Men and women are fundamentally different. I remember when I first learned about sociobiology in college. I found it abhorrent to think that nature might trump nurture. Men and women were simply results of the greater culture, and to suggest otherwise in a liberal arts college was heresy. While I’m not coming down on the side of a purely biological determinism (after all I am a man who is the primary caregiver for a 16 month-old girl and cooks, does dishes, sweeps, does laundry, and and washes diapers all day), but deep down, men and women are programmed differently.
Like everything, of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but since becoming a stay at home dad for while, our many differences have become pretty clear. Namely, the way we interact with one another outside of mixed gender groups is very different. When we are in groups of our own gender, we talk very differently. While the erroneous study showing that women talk more than men has been disproved, it’s what we talk about that is different.
When my Dad retired from 30 years of being an elementary school teacher, I asked him what he’d miss. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember what he said he wouldn’t miss: the meetings. Like being a stay at home dad, a male elementary school teacher finds himself in a pretty female dominated peer group. And as such, meetings in the teacher’s conference room were conducted in particularly female way – namely that a group of people sat around a table and talked – a lot, often about how students in their classrooms made them feel. My dad said he would just sit there, doodling, waiting it out. Eventually it would end, and he would go home. He did this for 30 years.
Sitting in a circle with a group of your peers talking about your feelings and your relationships is not a male activity. For many women, like my wife, it’s not their scene either, but the percentage of men who enjoy commiserating about their relationships in a group of strangers is far lower. In fact, it is about as likely that a man in a group of his male peers would spontaneously bring up an issue between himself and his wife for group discussion, than a woman would sit un-ladylike in a chair, scratch her crotch and curse loudly at a basketball player on television.
Josie and I recently went to a playschool for kids 9 months – 3 years to check it out. A friend said that Tuesdays had a lot of other dads, but only one other showed up – a guy named Tupper whose son Owen I had met before at library lapsit. After group play and snack time, the parents go in one room, while the kids who will let their parents leave, stay in another room with a facilitator. Since Josie has never been in a room with a bunch of strange kids on her own before, I kept my eye on her as I slowly backed toward the door. She was probably so overstimulated that she didn’t notice, but I slipped behind the door and watched from the crack to see how she would do. She seemed fine, which made me proud and sad at the same time.
So I joined the eight moms around the table. Since I was new we did introductions. During one mom’s introduction, after her name and informing me which little boy was hers, she let me know that she was anxious about leaving her son in the other room, and that it was probably her anxiety, which he could sense, which is really what was probably causing his anxiety. Nice to meet you. The rest of the conversation was facilitated, and focused on a handout based on the book, “The Five Love Languages.”
Suddenly we were doing couples therapy, specifically the moms were providing examples for each of the ways their husbands weren’t making them feel loved. Surprisingly I learned, that most just wanted their husbands to do laundry once in awhile. Wow, did I feel like a catch! I do laundry EVERY day! It’s times like these that I either feel like a spy, a girl’s gay best friend, or a character on the Twilight Zone inexplicably cast into Opposite World.
I know there are a lot of deadbeat partners out there, but I love my wife, and since she works all day, I consider it my job to make sure when she comes home the house is clean, Josie is still alive, and I’ve at least got an idea in my head on what to cook for dinner. Men are brought up to be financial providers, so when we’re not, we’ll be damned if we complain that our partners aren’t doing enough dishes. Sarah get’s four precious hours with Josephine every evening before bedtime, and the only reason it’s not three, is because she puts in another hour on the computer after 8 o’clock.
I began to watch the clock. Tupper was noticeably absent from the table, playing with Owen in the other room. I began to wonder if Owen would be perfectly okay if his father left him, or whether Tupper had sat in my chair before.
This is why stay at home dads stay at home. I know there are many more dad’s at home these days with the economy hitting men harder than women. You wouldn’t know it though, because early childhood development activities are traditionally run by women. And these activities often make us uncomfortable or feel like idiots. Trust me when I say this: although you might see a smiling guy in a circle of women and toddlers doing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with is fingers, he’s only doing it because A) he fears that if his son or daughter never leaves the fours wall of their lad house, that he or she will become that awkward kid on the playground who doesn’t know how to play with others, ultimately develops into a goth clad teenager, culminating in a regrettable tattoo like ‘Juggalo 4 Life,’ or that B) his wife makes him go and peer pressure is a powerful thing. I started out as the latter, and now lean toward the former.
Sarah tells me a that I should start a ‘Dad’s Group.’ I keep telling her that this is antithetical to male behavior. As evidence of this, when I type in “Dad’s playgroup” into Google, I get a sad FB page for a Portland based group that had eight posts last year and only one this year that reads “Hi, just wondering if the group is still meeting together. I don’t see much recent activity here, so just wanted to know before I try to make it to a meeting. Thanks!” On Athomedad.org a search in Washington for Dad’s playgroups comes up with three groups, with a total of 6 members, and the Seattle one lists one member and is ‘closed.’
I think men in general are wary of formalized groups of their male peers that don’t involve sports, the military or the Elks club. If there is a chance that they will end up sitting in a circle, introducing themselves and talking about their problems and feelings they will generally avoid it, unless their participation is court-mandated or the result of a surprise family intervention. We prefer smaller, less formal groups made up of our friends. Name tags are a red flag.
So if you’re a dad in the neighborhood who wants to bring your kid over and hang out while our kids play together I’ll make you these six promises:
1. We won’t sing any songs.
2. I won’t ask you about your relationship with your partner.
3. You won’t get a handout, schedule or name tag.
4. If it’s after noon, you will be offered a homebrew.
5. If it’s not raining, we will likely spend time outside with our kids.
6. And when you come home and your wife asks you what I was like, you will be able to give her an unsatisfying answer on what woodworking projects I’m currently working on, how my beer tasted, and what I have planted in my garden.
And you know what? I think our kids will turn out okay. Though from the looks of teenagers these days, they’ll probably get a tattoo when they turn 18, and the best we can do is raise them well enough to hope that they just get a tramp stamp of a sun or something.