Dear Friend of Mine,
There is no kind way to say this, but when you told me you’re having a baby, I was sad. Hopefully I said the right words, gushed appropriately, paid careful attention while you talked about your upcoming foray into parenthood. It isn’t personal and I’m glad you’re getting something you (presumably) want, but while you think you’re sharing your joy, all I hear is the sound of scissors snipping the fabric of our friendship in two. You can tell me that things won’t change. I sincerely hope you know that’s a lie, albeit one born of kindness and good intentions. In truth, I’d worry if things didn’t change. I believe in you and know you’ll be a wonderful parent and that’s how I know I’m losing you.
You can tell me that we’ll still spend time together, but I know I’ll be lucky to see you more than once a year. When I do see you, it will be for a hurried coffee or maybe lunch (but probably not – that would take too long). Most likely you’ll have the kid in tow (because that’s how parenthood is supposed to work) so our conversation will have maybe 10% of your attention and I will sit there and pretend to be entertained by the little person requiring the other 90%. I’ll do it, though, because I love you and I miss you. And because I love you, I’ll love your baby too. You’ll tell stories that are familiar, not because I understand, but because I’ve heard them many times before from other friends. I won’t have anything intelligent to share in return. Even though you don’t mean to make me feel that way, and though I believe you are genuinely interested in my life, I will feel that what I have to share is a frivolous demonstration of my own selfishness. Instead I’ll tell you a story about a child close to me and you’ll look at me pityingly, feeling sorry for me, and I’ll just want to stop talking, but will probably talk more because I won’t know what else to do. I’ll miss the days of coffee and lunch dates when the conversation didn’t revolve around the baby’s toilet training and wasn’t constantly interrupted by a child who is too small to handle a 30 minute social date. I’m sure you’ll sometimes miss those days too.
You think you’ll be the exception, that you won’t let the baby change your friendships, but I know better. I’ve been on the other side of those good intentions more times than I count anymore. And I get it. Your child must become your top priority, and believe it or not, I’m grateful. See, I don’t want children of my own, but someday, when I’m old and senile, when I can no longer contribute meaningfully to society, I’m going to have to rely on your child and the others of his generation to make the world a safe place for me. So by all means, give your child your all. I applaud your decision, but know that it is possible to be sad for myself and happy for you at the same time. I am glad for your happiness, but I started missing you the moment you told me of your child’s impending arrival. I will still enjoy choosing your baby gifts, will attend your showers, will hold the baby when she arrives, but I will still feel like an outsider. So please don’t be offended if I don’t seem as excited as you want me to be. And don’t misunderstand how badly I want you to be happy in all of your choices because I am happy with mine.
Someone You Used to Know
Mommy blog after mommy blog tells me I don’t understand, I can’t understand. This fascinating bit of information generally comes in the form of a stranger’s online diatribe shared on social media by well meaning, but oblivious, mommy-friends who add their own commentary of “Yes!” or “So true!” I’ve read a lot of them. I’m not sure why I keep expecting the next one to be different. I suppose some part of me is hoping that I’ll read something that will explain why it’s so important for me to know that I don’t understand. These posts are no longer written so that other mothers feel less alone. They must already know that they’re understood just based on the sheer volume of outlets shouting it from their virtual rooftops.
We live in a society that still equates womanhood with motherhood. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it’s still commonly regarded that way. Sometimes even well-meaning friends make off-handed comments about how jealous they are that I get to do whatever I want or how I’ll understand someday when I have kids of my own, or worse, how much I’ll regret the decision not to. Perhaps the assumption that bothers me the most is that just because I don’t have children, I sit around drinking cocktails and eating bonbons all day. The assumption that being child-free is the same thing as living a life of leisure is absurd. Sure, I don’t have to deal with child care and there’s no one at home to feed, guide through homework, and put to bed before I can get my housework done. I enjoy more happy hours than a (responsible) mother would, but just because those are the moments I share on social media doesn’t mean they reflective of my whole life.
When you have children, you do not become more. You just become different and you cease to understand what it’s like to not have children. Just like that. Just like a switch. You don’t think it’s possible since you were once a person without kids, but we are all at the mercy of our experiences. When you look back on your time before children, you might do so with wistful, rose-colored memories of a time when you could get a full night’s, uninterrupted sleep (though I myself still can’t recall ever experiencing that) or when you could go to happy hour on your way home just because. That’s a personal favorite child-free perk. But you’ve also forgotten that you can work so hard and for so many hours that you’re afraid you can’t keep your eyes open and you’re afraid your legs might give out just because there is no one at home who needs you to force you out of the office. Happy hour can’t fix that. You’ve forgotten that everyone always expects you to come to them, whether it’s across town for dinner or across the country for Christmas, because it’s so much easier when you don’t have kids. That doesn’t make it easy… or inexpensive.
