The quality of one’s associations determines the character and the meaning of one’s existence.
- James Luther Adams
One night during dinner, while my wife told me about her day at work, 3-year-old Cub cut in and said, “Daddy, me nodding, too!”
“Nodding?” I asked. Then I understood: Cub was mimicking the nods and tilts of my head that told my wife that I was listening.
As my wife continued, Cub nodded along in my peripheral vision, trying the gesture out. As we co-nodded, I was struck by how frequently my body offers gestures of encouragement, sympathy, and acknowledgment during conversation. I don’t usually notice or think much about these little movements: I just move. And when I don’t, my wife rightly asks whether I’m listening.
At a break in our exchange, I turned back to Cub. We tilted our heads slightly in the same direction, shared a knowing nod, and smiled together, delighted by our mirroring.
If only my other social habits were as worthy of emulation.
We cannot live without habit. Whether we are learning to walk, play an instrument, or get along with the social expectations of other people, what begins as a novice feat of intense attention and effort becomes, gradually, practiced and unconscious. Habits orient our senses, our muscles, and our neural pathways: they are the body’s way of organizing fluent responses to the environment that don’t require thinking. Then, only when something goes wrong and breaks the flow of our experience do we stop and pay closer attention to our underlying impulses and whether they actually meet our needs and the demands of the world around us. As the psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote, “we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.”Because so many habits take root in us without our knowing it, we learn only belatedly which of our habits nourish us and which hurt us—and merely knowing better isn’t sufficient for doing better.
As a dad, I’m sometimes called to help my children build nourishing habits that have eluded me in my own adult life. I’ve felt this tension most acutely when it comes to navigating social interactions and making friends.
It’s not as if I’ve never had friends. One of my favorite memories of growing up in Houston, Texas, comes from the end of fifth grade. A neighborhood playmate was on the brink of moving to Dallas, several hours away, and we were playing for the last time. “You’ve been a good friend,” he said, and I told him the same. I was touched, and I wondered what had inspired his kind parting words. Whatever he had in mind, I was lucky to have a small handful of such friends at most points in my childhood and, later, in college at Texas A&M University.
Then I moved from Texas to California and took up doctoral studies in the philosophy of education at Stanford University, and my everyday social life had to begin anew. I’d entered graduate school immediately after college, and I felt anxious about proving myself: I was younger than most of my new peers and lacked their work experience in schools and non-profits, and some of my classmates already had families of their own. I drifted in and out of various social groups during my first several years of grad school, depending on what classes I was taking. Some of those relationships provided much-needed moments of trust, as when a fellow student rushed me to the hospital with a 104-degree fever and stayed throughout my several hours under examination, even advocating for me while I slept. But the prevailing force in my grad school life was professionalization and learning to be a colleague, not friendship.
Meanwhile, I’d started taking dance classes in Stanford’s dance division. I did this purely for myself: it was expressive and interesting technically, it felt good and kept me fit, and I was learning about a world of art I’d never explored before. I took classes in modern dance, jazz, and contact improvisation, and for a time, I fell in with a local community of dancers who convened every Friday evening. The routine grounded me in my body in a way that my doctoral studies could not.
One day, an undergraduate student I knew from my dance classes showed up in one of my graduate seminars. We shared a lot of common interests, and before long, she invited me to help with a postmodern dance she was choreographing with a friend, to be performed that Spring. As her friend explained it, they needed someone to make unidentifiable and seemingly-random noise off-stage, thereby calling the audience to attention that something was happening. But contrary to what a dance audience would normally expect, the dancers would emerge from the audience and even along the balcony railings. The boundary between stage and audience would blur, and the dancers would not assemble together “on stage” until the latter moments of the performance.
And that’s how I met my wife.
