Can men and women be friends?
Rom-com tropes and the persistent feminization of scheduling
Greetings from a new apartment in Madison, WI, where I sit surrounded by boxes and glorious lake views. I promise to (at least try to) get this thing back on a regular publication cadence sometime soon. As it turns out, getting married, moving to a new state, and starting your first faculty job in the span of three months is somewhat incompatible with regularity. In the meantime, thanks for your patience!
I recently got the kind of email that keeps many of us compulsively checking our inboxes, because you never know when Oprah’s team might reach out. Alas, Oprah remains elusive, but Jess Grose, of the NYT, is a close second for anyone in the parenting world.
Grose wanted my take on a viral Tweet that I, predictably, had heard nothing about. (I am “on” Twitter but have never really gotten comfortable there. Mostly I just heart my friends’ good news and read abstracts of newly published academic articles.) On July 12th, a woman named Sonya Bonczek had tweeted about a strange coincidence:
Last I checked, nearly 300,000 people “liked” Bonczek’s tweet; a good number of them left comments trashing or defending the nameless fathers in question.
The space between an interview with a journalist and the publication of the resulting piece can be nerve-wracking. Did I say something stupid? Will my ideas be taken out of context? Fortunately, I have no quibbles with the way Grose depicted me in her July 20th piece, which is worth reading in full.
Still, I want to elaborate on an aspect of my comments that was, understandably, condensed in the published piece, provocatively titled “Why Do Moms Tend to Manage the Household Scheduling?” Grose writes:
Daminger said that kid scheduling tends to be particularly difficult to equalize in heterosexual couples, as parent social networks tend to be very gender-segregated, and it can be awkward for dads to break in.
If I were in charge of the headline writing—and it’s probably for the best that I am not—the article would have been framed more narrowly: why are moms the social liaisons for their children? Because while it’s true that heterosexually-partnered women do tend to manage the family calendar, Bonczek’s experience reflects community-level dynamics at least as much as individual couples’ division of labor (although the two are obviously tied).
Most couples I’ve interviewed keep some sort of shared family calendar. Details vary, but both partners can typically see what’s coming up and, often, add events. Heterosexually-partnered men (I’ll shorthand them from here on out as hetero men) tend to add events in two categories: personal activities (think: ‘I’m going out to dinner with colleagues on Tuesday and won’t be home for dinner’, or ‘I’ve got plans to get a drink with a friend on Saturday afternoon, so you’ll need to cover childcare.’) and activities initiated by members of his family or friend group (think: ‘John invited us over for a BBQ this weekend’ or ‘My sister wants to meet us at the pool tomorrow night.’).
Of course, there are plenty of families where dad doesn’t do even this much. And there are some where he does much more: makes pediatrician appointments, keeps track of deadlines for bills, schedules the plumber’s visit.But even these latter, calendar-heavy hetero men rarely schedule their children’s social lives. Why?
The obvious answer is that hetero women tend to do more of the childcare, and thus have more interactions with other parents. It would be weird for a mom standing in the after-school pickup line to say “talk to my husband” when invited to set up a playdate or communicate about an upcoming birthday.
But of course, that’s exactly what happened in Bonczek’s case, and what I’ve seen repeatedly in my own interviews: even when hetero dads are at pickup, they often deflect opportunities to engage in plans for child socializing. Instead, they give out mom’s number or email, or they take down another parent’s email/number and pass it immediately off to their wife for follow-up.
This is puzzling behavior, to say the least. Here’s my take on some of the dynamics at play.
Children’s extracurricular social lives are dependent on their parents’ relationships with other parents, particularly when the kids are young. And hetero moms seem to have an easier time building such relationships than hetero dads do.
It’s not that women are inherently friendlier. Instead, it’s that most of the other parents present at the park, the birthday party, or on the email chain are likely to be moms. And moms building friendships with other moms is culturally sanctioned in a way that moms building friendships with other dads is not.
I don’t think gangs of moms are willfully excluding well-meaning dads—at least most of the time. Nor is it typically true that dads are straightforwardly shirking responsibility for doing time on the toddler party circuit.
And yet I’ve had many a hetero dad tell me he feels uncomfortable going to kid birthday parties, or that the ladies at the after-school bus stop jokingly call him an honorary housewife. (Andrea Doucet has written more extensively on this phenomenon, and her work is fascinating!)
Partly this is a classic case of homophily: people tend to feel most comfortable with others who are like them. Thus, our friendship circles are often overwhelmingly comprised of people who look like us and operate in the same class stratum.
But I suspect this is also a legacy of the old rom-com truism that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part gets in the way” (to quote Harry of When Harry Met Sally fame). Sure, the press and the public alike had a field day with Mike Pence’s revelation that he’ll never dine alone with another woman. It’s clearly sexist and old-fashioned and, by ensuring women are denied opportunities for informal wheeling and dealing, helps prop up the old boys’ club.
Pence might be an extreme case, but there’s still an awkwardness about (hetero) male/female friendship that gets in the way of progress toward parenting equality. Some of the commentary on Bonczek’s tweet confirms this:
Written out like this, the absurdity is obvious. Children’s birthday party scheduling threads are among the least sexy communiques one can imagine. Nevertheless, this paranoia is apparently real.
Interestingly, the theme of exclusion from female-dominated parenting spaces hasn’t come up much in my recent interviews with dads in same-gender relationships. This might be for any number of reasons (including the fact that I’m simply not asking the right questions! Gay dads reading this, please tell me if I’m totally mischaracterizing your experience). But here’s one possibility: cross-gender parent-to-parent interactions may simply be less fraught when romantic attraction and entanglement is perceived to be off the table.
Regardless, we need to find better ways to integrate dads of all kinds into parenting circles and information networks if we want to move away from moms as default schedulers.
Research opportunity: I’ve got a favor to ask. Collaborators and I are piloting a new study on how Americans perceive housework, and we’re looking for respondents. If you’re interested, you can learn more HERE. It should take you less than ten minutes, and I’ve heard that it’s a fun (ish) exercise!