undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Finding Out Your Friend is an Absent Parent

part2-1 (2)“Where’s Ted?” my wife asked one of the moms at a soccer game this summer.

Ted is the father of my son’s best friend. The friend with whom my son shares a 3rd grade class, a soccer team, and (previously) a fencing class, and so we see this kid and his family a lot. Over time, our families began inviting each other over for get-togethers, and a family friendship started to form. However, aside from the family functions, Ted was nowhere to be found while his harried wife toted their three kids to every imaginable after-school activity. “Where’s Ted?” became a mantra of sorts when we’d see the family.

Although both parents worked, Ted didn’t appear to take any interest in his kids, whether for mundane practices or bigger school events. One weekend Ted’s wife asked if my wife and I could bring their boy home from a game because she had to buzz off to some other kids’ event. We agreed, and when we finally pulled up to the kid’s house, Ted answered the door in his slippers and thanked us for dropping off his son. Where the hell were you, Ted, when your kid had a soccer game 7 blocks away?!? My perception of Ted took a nose-dive.

Over the years I’ve found that when I became a husband and a parent, my friendship standards shifted so that I evaluate others’ viability as a friend not only on their personalities, likes, and interests, but also on their attitudes toward marriage and parenting roles.

Throughout my 20’s, I judged whether a friendship would work based on how that person treated me and our mutual friends. First of all, did we click? If so, then could you be counted on? Were you reliable? Did you care about the same people and causes I cared about?  These questions about friendship all centered around how that person treated me and our mutual friends.

When I got married, my focus began to shift. Dedicating my life to making my wife happy and building a life for us became the most important thing to me, and so I wanted to connect with others who had similar investments in their relationships. Are you dedicated to your wife or partner? Do you work hard in your relationships? Do you work to find balance in your responsibilities as a couple (i.e., do you cook, dude, or do the laundry, or clean the bathrooms)? 

As the years went by and kids enter the picture, my focus shifted again. Being a candidate for friendship didn’t only mean how well we clicked and how well you treated your wife or significant other, it became about how well you treated your kids, your family. Are you an involved dad? Do you accept parenting responsibilities? Do you dedicate time with your child(ren) and honor their pursuits?

In this way, finding friends has become a multi-layered process. In retrospect, finding friends that I clicked with in my early 20s was pretty easy. Are you a cool guy?  Great, then let’s hang out.  Now I find that there are many more factors involved in figuring out whether a guy is “like me” and someone I can trust and invest in as a friend. It becomes a bit exhausting, and I find that it’s hard to do.

Here’s an example. I had a good friend several years back who was making some tough decisions. He was married with an infant, and he had decided to make a career change based on his principals (he wanted to do more socially-conscious union work) and by changing jobs he sunk his family’s income below the poverty line. Once in his new job, the family qualified for section 8 housing, which they pursued. After the move, he started donating his time to a political campaign (though his union work) that led him to canvass for votes several states away from home for weeks on end, leaving his wife at home to care for their toddler.

If I had known this guy when he was single, I’d probably have admired him. He was dedicated to social justice and willing to make difficult, moral-based decisions even if they resulted in personal loss. But because of where we were in our lives, his actions caused me to look at him through a different lens. I could understand feeling conflicted with his job, but I couldn’t understand threatening the well-being of your family based on principals alone. I also couldn’t stomach the fact that he opted to spend weeks away from his young daughter to volunteer his time. At the time, our family was close with his wife as well, so we heard directly from her how his decisions negatively impacted the family, which put me in a further bind. Eventually, the friendship ended abruptly, in many regards because of my change of attitude toward him.

The trickiest part of all this is that I didn’t feel as though I had the right to address the things about him that impacted our friendship. His decisions about his career, his family, and his child had nothing to do with me, and I knew I’d overstep my bounds by addressing his decisions. At the same time, these decisions were diminishing my respect for him and eroding our friendship.

So this is now where things stand with Ted, and yet I don’t know the guy enough to say, “So, you don’t spend much time with your kids, huh?” To do so would sound judgmental and presumptuous. It’s not my business how he decides to spend his time, but it certainly affects how I see him and whether I’d choose to pursue a friendship with him. This relationship, the entire family relationship, is slowly eroding because of value difference. As someone who already struggles with friends, these examples underscore just how tricky these relationships can get.

And yet, as I review my history of attitudes towards friends, I realize that no matter what stage of life, my priority has always been focused on how the other person treats the people in his life. How does he treat me, our mutual friends, his wife or partner, or his kids?  Perhaps children are simply the most salient relationships in which to see whether someone cares about others. The job of a dad is so well-defined for me that it’s the easiest means to see whether someone is focused on the most important relationships in their lives.

To me, that is a true test of friendship.

 

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$h#t Talking Friends

theleagueMy wife and I started watching The League, a long-running show about fantasy football friends who basically love/hate (mostly hate) one another and are driven by their all-consuming goal of screwing each other out of the yearly league trophy. While the show’s a bit intense on the burns, cuts, digs, and jabs the friends throw at one another, there’s something refreshing about it. Although the guys’ exchanges verge on cruel (with the exception of digs on Andre, which are always cruel), their friendships are long-standing and committed.