Soon after agreeing to work on the project, I bumped into the other choreographer at a campus restaurant, The Treehouse. She’d stopped in to get dinner to-go—she was finishing a Master’s degree in Computer Science and on her way to meet a colleague—and I spotted her from my table near the ordering counter. She was wearing a Stanford sweatshirt that somehow made her dimples especially radiant when she smiled. I said “hi,” and we started talking, and talking, and talking. She ended up being late for her meeting, and I was utterly smitten. That month, as we worked together on the dance, we started walking together, and sometimes we shared a meal at The Treehouse. On the night of the last performance, I asked her out, and she said, “yes.” We moved in together one year later, and when we finally got married (after eight-and-a-half years together), the woman from my seminar who introduced us officiated our wedding.
From the beginning of our relationship, my wife became my greatest ally in making friends. Her friends became my social circle, and we built other friendships together as a couple, some of which resulted in deep connection. Once, when my future wife was in India on a work trip for two weeks, I suffered an anxiety crisis with intimations about potentially harming myself. Fearful for my own safety, I reached out to a couple whom we’d befriended closely, and they took up residence in our home until she returned. They watched out for me and kept me company, while I found a new psychiatrist and started taking a new medication. That’s friendship.
But when we all started families of our own, the rituals of our pre-parenting friendships fragmented before new commitments, tighter schedules, different neighborhoods, and all the rest. For a time, our neighborhood network of young families filled the social gap, but soon that network, too, fragmented among different daycares and preschools. As an at-home dad, I was isolated, and I didn’t have my wife to lean on socially during the day.
My wife soon pointed out a pattern in my behavior on weekends around other families: I would throw myself into parenting and stay close to Sprout instead of getting to know any of the other parents. At one birthday party at our neighborhood park, for example, I’d stuck with Sprout in the sand box and at the swing set, with periodic ventures toward the platters of food on hand. This father-child time was lovely on its own terms, but Sprout wasn’t lacking for it. If anything, I was getting in the way of Sprout getting to know other kids—and I wasn’t making any friends.
My wife intuited what a small but growing body of research underscores: social connection and solidarity empower at-home dads to thrive.She started nudging me to strike up conversation with people whenever we were out at a gathering. I didn’t have the stomach to tackle the problem at first; because such gatherings weren’t a regular thing, I mostly skirted the issue and didn’t hold myself accountable for doing any better. But I knew she was right: performing the role of “doting father” had become an incredibly effective technique for cutting off connection with other adults.
After Cub was born, we started attending our neighbors’ weekly potluck dinner. There, in the regular midst of that weekly community, I became intensely aware of how methodically I pursued my own disconnection. The event began in 2001 as a small, weekly gathering and has blossomed during the subsequent 20 years—through work, dance, marriages, and children—into a large and sociable dinner with many young families. Everyone who attends is an outstanding person worth knowing, befriending, and learning from.
Instead, upon arriving, I would throw myself immediately into helping Cub assemble a plate of dinner. Then we’d sit together at a spot of Cub’s choosing, eat our meals, and talk. I preferred a side-table, away from the main group, where I could ignore everything but Cub, at least temporarily. Sitting with the main group made me acutely anxious. I would avert my eyes from the other adults and pivot slightly in my chair, turning myself away from possible conversation partners. With my focus entirely on Cub, I signaled to any would-be-fellow travelers that I was unavailable and “too engaged” with parenting to talk.
This went on for months, and it wasn’t a nourishing way to live. It hurt. My “doting dad” persona was a new variation on an ingrained social habit: when intimidated socially, find something to do that feigns competence within the setting, until exit. It was the family-friendly equivalent of taking regular sips from an alcoholic drink or nibbles from an hors d’oeuvre at a party.
Facing the pain of this pattern every week forced me to get real with myself: I couldn’t keep turning toward my kids in order to turn away from other adults, thereby pitting fatherhood against healthy adult relationships. This wasn’t a wholehearted expression of fatherly commitment: it was an act of alienation, a way to sidestep the vulnerability of becoming known by others.
Understood thus, I started noticing the pattern everywhere, like at church, where the pull of a child on my sleeve provided easy pretext to exit the post-service coffee scene. I had multiple communities about me—weekly dinner gathering, neighborhood, preschool, church—and I was deeply involved in some of them as a volunteer. And yet, I withheld myself from friendship with others.