It’s also possible you recall your life without kids as empty and unfulfilled, lacking something essential, and you can no longer understand what it means to be fulfilled without your offspring. You’ve forgotten the joy of hosting friends for dinner without worrying about bedtimes or sitters, instead feeling full of wine, food, and most importantly, passionate conversation that nourishes your mind and soul. You’ve forgotten the joy of traveling to new places with someone you love and figuring out just how things work there. You’ve forgotten what it means to have the time and energy to read and learn and get excited about new ideas. It isn’t that you can’t do these things anymore. You’ve just forgotten what it’s like for them to be enough.
So, even though no one else wants to say it, I’ll say it. You– parents– you don’t understand what it’s like to not have children. Not anymore. You’ll say it’s because you didn’t know how much your life was lacking before, but you don’t want to see that it wasn’t lacking at all. It’s just that when you became a parent, your requirements for fulfillment changed. You are not more. You are just different. Why is it that we are all so fixated on the idea that we need to viscerally understand each other’s perspectives and experiences? Can’t we be understanding of each other without fully understanding?
Naturally, at least most of the time, parents will tell you that the pros of having children far outweigh the cons. There are also benefits to remaining child-free, though. First and foremost… freedom! If we want to travel, the biggest complication is who will feed the cats. Our lives are ours to control. We can work late, come home early, go out for pizza or a four-star meal on a whim. Our money is ours to spend on those things we think are important now and to save for retirement. At the end of a long day, we don’t have another, totally different full workday ahead of us at home. There are no complications in our relationship over discipline or schools. We can engage with the children in our lives in a meaningful way… and buy noisy toys for their parents to deal with. That part is evil, I know, but I’ll continue to do it because I’m the crazy aunt and I can.
The decision isn’t about looking for the pros. It’s about understanding what it takes to do an exceptional job raising a child and understanding that it isn’t the right decision for me and my relationship. There are just as many cons to remaining child-free. We’ve become alienated from many of our friends. When everyone joins the parent club, you start to feel slightly developmentally delayed for not joining. I firmly believe that one should only enter into parenthood eyes open and certain in their decision. No parent knows what they’re getting themselves into, not fully, but it’s important that one is passionate about the journey. I’m not.
People often think that not wanting children of one’s own automatically means hating children. I absolutely don’t enjoy bad parents or the products of their bad parenting, but there are many kids in my life who I adore, whose company I seek out, and who I feel fortunate to know. I’m comfortable around babies and I love seeing children’s personalities emerge and strengthen as they grow. Being a parent isn’t the only way that one gives of themselves, but most often, child-free adults carry the stigma of being selfish. Having kids so someone will love you is selfish. Having kids to save your marriage is selfish. Having kids so you can feel complete is selfish. Not having children doesn’t make you selfish any more than having them makes you selfless. It’s what you do after they’re here or what you do with your life instead that determines that. We all have opportunities to be a positive influence on the children who will be responsible for our future even if they aren’t our own. I choose to focus on those.
When I met B, he told me he didn’t want children within a week. He said he’d always felt that way. I realized then that my feelings about having my own family had shifted. His declaration didn’t faze me. I didn’t feel alarmed, nervous, or even mildly concerned. I felt honored that he trusted me enough to tell me. I think he’d make an amazing father, but it’s not what he wants. I’ve never felt deprived or disappointed at the idea of not being a parent. I have immense respect for the amazing group of people who are raising the next generation of smart, critical, strong, and capable men and women. They are doing the toughest job out there, and I’m grateful for it. I think I would have been a good mother because I understand that it takes complete devotion and sacrifice to do the job well. I wouldn’t give myself to that unless I was sure I could dedicate myself wholly to it.
When I think of our decision years from now, I have a natural fear of what will happen as we age. We will miss out on shaping part of the future generation and having an impact on our world. We won’t build a family legacy or learn about ourselves through our children. We will never know the joy and love of connecting over a life we’ve created. I’ll never experience the care and affection that people have for pregnant women. I won’t join mommy groups, or have that strong support network. No, I’ll always be the one who “doesn’t understand” because that’s what people say to child-free women the most. “There’s no way you can understand.” It’s ok. I don’t need to understand and I’m ok if my decision baffles you too.