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How to Show Up For Your Friends Without Kids — and How to Show Up For Kids and Their Parents
aka How to Be in a Community
Every week, I talk to and hear from people who feel alienated, lonely, uncared for, and abandoned. I get emails detailing it. We talk about it constantly in the Discord. Parents, elders, people in their 20s, single people, partnered people, disabled people, able-bodied people — the consistent line is that people have care that they need, and care that they have to offer, and don’t know how to find the apparatuses, routines, or infrastructure to ask for or offer it.
In the past, so much of that care work was distributed through established infrastructure: through synagogues and churches and mosques, through chapters of national organizations like the NAACP and the PEO, through ‘fraternal’ organizations like the Elks, the Black Elks, the Moose, the Sons of Norway, and dozens of others that often provided mutual aid insurance plans for immigrants and people of color (many, for example, would help care for widows and their children) and facilitated vibrant social calendars.
For various overlapping reasons, participation in those systems has dwindled, and the infrastructure itself has atrophied. If your grandparents lived in the United States in their adult life, they were almost certainly a “joiner” in one of these organizations — but your parents? Maybe not. You might not have had any model of how to be part of a community growing up, or your parents might have been part of a lot of different communities (religious orgs, first-generation immigrants, garden clubs, rotary, etc.) but none of those feel accessible or meaningful to you.
So how do we rebuild those ties? I’ve written about this a lot — how it requires bravery, and vulnerability, and intermittent tolerance for people being annoying, and practice. Like, you just have to keep doing it, and doing it, and eventually it just feels like the thing you do, the people you’re near, the community you’re a part of. So many people have lost this skill or never had it modeled for them in the first place — and, depending on your identity, you may occupy spaces that are actively hostile to its development. (White bourgeois America is one of those spaces!)
So for this newsletter, I want to start with the smaller building blocks of community: the inter-personal relationships, both weak and strong, that serve as the conduits of care. I wanted to think about the nitty-gritty of how we show up for others, even and especially when their everyday lives don't mirror our own.
Last week, I used the Tuesday Subscriber Thread to ask for stories of how readers became an important person in a kid’s life. On Friday, the thread asked for stories of how people, particularly parents, showed up for people who don’t have kids, are single, or are otherwise marginalized from the mainstream apparatuses that make people feel part of a community. I asked the same questions of my Instagram followers, and received hundreds, HUNDREDS, of replies.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned — and what I hope can be a starting point for even more conversations about how to show up for one another.
1.) Most people feel left behind in some way — no matter what their life is like
Parents feel like their friends without kids have left them behind and are flaky. Kid-free people feel like their parent friends only want to hang out with other parents and are also flaky. Parents feel like society is incredibly hostile to them; single people feel like society is incredibly hostile to them; partnered people without kids feel like society is incredibly hostile to them.
All of this is true, because society is just flat-out hostile to all manner of people who aren’t exorbitantly wealthy (and even they aren’t having a great time). That hostility can force us into a defensive crouch where it’s very difficult to see anything past our own struggles, or to empathize with someone whose struggles feel like things that would make your life easier. (A vivid example from the pandemic: people with kids wished for the peace and quiet of people’s lives without kids; many people without kids felt incredibly isolated and yearned for the presence of other people).
Everyone’s struggle is different — but life is not a struggle contest. Competing for the most aggrieved is what keeps us from actually creating the sort of solidarity that can result in change. (That doesn’t mean that some people don’t have compounding hostilities that make it more difficult to navigate the world; that means that obsessively comparing them is a road that goes nowhere).
I’m not suggesting we ignore our own hardships; I’m saying we also acknowledge others, even if, especially if, they are no immediately apparent and understandable to us. Empathy does not require living through the exact same thing as someone else. But it does require asking open-ended questions and attentively listening without comparing their struggle to your own.
This is where I say very clearly: parents, I know it feels like you live in a never-ending hurricane season. You need to talk to your friends without kids, and you need to figure out ways to be in their lives, even if you think their lives are easier and should naturally bend towards yours.
And people without kids, I know it feels like the world thinks we’re weirdos and parents don't understand the very real struggles and fears that accompany our lives. We also need to be more understanding of our friends with kids, and figure out how to balance our own often more flexible lives with some of the more inflexible demands of their lives.
