"I love listening to women talk to each other," my friend Hugh, a manly South African who by his own admission is fascinated by the fairer sex, told me once. "It's like you're giving each other little presents, the things you tell about yourselves." Not coincidentally, his wife is one of my favorite people to talk to, and he'd been very kindly listening to us do so for quite a little while when he said it.
Hearing my son, who is ten, talk to his friends, is a similar exercise to Hugh's: it's like I'm observing another species. Sure they talk, but it's anecdotal--funny stories, mostly, and speculations along the lines of "what if you climbed a tree that was like, thirty feet high and then couldn't get down?" Then there are the fart jokes.
Not much, at least from what I've witnessed, changes after that. Even men lucky enough to have best friends who will let them sleep on their couches when their wives kick them out or brothers they play golf with every week still don't often confide their worries and insecurities to one another, although I do know some notable exceptions. My son talks about such things, but with me--and I think his sister--usually when we are sitting quietly alone together. I've watched my father rely for more than four decades on my mom for the same thing. I try to imagine what it must be like to go through a major life change without the support system I have with all the women I can call when I need to talk, and it seems awfully lonely to me.
One day I was at a soccer game and sitting beside another mom I knew I liked but hadn't yet gotten to know. During the game (the kids were in first grade and the ref seemed to be giving a clinic on the off-side rule, so there wasn't a lot of action) we talked about how she'd lost her parents when she was in college and the awful divorce her brother was in the middle of and how her mother-in-law had been widowed and then fallen madly in love ten years later at the age of 80. I added in bits of my life, and thought it was an enjoyable but not unusual discussion. In the car on the way home, the man who was my husband at the time said he had overheard bits and pieces and that "two guys could be best friends for ten years and never talk about even a fraction of that stuff."
It's comforting to have our girlfriends to talk to, but as any seventh-grader can tell you, there is a downside: once another girl knows your deepest secrets, she can tell other people, and not so nicely if she happens to be mad at you. If there is a boy involved, it can be really ugly. The competition for male attention, the trophy house, the perfect family vacation, or the high-achieving child can make women turn on one another. And since we typically have good dirt on our girlfriends, it can be an intimate and painful bit of conflict.
So maybe just talking about the game last night isn't such a bad idea--I can understand how men can see it that way. But when one finds, as I have, some solid friendships with women I can trust with my cares and goals, however trivial they may be, it's a rich thing. Even happily attached women know that there are certain things that the men in their lives maybe would rather not have to listen to. Though of course these good men will try their best, at times it's as though they speak another language. For my part, I will encourage my son to talk a little more to his friends, and will keep listening to him talk about whatever he wishes. That he continues to do it is yet another great gift for me, and I'll keep up my end of the conversation for as long as I can.