Over time, I began to discern thoughts amid my anxiety: that I had nothing to contribute; that I would mess up and get caught flailing for words; that no one would care about the ordinary day of a stay-at-home dad. I worried about how I would be seen by others within my parent community, many of whom worked for hugely-consequential technology companies. I feared speaking openly and honestly.
An anxious thought doesn’t need to be well-founded to provoke fear, and indeed, the thought that no one would value my experience as a stay-at-home dad is difficult to square with my lived experience. My status fascinates many people: I’ve lost count of how many times a male doctor, contractor, or repair-person has told me how he’d love to be at home, encouraged me to cherish even second, and sometimes even shown me pictures of his own kids, whether young or grown up. And among the families that convene each week for the neighborhood potluck, several of the men are the frontline caregivers, so the possibilities for connecting with others on congenial terms, exactly as I am, are especially welcoming. So what gives?
Before I started staying home with my kids, I relied heavily on my professional life in the education non-profit world as a resource to validate and prop myself up in social situations—but I only recognized this after I started staying home and found myself straining to describe myself to others. Talking about work had allowed me to put on a competent persona during moments when I felt out of place: I could speak through the mission of my work instead of talk about my personal needs or inquire about the needs of others. This persona had derived its value from the institutions to which it attached and the expertise I could bring to bear, rather than interpersonal curiosity. Thus, I could be an active volunteer in communities like my church or my kids’ schools—that is, I could embody a “role” or a “mission” and do it well, garnering the respect of the people around me—but still feel lonely.
Without that persona to fall back on, I recoiled and went blank, unwilling to reveal myself, and I shrank especially from other men. I didn’t see many other dads out with their kids on a typical weekday. But when opportunities to connect with other men did present themselves, like at the weekly potluck or a birthday party, the “strong, silent guy” would spring to the fore of my being as a defensive posture: the nearer the prospect for connection, the more visceral the twist of heat and heart that turned my body away. I didn’t want to say something stupid, didn’t want to get caught being wrong, and didn’t want to be judged.
These personas are products of patriarchal masculinity at work within me. Williams James called habits “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.”As a flywheel is a mechanism that, by spinning and building up a reserve of energy, ensures the stability of a larger system, the conscience comes to turn likewise, however awkwardly, about the norms and expectations of society. That “strong, silent” guy—the one who projects steady competence by isolating himself from others; the one who fears naming his needs aloud; the one who warns that you are not enough and will be found out—is the flywheel of patriarchal masculinity at work, turning and twisting my body, with regret and self-judgment over another lost opportunity to connect waiting in the wings. Therapist Terrence Real calls such enactments of manhood “a successive unfolding of loss” that “lays the foundation for depression” later in our lives.
Living that way hurts. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to know and be known. I want to remember that I am enough. I want to make a greater habit of wholeness.
So, I’m working on building some new habits.
I began by inviting some guys out to lunch. One-on-one conversation intimidates me far less than social gatherings do. More importantly, lunch holds an important place in my social imagination, thanks to my dad.
My dad had lunch with his best friend weekly for more than 40 years, from 1976—one year before I was born—through the week before his friend died in 2019 from the complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Weekly. For more than 40 years.
They met as lawyers at the same law firm, where they looked to each other for their respective areas of expertise and discovered a shared passion for theology. Within several years, both had left the firm, and my dad eventually became a law professor, but through it all, they kept meeting. During the final months of their friendship, my dad’s friend could no longer drive and began experiencing dementia, and his wife—knowing how her husband looked forward all week to having lunch with my dad—drove him to each appointed lunch spot, dropped him off, and picked him up afterward.
As a kid, I knew that my dad met this friend regularly: he mentioned it sometimes during our family dinners. But only now, as a grown man and stay-at-home dad, do I understand the commitment, faith, and power of the ritual. I imagine the many things said. The things understood without saying. The repertoire of short-hand references, navigable only from the inside. The explorations of God and religious practice. The celebration, commiseration, and perspective gained on marriage and kids. On career. On health and aging.
