So there I was, in the midst of our weekly grocery shopping trip, telling my husband the fascinating story of the difficulties I was having with a close friend. It’s a story that my friend Betsy had found enthralling when we’d taken a walk earlier in the day. She’d listened very carefully and offered some trenchant observations.
But, after several minutes of in-depth analysis of this troubled friendship, my husband looked a little impatient.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you ask her why she’s acting the way she is?”
We continued to shop, picking up some fresh wild salmon that wasn’t nearly as expensive as our monthly mortgage payment, and a few bottles of wine. Then, in the middle of the dried-goods section, I watched my husband grind our coffee beans.
“Let me get this straight,” I screamed over the whine of the machine. “You’re telling me I should stop brooding and ruminating about this? And do something about it?”
“That’s right,” he said in that matter-of-fact male voice that drives me nuts.
“And,” I added ominously, “are you hinting that I’ve been going on about this for too long? That I’m … boring you?”
“Something like that,” he said cheerfully.
All of this made me think that, no matter how smart and curious the man, most of them don’t find a critical exegesis of human relationships to be nearly as absorbing as women do. They just want you to think about an interpersonal problem for about five minutes, then get all direct and obvious and straightforward about it, and fix it. Fix it, then shut up about it. Like that’s easy to do, buster. Like that’s a good thing to do.
But it made me recall a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with two friends. One of them has a child who’s just entering kindergarten and she had the normal concerns about his interactions with other kids — with letting him loose into this new world without her constant protection.
I ended up telling her what I’d observed about my husband’s and my parenting over the past couple of decades. When our kids came home hurt or upset, I’d be an endless pool of sympathy and, frequently, molten fury toward anyone who’d hurt them. (Once, when our son was bullied in middle school, I listened to his story and plotted immediate revenge. I’d buy a gun, I decided, and show up on the playground the next day. This is the thought of someone who doesn’t believe in guns, who’s never owned one, who couldn’t shoot straight if she had to; it’s also an example of what motherhood does to you. It turns you into a potential avenging felon at times.)
My husband, on the other hand, often listened to our kids’ tales of woe, then told them to get on with it. School was hard? Teachers sucked? Other kids were mean? “Deal with it,” he’d say. Fix it.
Out of this household of mixed male and female messages, I’m inclined to think, some kind of reasonable equilibrium was reached with child-rearing. Maybe, somehow, we managed to balance each other.
Deal with it versus talk about it endlessly. I know which seems better and more natural to me. But it also occurs to me, now and then, with all this talk about male-female differences, XX and XY, that men and women just may bring out the best in one another. Amazing. I’ll continue to believe it till evidence to the contrary comes in.
If it lasts a week, I’ll be thrilled. If it doesn’t, I can always talk to Betsy about it.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)