When you have a kid, all sorts of buried beliefs that you didn't even realize you had suddenly bob to the surface. It's especially jarring if you consider yourself a more freewheeling type, because often they have a more traditional slant: after years of complete uninterest, suddenly religion, or seeing more of your relatives, or having regular family dinners, becomes more important to you.
For me, motherhood brought up all these dusty, retro beliefs about gender that were lurking in my psyche — the most prevalent being that men, much more than women, need "alone time."
It started the week that I had our daughter — when, in an amazing coincidence of timing, my husband Tom decided to take up long-distance cycling. On weekends, he would disappear for six-hour rides — that is, when he wasn't training for a marathon, another new hobby. When he became a dad, his social life didn't really change. He traveled the country for group bike trips. At night, he met friends at bars and restaurants while I stayed home. In the morning, he'd go for a run while I got up with the baby.
Before we had become parents, our relationship was fairly egalitarian and drama-free. But after the baby came, I was seething with resentment pretty much all the time. I couldn't even look at his Instagram posts of bike trips to the Guatemalan jungle or the Italian Alps ("5000 feet of climbing to go. #dolomites"). So why didn't I open my mouth? Because I really did believe that it was vital for him to have time to himself. This widespread idea has fueled an entire industry of Man Cave construction (type in that phrase on Houzz, and 300,000 renditions pop up, including one hideaway that's basically a staircase that descends into a hole in the ground).
Part of this belief sprang from my own upbringing, which was traditional: My mom stayed at home while my dad worked as a manager at J.C. Penney. At nights and on weekends, my father would regularly head to his toolshed or the garage, bringing his transistor radio and a cooler of beer. My two sisters and I were told not to "bother him" because his alone time was sacred. He's now 75 and still needs to escape the rest of us: During the last family gathering we had at my parents' house in New Jersey, I went to their basement to change a load of laundry (yes, at age 51, I still wash my clothes there, rather than in the dank laundry room in my building). When I snapped on the basement light, there was my father, standing in the dark. It was sort of creepy.
"Are you OK, Dad?" I asked.
"What? Oh, sure," he said cheerfully. He was just grabbing a moment away from his sugared-up grandchildren. Actually, it was more than a moment. He might have been down there for an hour, just standing there. Maybe he'd reorganized a little? I don't know.
Meanwhile, I don't remember my mother ever tinkering in some room by herself.
Throughout my life, I had heard that men needed alone time from tons of other women. I wondered: Why do we tell ourselves that? Could there be some sort of evolutionary reason why men feel the need to escape — to scan the horizon for predators or something?
So I did some research — and, surprise, found out that this notion wasn't true. Among other experts I talked to, Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, was stumped. "I cannot think of any evolutionary approaches that might illuminate this," he told me.