I decided to make a habit of reaching out to a handful of men and meeting each for lunch at least every couple of months. This falls far short of my dad’s practice, which cultivated intimacy far more often and with few exceptions, but it seemed an achievable start and a foundation for ongoing conversation and mutual trust.
I knew intuitively who to reach out to. There was the other stay-at-home dad in the neighborhood. The old friend whose company I sorely missed. The guy at church with whom I’d served on a committee, who would put his hand kindly on my shoulder whenever he said “hi” after the Sunday service. The dad of one of Sprout’s preschool friends, with whom I’d already developed a good rapport, who (like me) had taken up mindfulness meditation to navigate anxiety more healthily. And I understood the importance of cherishing and recommitting myself to friendships I’d already begun to establish, as with the more-senior former colleague, now retired, with whom I’d worked on projects in my old professional life and discovered a deeper sympathy.
The great thing about a lunch invitation was that, by accepting, each of these men signaled that he was open to learning more about my life, just as my extending the invitation signaled my interest in learning about his. As a result, I could practice letting go of my tired worries about status and not being worthy enough. With my habitual anxiety already assuaged to no small degree, I could take the risk to be vulnerable more easily and wholeheartedly.
From the outset of these relationships, I held myself accountable for being honest and vulnerable by telling each guy explicitly why I reached out. I don’t have many male friends. I know you’ve been trying to connect. I’ve missed you. I think we have a lot in common. The truth was on the table, and I couldn’t turn back from it.
Now, several years later, I’m re-learning that other people are genuinely interested in my wellbeing and want to know me, exactly as I am. One friend asked me, as our first lunch drew to a close, “Is there anything you need?” I was floored by the question: he was offering to be an ongoing spiritual resource in my life. I didn’t know how to answer. What did I need? For what could I legitimately ask for help? I looked inside myself and drew a blank, but I had the presence of mind to pose the same question back to him. Before we parted, we set a date for our next lunch, rather than lose time wrangling calendars over email. We both needed to know the other was in our corner.
These bonds of trust and reciprocity have grown only stronger. Lunches have become more frequent, sometimes initiated by me, sometimes by a friend. When I had surgery to repair two hernias, and my wife was unable to pick me up from the hospital, a friend waited patiently in the hospital lobby during my longer-than-expected recovery and brought me home. When I feel myself flailing in a social situation, I can name my struggle more easily to a friend. And I’m learning to dampen the noise of my own thoughts and listen with great focus and curiosity, so I may truly understand and be surprised by what a friend has to say. I leave each lunch feeling uplifted and motivated to throw myself back into my day, infused with new perspective and feeling that I’ve contributed in turn to the good of a friend.
I’m deeply grateful for the intimate ritual of lunch. For the many things said. For the nascent things understood without saying. For the birth of short-hand references, navigable only from the inside. For the growing explorations of religious practice. For the celebration, commiseration, and perspective gained on marriage and kids; on career; on health and aging. For the greater wholeness found only through solidarity with another.
For the fact that I’m still learning from my dad.
As for opening myself to others in social situations, the weekly potluck my family attends has given me a precious opportunity to test myself regularly in a safe and supportive environment.
I set some basic ground rules for myself.
Get out of my kids’ way.
Accept anxiety for what it is.
Turn toward the people around me.
Take a break and reflect when needed.
After two years of trying to keep faith with these rules, I’m re-learning that my wife, who thrives on conversation with friends, is my biggest ally during social engagements. Sitting in her social halo provides a low-stakes way for me to engage meaningfully with our community of families. The weekly potlucks are a busy scene, and table seating fills up quickly. But when I can sit beside my wife, at the edge of her conversations, I can be companionable without saying much, chime in when I have something to contribute, and join in telling a story. I can lean in and out as I’m able.
But I can’t always sit beside her (though I love doing so), nor do I want to always lean on her socially. In my solo moments, anxiety still moves within me and tempts me to turn away from engaging. There’s no way around it: navigating big social groups is stressful for me. But by keeping faith with my ground rules over time, my internal response to that stress has become more forgiving instead of amplifying. Fear is not my destiny: it’s just a feeling. Because I know this practically and not merely in the abstract, I don’t feel compelled to demonstrate faux competence when I’m sitting or standing alone, and I no longer gravitate toward my kids when anxious. Sprout and Cub can forge whatever connections are most meaningful to them in the moment, whether with me, my wife, other adults at a gathering, or their peers.
