Question: My husband is bored and lonely during the pandemic, and he has one solace: me. And while I love my husband very much, as the saying goes, “For better or worse, but not for lunch!” During the pandemic, I have worked hard to find community online. I make sure to attend a few interactive webinars or online gatherings a week, I call the grandkids individually, and I’ve adopted a couple pet projects. My husband, on the other hand, tells me he misses connecting with people and envies how fulfilling my life still seems. He’s dipped a toe into the online webinar world, but found that attending lectures did not seem to satisfy his social needs. In his words, “Well, the quality was not as good as the television, but at least this guy was less fake!” In other words, he treated it more like a TV program than a meeting.
I feel my husband needs to build his own life, but I also would like to be helpful. I want to explain to him how I connect online so well, but I don’t quite know how. I just do it! Any ideas?
Answer: I have facilitated over twenty-five video-chat appearances geared toward grandparents since the beginning of the Covid lockdown, and I find that in every talk, my participants seem to be eighty percent female. Demographically, this is no different from the four hundred in-person talks I’ve given on a range of topics over the past twelve years. I’ve spoken in seven countries America, England, Canada, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and India — the ratio of men:women was the same throughout the world.
My audience has varied in age from parents of young adult children to grandparents of young adults, or even of grown adults. But across all age groups, women showed up vastly more often. Whether virtual or real, female family members seem to gravitate to groups in higher numbers than their male counterparts.
I presume that this is because, façade of egalitarianism aside, women are still the ones primarily responsible for kin relationships. Men may be responsible for care, but they tend to do the administrative work (writing the checks, etc), while women tend to do the daily work of tending to others.
From my informal observations, I have formed the hypothesis — and believe me, I am not the only one to realize this! — that women bond more through talking than men do. The grandfathers who attended my seminars indicated that they enjoy interacting with their grandchildren by sharing skills, whereas the grandmothers shared conversation and stories. A part of me was surprised that so many years after the second wave feminist movement transformed the American family, women still seem in charge of facilitating intergenerational family connection.
Of course, these observations do not suggest that grandmothers love their grandchildren more than grandfathers do. Instead, we learn that some aspect of online seminars — perhaps the medium itself, or perhaps the opportunity to meet with a group — is more appealing to women than to men. When grandfathers did report on their interactions with their grandchildren, they tended to have worked with them on a concrete skill: chess or other games, teaching a skill such as carpentry, etc. — thus reproducing past gendered differences. In sum, grandfathers seemed to enjoy task-based connecting. Grandmothers also engaged in skill-teaching, including cooking and games, but their focus was much more on conversation. Teaching a skill was a means to an end of creating a shared experience. To all grandparents, though, sharing their story with the next generation seemed important.
When grandparents had disagreements with their grandchildren, they saw it best ironed out on a personal level. Grandparents found the distance of online interaction and the pressures of time made it hard to work out differences. Synagogues and churches seemed to be the last bastion of intimate shared intergenerational relationships. Women tend to be more involved socially in these institutions, so they seemed to have many more of these relationships than men before the pandemic.
Perhaps your husband might enjoy working on a task with others, rather than attending lectures and talk sessions. He could play online chess and Scrabble or look at virtual volunteer online opportunities. Some people enjoy Words with Friends. He might even want to join virtual minyanim, prayer spaces, or join Jewish study groups which are interactive, task-focused, and operate online. More simply, he might just enjoy making a phone call to a friend, even one he has not spoken with in months or years. The beauty of video-chat apps is that they enable people to connect with friends, family, and acquaintances all over the world and for the most part is free for a long visit. Seeing the other person and people brings them as close as possible during Covid, and these innovative forms of communication will undoubtedly continue in the post-Covid era — an invaluable contribution to human connection, traversing time zones, distances, and minimizing cost.
Once you are vaccinated — which, G-d willing, many of us will be in the ensuing months (especially in spring, summer, and fall) —your husband might feel more comfortable going for socially distanced walks with friends, and perhaps will find ways to safely engage in outdoor activities.
Many people during the pandemic, both men and women, have realized that they need to reach out to others actively to stay socially fulfilled. Gatherings no longer just happen, they have to be made. Even once Covid-19 is less of a threat, it will be valuable for us to remember that we are most fulfilled when we are making life happen for ourselves. If your husband learns how to find connection and fulfillment now, he will retain and benefit from these skills for the rest of his life. And you will enjoy his lessened dependence on you as his sole companion!
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.