I used to have friends like that. Okay, not quite that mean and not that obsessed with football (we were way too nerdy to be sports fans), but friends who were comfortable enough to dig on each other. I was only recently reminded of how much this aspect of friendship has been absent from my life when an old college friend wrote to a group of us about attempting a reunion. In the process of inviting me, he informed me that he’d been keeping an eye on the bestiality laws in California, and would let me know when it was legal for me to return to the state. He also told another friend that 1997 wanted its hotmail address back. What a d-bag, but a completely lovable one.

Since leaving college, I’ve moved around so much that I’m left with very few friends. As I get older, I’ve realized how hard it is to find new friends at my age (see my previous post). To make matters worse, I find myself living in a fairly boring suburban monoculture, which doesn’t provide the wealth of friendship possibilities I’d like. Let’s just say that open house night at the public elementary school is overly crowded with wealthy, grey-haired 50-something fathers and their very young wives. Not exactly my typical friendship pool.

I once made friends with one of these older gentleman, a local professor who had about 15 years on his wife (she was more my contemporary than he was). After getting to know him for a while, I had this back-log of old man jokes in my head; a wealth of walker-walking, Viagra-chomping, prostate-enlarging jokes that had nowhere to go. These didn’t pop into my head because I hated the guy, but because I wanted to test the relationship and see if it could evolve. It’s not because I’m a sick bastard, but because many of my best relationships have been marked with a level of comfort and humor in which guys could rag on each other, and which was the hallmark of a strong, mutual friendship. But there was something about this guy that told me he couldn’t handle it. Ultimately, the relationship died out. Our backgrounds, daily lives, and approaches were just too different.

Some might read this post and interpret these kinds of friendships as immature men holding misdirected hostility that seeps out in the form of competition and verbal aggression. In the context of comparing my experience with The League, I can understand this interpretation. In the show, there is very little love expressed between these fictional friends, and the threats they perceive in one another override any care they hold for one another. But that’s not what I’ve experienced in these friendships. These friendships, for me, have been some of the most caring I’ve experienced. In the case of my recent email exchange, after a few more quippy emails shared between the group, I reflected on my experience. I wrote a personal message to the friend who had suggested the reunion and expressed to him how much I missed having such a close friend in my life. He responded thoughtfully and kindly, and we exchanged flattery and well-wishes, planning on re-connecting soon. In spite of not seeing each other for 7 years, there’s a strong bond between us.

As a 40-year-old man, I think it’s incredibly hard forming new friendships, let alone those that can evolve to embody the comfort and care I’m talking about. Many friendships at this age are relegated to specific contexts (i.e., work-friends, soccer-sideline-acquaintances), but these contexts dictate specific sets of scripted interactions and limits. Plus, many men my age are (rightfully) consumed by their family and work lives, which don’t allow time to invest in friendships and cultivate strong bonds. I’m left with a sadness that some of my friendships may never be able to evolve to the point where we can insult each other’s size, intellect, and fashion-sense, and yet say goodbye being certain we have each other’s back.


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10 Questions about Starting New Friendships at 40

"I Love You, Man", my favorite comedy about budding male friendship.

“I Love You, Man”, my favorite comedy about budding male friendship.

I find that as I near 40, I have very few friends.  Years of relocation for new schools and new jobs have left me with a paltry social life outside of home.  As a kid who grew up with a very isolated dad, I don’t want my son to see his father friendless.  But, how in the world do men my age find and foster new friendships?  Here are the 10 questions/hurdles that come to mind:

1) Where the hell am I supposed to meet these people?  My days are comprised of work and home, and possibly the gas station.  I don’t want to make friends with people at the gas station.

2) How would I even initiate a male friendship?  In your 20’s, hanging out happens organically, but not when you’re older.  I’d actually have to ask someone to hang out with me, one-on-one.  If you’ve ever asked another man out for coffee or a beer, you know it can be awkward.

3) When would I find the time to hang out with anyone?  As a working stiff, I’m at work or commuting 50 hours per week.  So when I’m not working, I want to spend time with my family.  Carving out time for other people, especially new people, is tough.

4) Can a married man invite a woman into a friendship without seeming creepy?  In high school and college I had more female friends than male friends.  But now that I’m older and married, I can’t imagine asking a woman to hang out without my intentions being questioned.

5) Do dad play-dates ever work?  I know that my wife has started a few friendships with our son’s friends’ moms.  I’ve tried a few play-dates with other dads, but it’s so rare to find a kid-kid and dad-dad combination that clicks, I’ve given up on the idea.

6) How do I disentangle family friendships from personal friendships?  This is an extension of #5, but one of the easiest ways of finding friendships that don’t conflict with family time is by getting together with another family.  But, with so many players (dads, moms, and kids) it’s bound that something doesn’t click.  The relationships that have worked tend to be family friends/acquaintances and not close personal friends.

7) Do work friendships work?  Since I spend so much time at work, you’d think there might be coworkers I could be-friend.  But my work role feels quite rigid and it’s hard to imaging expanding those relationships into friendships.

