How I Learned to Be Comfortable with Men

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.

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  • 39bride

    What an awesome post, Rachel! Thank you so much for sharing this.

    My father died when I was a preteen, but fortunately I had a good model for manhood and fatherhood up until that point. However, I totally relate to your feeling of men being an alien species since I had no brothers and so the household was entirely female (my mother never remarried or even dated) after he died.

    As an adult, I”ve been in positions where I was most-definitely the minority as a female and I had a similar experience of gradually learning to relate to men. Finding a group of good men who took me under their wings in a sense (peers, mentors, motivators) was a turning point in my life and directly fueled my ability to meet and marry my husband.

    You write so beautifully of the whole process of “discovering” men and of so much of what makes a good man. Thank you for this beautiful post!

  • I always know when a post has your name on it, it’s going to be damn good. This is totally outside my experience, because I was the first girl born into my dad’s side of the family in 100 years, and I grew up on a farm, where acting like/getting along with boys and men got you farther than being feminine. And the 3 women who were my historic figures on how women acted in my family (the ladies born 100 years before me) were bad ass but decidedly unfeminine. They were 3 sisters who never married, lived together until they were in their 90’s, and did crazy things like dig their own cellar by hand. As I grew up, learning how to relate to women was a whole process.

    That’s part of what I love about apw. We all have such different viewpoints and experiences, and we use them to dialogue instead of divide.

    • Crayfish Kate

      Oooh, I want to know more about the 3 sisters!

      • Jess

        It sounds like an awesome book could be made of that!

  • Rose

    Such an interesting piece. I also grew up in a female dominated environment and went to an all girls high school. Going to university was a huge shift for me because, despite living in an all women’s residence, I was suddenly one of 4 women in my whole engineering class.

    I forged amazing friendships with some of my male classmates, they even called me their ‘brother’. Looking back now, I realise they were probably more than a little intimidated by me, a foreign species in their midst. I actually think that experience set me up really well for the working world where I have worked with all men, all women and every combination in between, and I love it all.

  • S

    The pics of you and your father are so adorable and heartwarming!! I love your post as it makes me reflect on my own experience with men. My father, though still alive, has never been an active presence in my life. Like you, I can only recall vague memories of seeing him (I don’t even have pictures). Nevertheless, the majority of men in my life have been teachers and coaches (elementary to college) and now that I think about it, they have taught me some important life lessons and have been the ones to truly push me to excel and for that I’m grateful. So its a wonderful reminder that for those of us who didn’t grow up in a traditional nuclear family, that men outside the home can still have a wonderful impact in shaping who we are.

  • This was such a good post. I wish I worked with the kind of men you do. The men in my office are not understanding when it comes to family and family does not come first in this office (even to the men with kids). I wish very much that more men were like the ones you work with.

  • David Bontumasi

    You are a very wise woman, Rachel. And a sensitive and insightful writer. Your father would be very proud of you, I am sure. This is a wonderful post.

  • Martha

    This post is wonderful! I need to add Rachel’s personal blog to my list of daily reads!

  • Hey! Welcome to Houston! Belatedly, but still, welcome!

  • “ ‘Don’t be a dick.’ And we see prioritizing career above all else as kind of a dick move.”
    This is a great life philosophy. It sounds like you work at an amazing place :)

  • AshleyMeredith

    This is awesome. And so sweet. Seriously, one of my favorite things ever on APW.

  • Katie

    Great post! A few years ago, in my late 20s, my best friend and I were having a conversation and we had a total mind blown moment. All she said was, “I look at my male coworkers who are parents and I realize…that’s who my dad was. He was a fun guy at work. He left everyday and went to a place where he joked with other people, went out to lunch, struggled through team projects, and did everything these men do.” It felt like a window into another world. I’m telling you – Mind blown. No amount of seeing men “work” on tv compared to suddenly seeing my male parent colleagues through the eyes of 8, 12, 16-year old me.

  • You’re a great writer! Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to keeping up with your posts here.

  • This is such a great topic to explore, well done, Rachel! There’s a lot of value in acknowledging gender differences, but also truly realizing how much we all share in a common human experience. Kudos for highlighting the similarities!