As with my lunches with friends, being honest about my fear can be a good starting point for conversation, especially when I’ve been aloof with someone in the past. One of the other dads at the potluck tried to catch my eye and strike up conversation for several weeks, but I subtly turned away from him each time, like a rock skipping over water instead of settling in. I felt guilty about not treating him with the same curiosity that he’d extended toward me. Moreover, this dad was the frontline caregiver in his home. Here was a chance to connect with someone who would “get it,” and I was turning away.
One evening, I finally summoned the courage to talk with him. “There have been a few times recently when I feel like you’ve tried to connect, but I haven’t reciprocated, and I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I sometimes struggle with a lot of social anxiety at potluck, and I’m working on trying to be a better friend.”
“I understand,” he said. “I can get a little overwhelmed at potluck, too.”
Then we talked. Now, because I put my own vulnerability on the table up front, I’m less reticent about connecting with him. I know we’re on the same team, even on days when I don’t say much.
All of this still requires great intention and forethought, and perhaps it always will. I still flinch in the moment as often as not. On especially fraught days, my mind still goes blank in the presence of others, and I forget that the people around me are vulnerable, too. But I regard myself more kindly, as I might a wounded friend, and give myself permission to take a break and not worry about appearing engaged. I can be alone for a time and return when I’m ready.
On better days, with calmer presence of mind, I think more deeply about what I share in common with the people around me and remember more of what I know about their lives. With so many fellow parents in my social circles, it’s nearly always possible to ask about how someone’s kids are doing, how daycare or school is going, or whether that cold or ear infection cleared up. It’s becoming more common for me to tell my wife, at the end of the day, “I did a pretty good job of talking with people today”—at the weekly potluck and at church and my kids’ schools, too.
I’m grateful for the community of our weekly potluck and the natural laboratory for connection it provides, regardless of whether I find the inner calm to be at home in my own skin socially. My children and I are blessed to have been welcomed in without reservation, and I’m grateful to have learned how to get out of my kids’ way, so they may forge their own places therein.
I want to release my grip on loneliness. I want to be known. I want to be there for others and know they will be there for me. Day by day, I’m discovering greater freedom.
And as Sprout and Cub observe my behavior and reject or borrow from it, I want them to know me as a lively point of connection to the world beyond. I want my kids to be empowered to draw productively on my example, just as I’ve drawn on my dad’s faith in friendship. I want to help them authentically in moments when they shrink in fear from others: with empathy for their anxiety and clarity about what’s possible, and without counseling actions I wouldn’t take myself. I want them to understand, as bell hooks counsels, that we “become more real through the act of connecting with others, through building community.”
Many of the lessons I’m relearning are the same ones I’m trying to help Sprout and Cub learn.
It’s OK to be scared. But living only in fear is no way to live.
When you’re not sure what to say to someone, start with “hi” or “can I play, too?”
Take a break when you need to.
When you choose connection, you’ll often be surprised by what happens, and you’ll discover your own power to act.
There’s a lot more to it than nodding, and sometimes the path feels scary. But the basic principles for action aren’t complicated, when I get out of my own way.
An early version of “Learning To Connect” first appeared in STAND Magazine, Issue #10, Winter 2018.
James Luther Adams, “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium” (1986), Jame Luther Adams Foundation, https://jameslutheradams.org/a-time-to-speak/ [Accessed February 21, 2020.] Originally published in An Examined Faith, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1991.
William James, Psychology, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1892, pg. 144. [Italics removed.]
See discussion in: Jeremy Adam Smith, The Daddy Shift: How Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009, pp. 88–89.
William James, op. cit., pg. 143.
Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy Of Male Depression, New York, NY: Scribner, 1997, pg. 130.
bell hooks, The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2004, pg. 121.