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That article in The Cut/NY Mag was really good! But the one aspect of this story it didn't really touch on (except briefly at the very beginning) is that, for many of us, our childlessness was not a choice. Many of us WANTED the lives we see our friends living. We EXPECTED, from the time we were kids ourselves, that we would be mothers with kids of our own someday. For some of us, for various reasons (infertility, pregnancy loss, failed adoptions, medical issues, just not finding the right guy before our fertility ran out...), that "someday" never happens. And it's a hard, hard thing to watch from the sidelines as all your friends head off into the sunset with barely a glance back at you. And even when they do try to be inclusive, there are times when it's just too painful to be around them and the very real reminders of the life we wanted and didn't get to lead. Some parent friends are sensitive and empathetic enough to understand this, but some, sadly, are not.
I read a comment on this piece that said that nonparents don't understand that having a baby can be like a bomb going off in your life, and that parents need their friends around them, even if they're sick of hearing about it. Well, parents don't always understand that for those of us who wanted to be parents too, NOT getting to have the children we wanted can also be like a bomb going off. When you finally reach the point of realizing that this is not going to happen for you, it shatters all your assumptions and plans and forces you to rethink your entire life, look for meaning and purpose in other ways. That can be a lot too. And we need our friends around us then too.
I'll add that I'm also at an age where many of my friends are now becoming grandparents, and in some respects it's an echo of those years with their own children, when (once again) children become the focal point of their lives and all they can talk about.
I think a lot about how American parents (moms) are expected to shoulder every responsibility, meet incredibly high standards of parenting "correctly," and navigate all the difficulties of arranging child care, school stuff, medical care, etc with so little support...and then they're deemed boring and devoid of personality for not having much else to talk about. It's such a trap! And I'm totally guilty of being the child-free friend who has no idea how to join in or relate to kid-focused conversations & hangs, but whoof, I can see how it's not just the inherent life-exploding nature of having a child, it's the massive undertaking that is raising one in this country.
A bit of a different perspective- I lost my young adult child to suicide this year, and being with my peers now, so much of the conversation STILL revolves around kids, now young adult kids. It is sometimes painful to hear about what everyone’s kids are doing - jobs, marriages, etc- when my kid, obviously, isn’t here any more. I can listen for a while but why can’t we talk about something, anything else? Our world is so child focused even when those children are grown.
When I had my first kid I remember feeing so overwhelmed that literally every thought was about my child. It had so completely reworked my consciousness that you could have asked me what 2 + 2 equaled and I would have said “baby”. I felt embarassed that I seemed it have lost all my intelligence.
I’m now 10 years out from that first child, done with baby making, and am just now coming back into myself as an independent personal no longer constantly physically attached to another human via growing, feeding, and holding them.
And so I’m reprioritizing my friendships and it is a JOY to meet my oldest friends where they are and revel in how they’ve grown. That’s not to say I wasn’t part of their lives as they hit new milestones but I can now recenter them and celebrate them on a far richer level. And it’s like knowing my favorite color is blue but then I have a fresh lens and suddenly I can see teal, cobalt, and aquamarine.
I love that I am coming out of the “catastrophe” of early parenthood and celebrating the richness of life in my friendships. I’m still finding my way in this next phase but I revel in the depth of our shared histories and the future we have next.
As a childless friend, the only other thing I would add is that we sometimes want to be involved and brought into the family -- invite us if we say we're happy to hang with the kids sometimes!
I have a wonderful friend who would invite me to be a third adult to help host her daughter's birthday parties over the years, and it made me feel so happy and included; I would entertain kids, or help out when someone's feelings got hurt, or volunteered to be covered in stickers, or made the food so that someone else could manage shrieking 8 year old girls. I have other friends with children where I haven't been invited in the same way and, not that everyone has to do that, but I think it does contribute to that feeling of missing the intimacy you may have shared before kids came along.
I am the perpetually childless woman who always wanted to be a mom. The exclusion that happened after my divorce, when the friends with kids suddenly deemed me like... tragic? For being single and childless... I am at my desk weeping.
I had a lot of feelings about the Davis article, as someone with very painful and extended infertility, and then a very quick transition from that to being an older adoptive mom (I'm now now 40 with an almost three-year-old, and having spent a lot of time in evangelical circles who start their families in the early and mid-twenties, that makes me especially geriatric).
When we're gracious with each other, we can show up for each other. And that's a muscle we can use over and over again - and we'll need to use over and over again, because after adolescence, that conveyor belt of age-related stages really stops and the variables take over. I mean, if you think the kids are rocking your social world, wait until the divorces hit! Or spouses die, or kids have special needs, or kids pass away much too soon - you need to start exercising that grace now because life is hard and if you want to keep your friends, you need to be gentle with them. We're human and very fragile.
