Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I Β accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.

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27 thoughts on “Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

  1. I haven’t got any siblings and I often wonder how sons bond with their parents, both father and mother. I suppose, being a woman, I relate more to how you interact with your son. But it was good seeing the other side too. It was a beautiful article! πŸ™‚

    • Thanks so much, Akshita! People try to tell me that only daughters stay close to their parents as they get older, but I’d like to think that that is not necessarily true (I mean, that sons can and do bond too).

  2. Oh my gosh. They mooned you?! That is hilarious, and totally something my husband would do. I definitely relate on correcting your husband… I know that’s going to be a huge struggle for us. I’m trying to learn now to shut my mouth more often, but it’s pretty hard!

  3. I have a better relationship with my dad now and love that:) The sweetest thing I remember him doing for me was going to the store to buy “supplies” and he made sure there was chocolate in the bag too. Then walking me down the aisle was an experience too – he started crying and got me going and then we were both laughing because he did the Price is Right thing – “Come On Down”. My Dad is Pretty Great! Happy Thursday – Great Post:)

      • My one nephew was a ring bearer and he did not grasp the whole concept, so he got to Grandma and shouted at the top of his lungs as to where me and my dad were. My dad shouted at the top of his lungs that we were on our way! This was in a church – got to love family and those precious moments – ha:) I have been through a lot with my parents at a young age and I can say Life can be short, so love and be present.

  4. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the dads will have their own methods, and while I encourage the blossoming of their relationship in their own way, My Guy and I are both products of an environment that we both agreed could have been better. I had the “typical Asian” parents – we never talked, a lot of yelling, achievement-based education – and he had very uninvolved ones, so we’re both trying to break out of that.

    I read about parenting from sites, books, and he doesn’t, but he talks to other parents he admires. We try to share what we learn about parenting because we know we want to do it a little differently from what we were raised with, and that’s where the struggles arise because sometimes it’s hard for me to bite my tongue while he’s in the midst of repeating a behavior we both agreed we’d like to change. That is our biggest friction – it doesn’t happen all the time, where I say something in front of the girls, but I’m working towards none of the time. We are still a unit that’s a work in progress in that regard.

    You said here that you guys have worked hard towards finding a balance and a method that works with Fred over the years, so I’m hopeful that we will get there someday too.

    • I hear you, Justine. We have the same story, down to the yelling and uninvolved parents. We are absolutely not perfect yet and I think actually that maybe we can’t aim for perfection. We (in our family) talk about change a lot, and get upset with one another when the other person, in our mind, hasn’t held up his or her end of the deal. But change and progress are so hard, and we’re bound to slip once in a while. I think that’s the hardest part for me to accept – to see the big picture instead of the occasional slips. Good luck to you and your Guy, Justine. You will get there. It took us 10 years!!

  5. I think men in general speak differently from women.

    I’m interested that your mum spoke to you in a gentle way. I think at times of stress my mum reverted to the language of her childhood. I’m sure I remember one phrase that I can’t even translate properly, just remember the aggression behind it. It was something like “I’d like to hit you until…” and then I didn’t know the literal meaning of what she was saying.

    Of course that is just pattern of language, as you say. It doesn’t mean that she wanted to do what she was saying.

    Back to men. I found that when I moved into working in education it gave me a vocabulary and phrases that I could use to make myself understood amongst my peers. Very gentle and supportive and understanding. I relied on it for a long time. However it was when I was breaking up with my partner, who worked in a different sector, that they said that’s not *all* that people want. People want to know that they are respected as well and that they are seen as people who *can* cope with a few knocks and jokes.

    So now I am trying to learn a new language. I think it’s helped because my department is me and two men. Imagine if I had never realised that about people? I would just have annoyed them to hell.

    You are right, your son will learn a male language and he will use that to communicate with his peers and get along with them. I hope it will bring you great joy to watch.

    • Thanks for your comment, Denise. It struck me that even if you didn’t understand all the words that your mother had said, you were nonetheless impacted by the aggression in her voice and manner. When children (or anyone) are shouted at, they just shut down and cannot think or be rational, but they’ll remember how they were feeling.

      My mother had a sharp tongue when she needed it, but overall she was and is a gentle person. Even though she was under seemingly unbearable stress while we were growing up she was always composed and never reacted to us emotionally. I wish I had inherited that from her. Well, I’m good for the most part with my son but I definitely have my moments.

      Have you read Deborah Tannen’s books? She’s written quite a bit on the differences and misunderstandings between men and women in terms of communication. I only read her first book (You Just Don’t Understand) and it was very very entertaining and eye-opening. Yeah, I can now clearly see how my husband is (not intentionally) training my son to talk like a guy. It’s just so different. What I consider aggressive is just normal male talk. So I have to understand that and not get nervous every time.

  6. This was a great read for me. When I first gave birth I had this problem with my sons father and I didn’t understand it. I thought I was right 99% of the time. I now realize that children thrive off of that difference in parenting. They learn who to run to for certain things. They know Dad won’t be overprotective over a football injury and they know Mom will know just what to say when they’re sad. If both parents are the same, they miss out. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you related. You are very right about the different gifts that parents can bring. I am closer to my mom but she is overprotective too, and I sometimes find it easier to talk to my dad about things instead. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Wow. This post hits home…big time. I grew up in a home where it was my mom who did most of the childrearing. She doesn’t remember it this way, but I remember my dad often being corrected/ridiculed by my mom for not doing things in her way. I remember him shutting down as a result. And I remember his shutting down as part of the dysfunctional cycle that allowed my mother to continue correcting/ridiculing and my father to continue shutting down/silencing.

    As a child in this kind of household, I remember thinking it normal. I thought it was normal for men to mostly be incompetent to need the “help” of their wives. No, I take that back. I think I thought that it was normal that my dad was incompetent and that it was his incompetence that justified my mother’s verbal “abuse.” As an adult, and particularly after my dad died in 2008, I began to see the flaws of this model, but that wasn’t enough to prevent me from allowing what I had learned take precedence in my own home as a wife and mother. I am learning, slowly, to be different, but it’s tough. Old habits die slowly? Yes, I think that applies here.

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