    I agree with the “Don’t be a dick” philosophy in its essence, but something I’ve been considering lately is gendered language. I take issue with casual use of “bitch” and other female-shaming words (I’m not on the “take them back” boat), and then I started wondering about how we use male language, too. To that end, I’ve stopped using the word “dick” unless I’m specifically referring to male anatomy. I know that female swear words have a much more entrenched sexist history, but I think it’s also harmful to use male-anatomical references as synonymous with being a jerk (or asshole, my new go-to insult. Because we all have one of those!)

    Has anyone else thought about language this way? It’s a huge topic, and when talking it over with a close friend, she agreed with my sentiment, but didn’t find it to be as big of an issue. I’m interested to hear other thoughts on the subject, too.

  • This is a great post. I felt the same way when I moved to Cincinnati with Allen. It was the first time I’d lived away from home, and the most time I’d spent with a man ever. It was really terrifying.

  • What an amazing post! I can’t wait to read more Rachel.
    And I have to ask… is your firm hiring? ;-)

  • Not Sarah

    I’ve always related to guys better my whole life. Whether it came to playing sports or with computers, there were always more guys around than women. I couldn’t imagine ever having joined a sorority with only women! As I’ve gotten older though I’ve realized how valuable female friendships can be when your guy friends start getting married and I’ve started working on cultivating more, but I really still have no idea how to relate to women. It’s a work in progress.

    It’s weird looking at SVPs, VPs and Directors and realizing that they’re my dad’s age (or almost) and that almost makes them seem less scary.

    There are some guys at work that are intimidated and surprised by my presence and don’t know how to deal with me (despite being rather on the quiet side, I’m quite forceful that women should be here too), but for the most part, I’m just treated as another human which is quite refreshing.

    I live alone because I really have zero interest in living with women, but I also don’t want to live with just one man unless we’re engaged, so I’m a bit stuck living alone.

  • shortnsweet

    I’m struck while reading this at how easily this piece could have been written about the other pieces of diversity. How easily one could substitute in learning about different races, cultures, abilities for learning about people of the opposite gender. How similarly our childhood experiences or lack there of can inform the biases of our adulthood. In particular, I was struck by the universality of this experience: “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. […] 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.” Replace the word men with any different “other” that I encounter, and this quote sums why I must work so hard to spend time with people who are different from myself on an authentic level and why that is so important in moving toward overcoming bias.

    • Gytha

      Plus, why television depictions of people are so important, and genuine realism and diversity in popular media is so crucial.

  • Jennie

    I wish I could “Exactly” this post a thousand times. This was wonderful, and as a woman Mechanical Engineer with some “Daddy issues”, I can totally relate. Thank you, Rachel!

  • Beautiful post, Rachel! Changing your environment (and the people you’re surrounded by) does totally feel like finding ET in the shed. And it’s always nice being pleasantly surprised by people who value kindness and not being a dick – restores your faith in humanity, right? :)

  • Rachel

    I love your expression in that first photo – you look so like Meg there!

  • Angela

    I feel the same way as any other woman do with heartbreak before i met orinoko. My issue is with his co workers he always text them even after I told him how I feel about it. He will stop for while and then start all over. He always tells me how fat and old these woman are but I did know that he uses that as a deterrent for me not to think negatively about him having dates with them. Today I have now found out he is setting up lunch dates with one of them. I no longer can take it. Why did he just leave? I do not understand why he keeps doing this to me. He even comes home late after work now and he finally went away and broke up with me, well i been at psychic for help but all the same. what should I do? until my friend introduced me to a someone that assisted to reunite her husband. get the him with you can contact him.

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  • I totally get this, but from the other perspective. I grew up with brothers. In high school I built robots alongside a very male group of classmates. My mom is fantastic, but even she is more into motorcycles, snowmobiles, and farm work than anything “typically female.” I understand how men think and identify with them FAR more than women. When my lady friends come to me with guy trouble, I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining how guys think and understanding their perspective more than my female friend’s perspective.

    Even now, I’m a female owner/operator of a Powersports shop (ATVs, snowmobiles, small engines) and deal with men 99% of the time. My perception of women is almost totally based around movies and TV. I hate to say it, but far too often I find that women really ARE as catty, dramatic, mean, spiteful, and complicated as media makes us out to be. I have female friends and family that I adore, but so very often I find myself shaking my head and just do. not. get. how they think they way they do. Ugh. I now feel like a terrible female.

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