago, it was okay to drink and drive or not have seatbelts. It took society to see that this needed to change to it to do so. If we were to adopt mental health as a priority, too, this will change. 40,000 men die a year by suicide. That’s like a 100 people crashing in a plane. If there was a plane crashing like this so frequently, our society would be pissed that was happening.”

Twenty years ago, it was okay to drink and drive or not have seatbelts. It took society to see that this needed to change to it to do so. If we were to adopt mental health as a priority, too, this will change.

Dr. Demers does see culture shifts happening with portrays in the media being more humanized when it comes to men and mental health. Dr. Powell agrees. She says that the stigma around mental health and men is becoming more embraced with celebrities like Jay Z, The Rock, and athletes like Kevin Love all speaking up about their experiences. “I bet my money that Jay Z speaking out on his own experiences with mental health has had more of an impact on the population than any of my papers,” she says.

And hopefully, that’s opening up discussion. Sachin says the most powerful step any man can take with mental illness is to acknowledge it and to talk about it with at least one person.

“But I want to emphasize it doesn’t have to be in person,” he says. For many men, a face to face conversation may be a little much. “There are so many groups online where you can talk about it in the open. There are depression or mental health subreddits. There are links to private chatrooms.” There are also hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety or any other type of mental illness, it’s important that you know that it’s okay. You’re not weird, different or you’re not considered “other” because of it. You’re also not alone. It’s okay to not feel okay. It’s only when it’s unmanageable that you need to seek help. The first step, though, is acknowledging what you’re experiencing for yourself. To see where you are, Sachin suggests taking a quick, minutes-long screening. You can take Mental Health America’s here or Man Therapy’s here.

If someone you know is struggling emotionally, having a hard time or having suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.