The Question

Have you ever had one of those minor interactions with someone that was truly not intended to be more than a brief conversation or comment but which, unbeknownst to that individual, sent shock waves through you or made you reevaluate yourself?  I had one such moment a few days ago.  I was one of the committee members hosting a reception at work.  Many of those present had noted, and commented on, the fact that our male colleagues had congregated at one table while our female colleagues gathered at another.  As the event was winding down, I happened to be seated at the table with women, and a faculty friend said, “I suppose I should wander over to the other side.”  I responded that, as usual, I began the event at the table with the men.  My friend asked me what I meant, so I said that, in social situations, I typically begin by joining the predominantly male group.  And then she asked me the question which has been tickling the back of my mind ever since, “Why? Don’t you like women?”

I was nonplussed by the question, but I took it as I believe it was intended: a quick, curiosity-provoked question from one friend (who happens to have a research interest in female friendships) to another (who happens to occasionally make sweeping and broad generalizations).  And my quick answer was, “Of course! I love women!”

In the intervening days, I have caught my mind wandering back to the question, as well as to my initial comment that I find it easier to join groups of men in social settings.  Why is that?  And what does it say about me?  Do I have an underlying issue with women?  Have I bought into the cultural bias that women are just grown up mean girls?  When did I start talking about “mean girls” as if I actually accept this concept?

Here’s what I’ve decided about those questions.  First, I gravitate toward groups of men because their conversations are generally easy to enter into, especially if I don’t know the individuals in the group.  They are talking about things, about stuff they do, about events that have recently taken place.  They are not talking about their feelings, or wondering what someone meant when they said, “Don’t you like women?”  I am not saying that men don’t do these things.  They just don’t usually do them aloud at work receptions.  It is easy to sit on the outskirts of these discussions, occasionally ask a question, or find a moment to tell about the time you tried whatever activity is the subject.

In similar situations, groups of women speak differently — especially in groups where the women are already acquainted with one another.  At this particular event, both groups were speaking about their research interests.  The men discussed topics, instruments, research methods.  The women did, as well, but their conversation was also shot through with comments about how and why this particular research was meaningful to them.  They discussed the circumstances which made finding time for research difficult, or what resonated with them about someone else’s topic.  Very different conversations — each interesting, each meaningful, equally valid.  I just need a little time to warm up to the more self-revelatory discussions.

As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I have written about the wonderful gifts that my male friends and family members bring to my life, the incredible lessons I have learned by observing and interacting with them.  However, today, I am thinking about the amazing women in my life who perform death-defying or life-affirming acts with incredible grace:

  • My mother, who gave birth to 6 kids in 9 years and gave us her undivided attention for two decades.
  • My sister Chris, who nursed her husband, Dave, through stage IV cancer in the 90s, and has fought her own breast cancer in the 2000s.
  • My friend Wendy, emergency room nurse extraordinaire, whose husband says he loves that she sees things she wants to change in herself – and then she changes them (unlike most of us who just talk about changing).
  • My friend Sue who calls her knee replacement surgery and the enforced time off work this summer the “best vacation of her life”.
  • Tricia, who channels her grief from the loss of her son, Nate, into loving work with the SIDS Foundation and as a peer partner for families experiencing the sudden death of a child.
  • Carol, who met and fell in love with Zul, a Malaysian man, in Dubuque, Iowa in the 80s.  Dubuque didn’t get it, but Carol married him anyway.  And a couple of years ago, they adopted the lovely and vivacious Rumela, whom Carol met in an orphanage in India.

These are just a few of the women who inspire me — I could write whole articles about each.  Others, too, or about my sisters Anne and Gwen who make me want to choose courageous paths in my own life.  As I reflect on the question that sparked this reverie, I believe it is good for me to be shocked out of my comfortable perceptions sometimes, and I thank my friend and colleague for giving me reason to pause and reflect.  Perhaps what I’ve written reveals a sexist bias on my part, perhaps it shows that I believe there are culturally ingrained and/or deeply embedded gender differences.  I feel fairly certain, though, that it also reveals that I do, in fact, like women.  More than that, I celebrate their presence in my life.

What I’ve Learned from Men

With the approach of father’s day, I have been thinking about the men in my life: my father, brothers, and dear friends — almost all of whom are fathers (and amazing ones at that).  They are also gifted, funny, gentle, kind and generous.  I have learned so many things from them:  about life, love and how to not take myself too seriously.  I thought that, in celebration of father’s day, I would share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from them.

  • I’ve learned that having guts can get you places that talent alone cannot (like the coveted first baseman spot or a semi-regular turn with the karaoke microphone).
  • You’ve taught me to stop trying to get you to talk about your feelings.  Like finding a husband or getting your first period, it will happen when least expected, and will presumably be worth the wait.
  • I’ve been to the school for male humor called “coffee with the guys” most mornings for over a decade, and I now understand that the humor of a really bad word or an especially bawdy comment resides in its shock value.  Less frequent equals more funny.
  • Men have shown me that holding on to hurt feelings is useless.  Say something (if you need to) then move on.  There is so much freedom in facing today without needing to nurse yesterday’s wounds.  Also, when men say they’ve moved on, they really have.  I’m still working on this part of the equation.
  • The wonderful men in my life have taught me that you do not need to use the word “love” to express the feeling.  They show it in hugs, punches, late night texts, carrying the ugly couch that came with the house to the basement for you.  These physical acts, large and small, are powerful statements of feeling.
  • If one of my male friends bothers to get on a soapbox, lecturing about attitude or “choosing in life”, it is important to listen.  These soapbox lectures have helped me change my life for the better in so many ways.

My dad and brothers were the first men to love me, and they have done so unconditionally (followed closely by my brothers-in-law).  The many male friends who have stood by my side in the past and the present — and you know who you are, guys — have shown me that I am lovable, not because of what I have to offer but because of who I am.

Once, someone told me that I had too much “masculine energy” and suggested that was a failing in me.  While I didn’t necessarily agree with the assessment, I also would never have taken it as anything but a positive trait.  Every day, masculine energy brings light, laughter and love to my life.  And I am so much the better woman for it.