When I read that article, I thought, “I really hope AHP writes something about this.”
I’m a woman, and childless, but several of my friends have kids or are having kids, and the article pained me. Your concluding paragraph here, I think, nails it:
“The fact that we got through this first hard part — it’s going to prepare us to get through so many hard parts to come. It makes community feel real, not just aspirational. It makes me feel like I do, indeed, live in the Pacific Northwest with my partner, my dogs, my friends, and my friends’ children.“
I think if we think of friendship and community as just people to accompany us on nights out and fancy dinners and girls trips and to listen to us vent about our lives, then yeah, we’re going to be disappointed when our friends have kids, because all of that is taking a backseat. Something completely overwhelming and all consuming has entered their lives and their entire world has shifted. It’s not wrong to mourn or grieve for what used to be—your parent friends probably are too! But we don’t always have to place our own emotions at the center, IMO.
If we want *real* community, then we need to be willing to accomodate and see our friends through those major shifts / crises / catastrophes, both the surprises and the longed for. Of course, parents have a role to play in maintaining friendships too. But I think we need to understand that for a few years, it’s going to be mostly on us to hold them up and help carry them through. That’s what friendship is for.
As someone who chose not to have kids, I feel like the honest answer to making friendships work after kids is that I sacrificed a lot of my needs and expectations in the effort to maintain those friendships early on. I had some resentment about that at first but came around to realizing that parenthood meant my friends with kids were sacrificing their needs and expectations as well, and we were all learning a new world. It's a massive change, but I think I slowly accepted that I could either resist that change and be unhappy or set new expectations and find new ways to be with my friends who are parents. My husband and I have tried to be very involved as auntie and uncle and I agree with Anne and so many others that it has gotten immensely easier as the kids have gotten older and can play by themselves or be left with a sitter for some alone time with friends. There is still grief there - I feel like a huge part of why I struggled with whether or not to have kids was the sadness I felt about not taking the same path as my friends and the distance it would create - but also a lot of joy and love and trust with my friends in having navigated this change together and come out the other side in a way that still honors our friendships. And I've tried to cultivate relationships with friends who don't have kids that can satisfy the needs I have (like for long meandering in-depth conversations!) that my friends with kids just can't meet right now. I always really appreciate these discussions and all the comments - they help me feel so much less alone in navigating these changes.
I saw a lot of comments on the Instagram post for the Alison Davis article from parents that said a variation of: "we don't maintain our friendships because we don't have the time/a support system, it takes a village." I absolutely agree that support systems for parents are incredibly lacking in this country and our government's neglect and a whole host of other cultural and economic factors are at play. But I also am frustrated to see "it takes a village" over and over from parents that seem to interpret the "Village" as "a group of people who will take some of the burden of child rearing from me." I've always thought the proverbial village is meant to encapsulate care from *everyone*; the village/community not only helps with child care and practices emotional generosity, but also helps with elder care, medical issues, and other types of reciprocity that makes life better and benefits their whole community. I think when parents (in this example) look around and perceive that there is no one to help them and they have been "abandoned" by friends, they should think about how they have maintained those bonds with their wider community. I've helped friends with their kids, been very understanding about scheduling issues and last minute changes of plans, traveled to them etc...but these friends have also made it their business to be there for me when they can with non-childcare/child-related problems. Support systems have to be cultivated on all sides, not because "you owe me, time to get mine" but because we owe each other. If you're a person who hasn't cultivated community, it is not magically going to appear once a baby is in the mix.
I will be honest, Davis’ essay didnt resonate with me as much, even though I am childless, because it seems so different than how folks I know do friendships/family. I think our larger American culture is so segmented by generations that we miss out on making and sustaining places for folks at all stafes of life to be and stay connected.
I’m a mom of a three year old and when I read Alison’s piece - which was so similar to how I felt pre-kid - all I could think was “Christ I was such an asshole.” Maybe that’s unfair to the feelings I had but what I saw reading that was a person (me) who could not and did not try to empathize with my friends, who had no curiosity about what my friends were going through. But even more than my friends, I wish I had learned earlier in life to see the humanity of kids at all stages with their accompanying limitations. I thought about kids and their appeal the way one would think of themselves as a dog vs cat person. I considered myself someone who believed in community and a person-forward society but I failed to included this huge portion of the population in the grace and understanding that I so willingly extended to adults.
