Mom Advice: How to Fathom Men

In caring for her own children, novelist Martha McPhee saw more of her mother shine through than expected.

Jody Hewgill“Men just do that,” my mother has said countless times, as observation, exemption, indictment. The refrain could refer to a wandering eye (her brother ran off with his secretary) or too much bravado (the time my stepfather won big in a poker game and came home to throw all the cash into the air for us, his kids, to claim as it fluttered to the ground). It could refer to an emotional stiffness or a love of pranks. It could refer even to a sentimental gesture: the time my stepfather sent my mother gardening seeds in the mail with a note reading, “I’m still thinking about you.” It was March; he’d died in November.

Generally, her refrain forgave. Mostly, it was her way of accepting, of choosing to be happy rather than right—a tip she felt the need to impart for what it could save me in time and heartache.

Women of her generation were raised to give men a pass, but as an early feminist she didn’t raise me that way. She taught me how to take care of myself so that if a man ever did leave me, I’d be fine. I have spent a lifetime listening to her comment about gender inequality in politics, in business, in sports, in the world of letters; and she champions those women who rise to prominence in a man’s world. “Men just do that” flummoxed me; it seemed the exact opposite of what an enlightened woman would say.

Then I grew up. I married. I had a son.

He has, in his eight years, passed through the familiar stages of male preoccupation with sticks, guns, basket-balls, footballs, baseballs, and soccer balls, but he loves nothing more than the generalized mayhem of the living room that has been turned into a wrestling arena. He practices the signature moves of the WWE in great leaping dives from the couch, in fake “bone-crushing” body slams of my husband, who “writhes” in pain, who is temporarily stunned, who somehow, in a miraculous burst of energy, makes an unforeseen comeback. My daughter and I flee to the bedroom. Beyond the door, the primary forms of male communication can be discerned as the floor rumbles and shakes.

My daughter looks at me. “Men just do that,” I say, before I can catch myself.

Martha McPhee’s most recent novel is Dear Money.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest