Well-meaning friends and family told my eldest son he was “the man of the house” after his father and I divorced. All the time. If I had a dollar for every time I had to point out that he was only 8 years old and NOT the man of the house, I’d have been able to fund his college education.
Society has come a long way in valuing independent, smart, tenacious women, but there’s still an undercurrent of belief that a household with boys needs a man—and if there isn’t a man around, then a boy has to step into the role. No matter that research shows this isn’t true.
The upside of this insensitive refrain was that my sons and I started having conversations about what “the man of the house” would actually do. Their father had traveled frequently for work, so there were very few tasks they associated with a male role. And I certainly wasn’t going to get into the amorous side of things with boys ages 8 and 5! So instead we talked a lot about gender stereotypes.
Who was the one sitting around in pajamas watching football for half the day on Sundays? Their mom. Who handled oil changes and haggled over household repairs? Their mom. Who mowed the lawn and operated the gas grill? Their mom. This all was just as true before the divorce as afterward.
What had changed was the boys’ own perception of what men do in families. In their young minds, dads became a bonus—someone who played and roughhoused and showed up to the occasional school concert. Even though our circle of friends included quite a few stay-at-home dads, the boys’ attention stubbornly stayed on the fun they weren’t having with their dad.
The manifestations of this were very subtle. They started avoiding people I considered positive male role models—even my brother—whenever those men were with their “whole” families. As much as they loved their young cousin, there was an undercurrent of jealousy when they saw him with his dad.
They sometimes struggled in other situations where father-son dynamics came into play, like team sports where parents volunteered to coach. And they steadfastly refused to attend any father-son event, like their elementary school’s “build with dad” night. They wouldn’t go even with someone they dearly loved, including their grandfather—and the school was incredulous when I asked them to rename the event. So we pretended it didn’t exist.
That was one of the few times where we just couldn’t figure out a way to address the single mom thing. Most of the time we talked it through. This was thanks in great part to the insightful and patient counselors who graced our lives. We benefitted from good insurance that covered mental health care, and later from a government-funded program that provides free counseling to preteens and teens.
One of the most crucial things children get from two-parent households is a contrast in emotional processing styles. Children learn that there is more than one “right” way to express and cope with happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment, etc. I tend to stay calm and carry on. Without another parent to emulate, the boys tried to emulate me—a complete developmental mismatch. They both possess tremendous willpower, and they were able to tamp down their emotions in ways that could have had terrible long-term consequences had it not been for those counselors.
Most importantly, they understand that there’s tremendous strength in being vulnerable. They have learned to ask for help when they need it. They know it’s OK to cry in front of someone else—a lesson I’ve learned alongside them. They are open to support from people outside our immediate family. And as a result, our lives are ever so much richer thanks to teachers, extended family, neighbors, and what researchers call “consequential strangers,” people like the mail carrier who regularly shoots the breeze about shared interests like hockey and haunted houses.
Today, at ages 14 and 11, both boys are well on their way to becoming the men of their own houses. They cook, they clean, they do laundry. They are technically savvy, mechanically minded problem solvers who can fix a million household things—and yet still manage to walk by a pair of dirty socks on the floor 27 times in a row without picking them up. Perhaps there are a few gender stereotypes they still need to learn something about!