Like vape juice, there are many different flavors of manchild. There’s Broad City’s Bevers who spends his days bumming around his girlfriend’s apartment, playing video games and clogging Abbi’s toilet. There’s Beef’s Paul who’s waiting to get rich off crypto and has his brother cook his dinner. There’s The Office’s Jim who spends his work days pranking his deskmate and ghosting his girlfriend as he pursues someone else. But no matter the type, every manchild has one thing in common: they don’t make great partners.
A recent essay from The Independent loosely defines a manchild as a “heterosexual man who lacks maturity” and “domestic and emotional” prowess. Potential red flags, according to the author: someone who’s messy, can’t handle criticism, plays endless video games and manages their time poorly. Of late, however, there’s been some debate around the fairness of girlfriends slapping their boyfriends with the label. The author of that same essay posits that casting the “manchild” stone actually says more about the failings of women who consistently wind up in dissatisfying relationships than it does about grown men who don’t know how to do the basics of adulting, like boil water. Yes, the writer concedes, in heterosexual partnerships women still wind up doing most of the housework, and yes, that inequality can build relationship-wrecking resentment. But everyone has an inner child, the writer argues, and blaming a partner for being a manchild is a cop-out.
Both can be true. Girls and those socialized as female are force-fed a preoccupation with their outward presentation and appearance from a young age. While this can have devastating effects on overall self-esteem, it can also yield fastidious personal hygiene and tidiness habits. They’re also engineered to be care-takers, to put others’ feelings and needs before their own, to be considerate and to nurture. This can be a tremendous burden, but can also forge a certain independence. Whereas boys and those socialized as male are often expected to prioritize their own needs and comfort, care less about how others view them and generally be taken care of.
An anonymous write-in to a recent Washington Post advice column wondered if he himself was a manchild. He said, “I’ve known since I was 30 that I want as little responsibility as possible. My plan is to never get married, have children, purchase a home, or have pets. I figure I have enough responsibilities: I have to work, pay rent, bills, etc. I do this well. My credit score is 800.” The columnist questioned his moving through the world “as if coated in Teflon,” adding that, to her, “living a life completely free of attachment, complication or contribution would lack meaning.”
She encouraged him to consider how his headstone might someday read: “Achievement unlocked: Credit score of 800!” And though human composting is the way of the future and headstones will be obsolete by the time this bubble-wrapped lad kicks the can, she has a point.
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Children of any gender, if they’re lucky, get to be selfish. They don’t have serious responsibilities or much awareness of their place in the world. Growing up — when we learn there are consequences for our actions, we make sacrifices for the people we love, we navigate challenges on our own — endows our lives with the richness so many of us crave.
In my mind, nothing gives away that an “adult” of any gender is actually just three children stacked in a trenchcoat faster than avoidance. And we all have different degrees of that. But, where there might be a gender difference lies in who is willing to work through that avoidance and who is content to let it run their lives, perhaps expecting others to pick up their slack. In 2019, the CDC reported that nearly double the amount of women compared to men received mental health treatment, including therapy — yet, according to recent research published in News-Medical, there’s no real variation of psychopathology between women and men.
The opposite of the manchild is, of course, the grown-ass man. The grown-ass man knows how to cook. He can do his own laundry, and does it often. He can not only talk about his feelings, but he initiates tough conversations and knows the difference between an argument and a disagreement. He supports himself financially and emotionally and hopefully has a job with health insurance that covers behavioral talk therapy, which he attends once a week. And he embraces the guesswork of life — the unpredictability and the fluidity — with grace and maybe some joy. Even if it means his credit score dips below 800.
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