8) If I dislike phone, texting, and on-line friendships, am I screwed?  I’m stuck on carving out face-to-face time, but these days, folks seem perfectly content fostering text-based or other on-line friendships.  I hate being on the phone, I’m too cheap (old?) to text, and I steer clear of using social media as my primary friendship outlet.  What am I to do?

9) Is anyone else in the same boat?  Where I live, many locals are born and raised here, and so it feels like everyone’s got established friendships.  Is anyone else looking for friendship at my age?

10) Am I bound to be friendless for the rest of my days?  After my wife finally puts me in that crooked nursing home when she moves to Florida, who’s gonna hang out with me?


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I Am Paul Rudd from I Love You Man

iloveyoumanOkay, I realize I’m about 4 years late on this post, because the movie I Love You Man was released in 2009, but I need to explore this again: I am Paul Rudd’s character from that movie.

I saw the movie when it first came out.  It’s about a man named Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) who proposes to his fiancee and finds himself without a best man.  He realizes that his wife is one of his only real friend.  So, when Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and Peter strike up a conversation at an open house, Peter decides to pursue a friendship.  Sydney is a shoot-from-the-hip, hyper-relaxed guy who does and says what he likes, in stark contrast with Peter’s awkward, somewhat uptight exterior.  The two eventually form a friendship that threatens Peter’s wedding plans.

The most hilarious and uncomfortable scenes of this movie for me are when Peter is first trying to buddy up with Sydney.  Peter longs for a friendship, but has been so involved with his fiancee for years he doesn’t know/remember how to initiate relaxed conversations with another man.  An ongoing joke is that Sydney calls Peter “Pistol Pete” early on in their friendship, and Peter keeps trying to label his new friend with monikers such as “Jobin” or “City Slacker”, each time faltering and sounding awkward.  In this scene, Peter’s trying to be ultra-casual (or he might say “ultz-casz”) with Sidney:

My wife was roaming through channels the other day and stopped on the movie for a while to watch Peter and Sydney hanging out in Sydney’s garage, with Peter tripping over his words in a miserable attempt at appearing cool.  I thought, “Damn, they hit the nail on the head.  That is me.”

Much like Peter’s character, I have always been very invested in the women with whom I was involved.  They were the center of my world, which made break-ups a bitch.  But at least in high school, college, and even grad school, there was usually that group of friends so entwined with my everyday life that I never really lost ties with them.  School always made it easier to find and maintain friends.  But now, I’m in my late 30’s.  I’ve traveled so much for school and work with my wife, that we’ve lived in 3 states and 6 towns in the past 10 years.  With each passing year and each fleeting location, I become more and more inept at finding friends.

Sure, I have some college and grad school friends on facebook or folks who breeze through town every so often, but I don’t have any day-to-day friends.  Many dads are lucky to have lived in the place where they grew up, or at least where they’ve spent a solid chunk of time.  Or, they’re blessed with the social graces to forge new friendships.  Not me.  This may resonate with many dads, but I find that my current friends are family friends or my wife’s friend’s spouses.  This includes a cast of very good guys, but our interactions are always couched in family gatherings and not quite the same.

I don’t have a “grab a beer” sort of friend.  I don’t have a “Hey, let’s go see that shitty sci-fi/action movie that my wife won’t see with me” sort of friend.  I’ve tried.  I’ve hung out with people from work, with my wife’s friend’s husbands, but nothing works.  I inevitably feel like Paul Rudd’s character.  I’m so rusty at male-friendship banter that I think I sound stupid.  I try hard to buddy-up, to get into a rhythm of conversation, but it never flows.  I think that, like Peter in the movie, I’m so rusty that I get nervous, fumble over my words, and then retreat.  I feel stupid.

So now I feel socially-inept and lonely.  Don’t get me wrong, my wife is the most important friend I have on this Earth, and wouldn’t  trade that for anything, but I don’t have any trusted friends outside of my marriage.  And this is the thing that concerns me as I get older: how will my son perceive this?  When I was growing up, my dad had zero friends.  The closest he got was his hunting buddy, my friends’ dad from across the street.  However, their relationship waxed and waned with the hunting season.  They’d ignore each other all spring and summer, and then re-connect in late summer to organize their hunting permits.  We’d all get together a few times in the fall and winter, and then they’d go back to their summer hiatus.  It was a very functional relationship, and I think my dad’s own inabilities to form true friendships really set a poor example for me.

Now, I’m afraid of what my son might see in me.  Luckily, we have family friends who we host for dinner or go over to their houses.  Also, my son sees me out in the community when I volunteer for a local kids’ group that he’s a part of.  So, he sees me engaged and social, for now.  But as time goes by, just like I was able to assess with my own dad, he’s going to notice that dad doesn’t have real friends.  My social limitations are one of my biggest embarrassments, and I’d hate for my son to see them.  I’d hate for him to have a poor model for male friendship, and feel just as inept as I do one day.

I need to keep trying, for both me and my son.  But as a man in his 30’s, it’s hard to know how.  There are very few people I come into contact with outside of work.  Even if I were in contact with new people, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.  Perhaps one day I’ll suffer through those awkward stages of a friendship and, just like Pistol Pete, get a nickname-worthy friend.