This is so great (and I'm really looking forward to Rhaina Cohen's book, as I keep beating the drum for communal living with my friends—being the only single person among your friends after an unexpected divorce has made it abundantly clear that I'm not anyone's priority anymore, and it hurts).
I'm not really the "fun auntie" and am not even close with own niece and nephew, and it's been a struggle to keep some friendships alive after kids entered the picture. But for the relationships that have done well, there's been an attitude on both sides of "yeah, this is incredibly hard, but we're going to make this work, come hell or high water." Not sure if that's due to the specific nature of those friendships, but I'm grateful for it.
I felt the Cut article deeply. I'm interested in any advice on how to deal with this new dynamic between sisters - one pregnant and one child-free - and a baby-obsessed grandmom to be. I'm childfree and very excited to be an aunt, but my mom - who has held her tongue about my child free choice - is now UNLEASHED and has ZERO boundaries or self awareness about pregnancy chat now my sister is pregnant with her first.
Our family group chat is bombarded with Mom's 'baby bore' content about prospective sleeping schedules and breastfeeding and 'it's true that you never know love until a baby comes' crazy problematic stuff. Every Facetime with me is about the baby coming. My sister is more understanding and limits nappy decision chats to her mom friends, while making me feel wanted as an beloved aunty, but neither of us know how to deal with how unbothered our own mom is about respecting our different choices in life now because BABY.
Not a lot is written about how a pregnancy can change a relationship between adult sisters and their mom. I've been through the mill of friend experiences when kids arrive but never expected this!
“But no friendship ever stays the same forever. Your friendship would change for some reason, even if it weren’t kids.” This is gold. Thank for the deliberate and thoughtful unpacking here.
I’ve had such mixed feelings on this. I straddle the line as a stepparent. (I know plenty of steps just consider themselves parents and they are, for sure! I just feel like I don’t really fit in either camp any more.) Honestly I surprisingly find myself feeling defensive on behalf of parents and I skipped the infant/toddler stage! In my past life as a single/childfree person, I felt like my friends were fairly successful at incorporating me but I think the things that made that possible weren’t necessarily in our control. We lived near each other - this is huge. With some of them, I had a level of closeness already established - so we were comfortable with me just blending into the mess and chaos, no self consciousness to work through. And some of it was down to the temperament of the kid - some kids can be flexible, sleep anywhere, are cool hanging on someone’s lap at a restaurant, etc; and some kids can’t without a huge toll on both kids/parents. These aren’t really things anyone can help. I guess it’s the second one (intimacy) that could maybe be created or sustained with effort. But I realize I’m still describing something other than the child-free time proposed here. For me, being incorporated into home life was actually enough - it made me feel loved and like part of a family - but I’ll say my friends were able to have our normal conversations post-bedtime, too, not just kid talk, so something stayed the same. Maybe that makes the difference.
The experience of adding parenting into my life did pretty much short-circuit me. And I don’t have it on hard mode. But for me it’s the addition of mental labor when I’m already kind of at my breaking point from work. (Caveats: this is maybe pretty specific to me; there is admittedly maybe some baseline neurodivergence/burnout/mental health at play. I also want to point out that being “just” a stepparent does often subtract responsibility and caregiving, but adds LOTS OF COMPLEXITY and grey areas that make each individual decision or communication all the more fraught, all the more deliberate, all the more effortful.) But the point is, for various reasons I’ve experienced overwhelm, even if not directly from parenting. And here’s what I know and imagine is true for many — when you are in a state of overwhelm, whatever the reason — you cannot ask for support because you don’t have the mental space to even stop and notice what would help, much less articulate it. You cannot coordinate plans or even envision how to incorporate a new variable (“I’ll just bring a pizza over!”) because you are getting through the next immediate thing. You need to be able to surface for more than a minute to see what’s missing and pursue it, even if it’s something will impact you positively. Like I said, I am very far from being in the situation of a new parent, but I can totally understand that if you’re in a place where you are struggling to add SHOWERS to your life (a thing with obvious positive impact! A thing that is supposedly “simple!”) you will also struggle with figuring out how to add in higher-order needs. It rubs me the wrong way when it’s described as a matter of effort, priorities, and intention, instead of the sheer mental overload/scarcity that makes activities like “thinking” or “having feelings” a triage situation.
This probably sounds dire and extreme but I think it’s not really so wild or uncommon for capitalism to see people stuck at this crossroads of temperament/health needs and large structural forces. Parenting should not be a thing that creates this mental state but I think for a lot of people, it is, and in our country, I’m not surprised. I don’t want to be defeatist, I think it can and should be possible for parents/nonparents to give each other grace and figure out how to stay connected, but the framing of the problem matters to figure out the solution.