My nieces taught me more about masculinity than the military did

Veterans rethink gender roles when their little girls play and do 'girly' stuff with them

When my older niece first asked if she could paint my fingernails, I hesitated for a moment.

I was a recently returned veteran from Iraq, and my stern demeanour was intimidating to my niece, who was five or six at the time.

I knew that if I really wanted to connect with her, it might involve doing "girly" things that might challenge my masculinity.

So I said yes - and ended up with a new hairstyle along with pink and purple nails. Many of my friends from the military were having children in those years.

I soon learnt many of these men faced a similar dilemma - the challenge of preserving their identity as men, yet being indulgent to their little girls who wanted to play with dolls and make-up with their daddies and didn't understand why those men might want to say no.

A close friend who served with me in Iraq and who now has a teenage daughter worked arduously to be a strong father figure, but also, a confident man not defined by gender roles. It still remains a learning process, he told me the other week - but being able to talk to other men (particularly veterans) has helped. We're in our early 30s now, but our masculinity, the confidence and bravado of it all, was largely forged in boot camp and in the war we experienced when we were mostly only 18 or 19.

Over the years, the views of many of us have shifted since our time in the service.

Many of us have not allowed our experiences as soldiers to define our masculinity; instead, our service and our ability to withstand boot camp and then the war has bestowed on us a certain freedom to define our masculinity ourselves.

Given the presence of these little girls in our lives, it could very well have come to mean getting our fingernails painted and hair styled.

The unenlightened younger versions of us, and even generations older than us, resolved to keep the status quo firm and in place, make this a frustrating task.

They are the ones who think smart girls intimidate boys and that girls can't be scientists and engineers, firefighters or venture capitalists. The military men I know hope having these little girls see us in non-traditional roles means they will one day see themselves in non-traditional roles that they have been kept from for so long.

Many of us have not allowed our experiences as soldiers to define our masculinity; instead, our service and our ability to withstand boot camp and then the war has bestowed on us a certain freedom to define our masculinity ourselves.

This will require men to quit putting up so many barriers and abandon the deceptive idea that being an advocate for women in underrepresented professions and equal pay somehow means you forfeit your own masculinity.

If a group of veterans have begun to figure this out, surely others can catch on.

In a week or so, I'll see my other niece, who is much younger.

This time last year, we were at Disneyland for their Halloween-themed event, during which she took her Frozen-themed tin lunchbox and said: "Here Uncle Carrot (she has trouble pronouncing Eric), help me get the candy."

"Sure, baby," I said, and spent the next hour or so walking through the theme park with a pink Frozen tin lunchbox in tow.

It was difficult to conceal my smile - not only because she was having a great time, but also because, as I walked through the theme park, I saw other men doing the same thing.

I made eye contact with a few of these guys, all varying in age, seemingly "surrendering" their masculinity to little girls dressed as princesses and super heroes and funny characters, like Goofy.

We gave each other a simple nod and grin in passing, because at some level, each of us understood - we get it.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'My nieces taught me more about masculinity than the military did'. Print Edition | Subscribe