When I moved to Houston a couple years ago after meeting and falling in love with a Kansas-to-Houston transplant, I had heard the idea that Texas was less like another state and more like another planet. And it does feel like another planet to me…a planet filled with strange and interesting creatures. Men.
The only memories I have of my father from when I was young are spotty; trying to remember what it was like to live with him is like trying to remember a dream several hours after you had it. I remember seeing him perform in plays as a professional actor, but I don’t remember him at home. When I was five, my mother left my father and took me to Michigan to live with my grandma and my very young aunt. For the next fourteen years, this group of three women would come to define my concept of family. Though I had uncles and I saw my dad occasionally until his death in 1998, when I was speaking of my family, I was thinking of my mom, aunt, and grandma, as well as the other female relatives on my mom’s side with whom we were all close. It didn’t occur to me that anything was missing, really, because I had never really known what it was like to have a male presence in my life. When I got to college, I joined a sorority, extending the family I had become accustomed to include 114 other women, 50 of whom I shared a house with for two years.
Despite the fact that I loved being surrounded by women, a lot of my thoughts in high school and college were focused on boys. While this isn’t out of the ordinary, my appreciation for the opposite sex stemmed not only from attraction but also from…fascination. Who were these other creatures? How did they think? Why did they act the way they did? If men were from Mars and women were from Venus, I was mesmerized by the Martians. They weren’t my kind. I didn’t get them at all, so that’s what I focused on. Getting in their heads and getting them in bed. When I began my writing career, I wrote about both topics quite regularly.
My mom had another baby when I was nineteen, and for the first time, my family had a male presence in our multigenerational home. When Preston was born, he looked otherworldly; he had the large, curious eyes and careful movements of a Furby. As he grew up, we realized he couldn’t have been more different than I was as a child, and this, it seemed, was further proof that boys and men were not from my planet. They were Others. And I had no idea how to live with them.
When I first moved to Houston a few years later, I didn’t live with Eric. I found a roommate and took a marketing job at The Motherhood Center, which had pre-natal classes, baby and toddler music classes, and lots of family events. The staff and clientele were overwhelmingly female, so once again, I was surrounded by women and back in my comfort zone.
Then my boss left, so I found a new job, where I was one of two women on the staff. And then I moved in with Eric, which was pretty much like finding E.T. in my shed. All of the experiences I had gained from dating and observing men for several years did very little to help me understand Eric. And not long after I started at my new job, my female coworker was let go and I became the only woman on a team of eight people. At a tech startup. In Texas. Being surrounded by men in my personal life and professional life made me feel like my ship had suddenly crashed on their planet, and I was terrified.
How does someone who has never really lived with men, worked with men, or been totally platonic friends with men figure out how to relate to men? Well, at first, I based everything I believed about them off of TV and movies. Which meant I believed that men all cared deeply about their careers, did not do chores, were mildly (or majorly) sexist, and thought about sex all the time. And were probably going to cheat on you and let you down at some point or another. If someone had told me they were learning about women by watching how women on TV behaved, I would have laughed/been horrified, but it didn’t even occur to me that I was doing it at the time. I just had a lot of interactions with my coworkers, and even with Eric, that involved me being tentative and, frankly, ready for disappointment. I had no examples of men stepping up in real life or in entertainment (unless it was at the end of a rom-com), so I was hesitant to trust both Eric and my coworkers. I didn’t really believe any man could like me, care for me, support me, or get me the way women did. Because I saw them as Others, I assumed they saw me the same way, and I braced myself for being treated differently.
But I wasn’t surrounded by just any men. Of the seven men I worked with, six (and then, recently, seven) were married. Six were fathers. They were men…but they were also family men. I first realized this when I overheard one of my bosses telling someone he’d be leaving early for the next few days because he had to pick his daughter up from school. And shortly thereafter, when I saw another coworker’s computer background, and it was a picture of his children. And again when our CEO and my direct boss used phrases like “family first,” and casually reminded all of us that at the end of the day, work is just work, and family is what matters most. Some of this attitude came, I think, from the deep religious ties that, frankly, worried me when I moved to Texas (how often is “family first” used as an excuse for gay bashing?), but my totally crunchy liberal atheist coworker, who has become a close friend and a mentor, felt similarly to my other coworkers. He had a successful career and was supremely talented, but he told me he was less interested in climbing the ladder and more interested in creating work he was proud of and still being able to hang out with his wife and kid at night and on the weekends. Our team isn’t all religious, but we all seem to agree on one simple life commandment: “Don’t be a dick.” And we see prioritizing career above all else as kind of a dick move.
As I began to observe and interact more with my coworkers, they began to fill a knowledge gap that, up until that point, I hadn’t even realized my own father had created in me. I went from having no dad to suddenly having six (plus a male uncle and a cousin for good measure). I had a wise dad who gave me life advice and mentored me (and who came down hard on me when I let him down). I had a slightly awkward dad; sometimes, during our conversations, I knew exactly how his teenage daughter probably felt when hanging out with him. I had a goofy (but not doofy) dad, whose sense of humor and kindness felt like a daily bear hug. I had a strong-silent-type dad, who, honestly, I was terrified of at first, but who I came to know and to get…and who came to get me too. And I had a hippie liberal dad who I could talk to about how strange I found his kind, and who was something of my tour guide on the planet Mars. When Eric and I began navigating things like chore responsibilities or going through tough relationship moments, this coworker shared his experiences of being a privileged guy in these situations, and the sort of shock that came along with being challenged by someone else for the first time. I became less frustrated and more sympathetic, and my conversations with Eric became far less tense. And fortunately, Eric’s coworkers have very similar attitudes and outlooks on life to my coworkers. They, too, are family men. Their conversations are often similar to the ones I have with other women—they talk about relationships, children, infertility, the cost of day care, about women leaving the workforce. Though Eric has a father and brother of his own back in Kansas, having a group of men of different generations here in town to help him (and, really, us) through this bizarre transition from being single to being married is so valuable.
After working closely with this team for more than two years, I’ve begun to really understand men—and I’ve realized that they aren’t so different from women after all. My bosses run another small company out of the same office; about a year ago, one of their employees left to become a stay-at-home dad and my bosses couldn’t have been more supportive. When their other male employee brought his new baby into the office a couple of months ago, all the men in the office were out of their desks to go ooh and aah over the baby. They often take days off to attend their kids’ functions and those without kids care about spending time with their families and just having a life outside of work. Since I’ve been engaged, they’ve all been fairly interested in my wedding plans and happy to give me their advice and perspective when appropriate; one even sent me all of the spreadsheets he had created when helping his daughter plan her wedding the year before.
But it’s not how they treat me that has had the biggest impact on me; the way they talk to each other about their wives and kids is what has really affected me. The way they talk about how proud they are of their children, or about how angry they were when someone hurt (or threatened to hurt) their children has made me realize that, despite letting his own demons get in the way of our relationship, my father probably talked about me that way as well. And the way at least one has teared up when talking about how much his wife means to him has made me realize that Eric can (and does) love me like that too. While no one can replace my father (or my mom and grandma for that matter), becoming close to such good men has filled a space in my life that adulthood and wedding planning were beginning to make apparent. Going to Mars has restored my faith in this planet.
Photos of Rachel and her dad from Rachel’s personal collection