2.) People need and want help, and people need and want to provide help
People in your life need help, no matter how effectively they’re putting up a mask of self-sufficiently. The number of people in my Instagram inbox telling me how much they wished they could have someone, anyone in their lives who would hang out with them during the quotidian parts of being around a kid, or offer to trade off making a dinner to share every week…..or that they’re desperate to be more of a part of the lives of their friends with kids, but their offers to help are continually rebuked.
People need help. People want to help. The fact that we have such a mismatch is a symptom of the fact that we are…..
3.) Incredibly Bad at Communicating with One Another
In large part because….
4.) Bourgeois American Culture and White Supremacy are all about the myths of self-reliance and perfection
So many parents told me they shied from inviting people over to their homes or even within proximity of their kids. They were embarrassed by their messes, embarrassed of their children’s behavior, embarrassed by their lack of routine. I get it: parents are shamed in so many ways in our culture, and it almost always comes from other parents, particularly bourgeois white parents. It makes sense to shield yourself from these critiques by, well, just trying to do it all yourself, away from the surveillance of those who might critique your “slips” in the narrative of perfect American parenting.
There’s a similar if slightly slanted phenomenon, I think, when it comes to single people or people without kids: that we have made decisions that have “streamlined” our lives in some way, which means that our homes should also be streamlined and our needs minimized. This logic is faulty for many reasons, particularly when it comes to single people — if anything, there is more need, since you are the only person looking out for your damn self and cleaning your toilet. You know who needs rides home from a colonoscopy appointment? Like, always? A single person. You know who needs someone to go pick up Paxlovid at the drugstore when their entire household gets Covid? Everyone.
If someone seems like they’re doing just fine without support, it’s a lie — a lie that upholds the myth that if you just follow the rules, you, too, can ride a wave of self-reliance to happiness, and financial stability, to some understanding of a perfect life. But the ideals are exclusionary (who sets and polices them? one guess!) and impossible to achieve. They make everyone feel like crap, even the people with the means and privileges to get closest to them. To feel shame that you can’t be self-reliant is to reinforce the ideal of self-reliance — and, by extension, the ideals of bourgeois white culture. Call bullshit. Ask for help, and offer help in return.
5.) Because we are so bad at asking for and receiving help, we need scripts and plans
We can understand the shittiness of the ideologies of self-reliance and perfectionism and nonetheless find them difficult to shake. Many of us need clear instructions.
If you are a parent, here are some ways you can show up for your friends without kids:
When something shitty or scary happens in the world, check in on them — even if just means a text
Acknowledge that holding to schedules is difficult, but prioritize commitments to friends the same way you would prioritize commitments to your kids. Your kids are incredibly important. They also grow up. If you want that community of care, you have to do that prioritizing work — even if that means you’re less of a “perfect” parent.
Have a very real conversation with your friend about how it feels when you hang out together, with and without kids. Make efforts to include both types of hangs in your repertoire, and if the friend is willing, also figure out some small (and then potentially larger) ways that they can hang out with your kid one-on-one. Not everyone wants to be in charge of kids, and that’s totally fine, and you should know whether that’s the case with a friend or not. But a lot do, and voice as much, but have no means of cultivating the longer-term connection — and this former nanny is here to tell you that the easiest way is for you, the parent, to periodically not be around.
If you’re scared of how your kid might behave around your friend, make that known. It will make you feel better, and ideally you’ll be able to talk about why that fear exists, and how to soothe it.
If your kid has some issues with separation or you feel like they don’t do well with strangers and you’re scared to even leave them with a sitter: who, truly who, would be a better person to start working on this with than your close friend who won’t judge you? If your friend has any ease with kids, again, they are an even better collaborator on this problem than a partner.
If you know that you can only stay for part of an evening, make that clear. Expectations are everything.
If a friend keeps scheduling events or asking you to do things right at bedtime, talk to them explicitly about why that’s hard — and work together to figure out a time that would work better
If you feel left out of a text thread or activity, say it, don’t stew in it — and also offer up a way that you’d like to hang out soon. The work of friendship maintenance cannot rest entirely on one friend.
A lot of celebrations and holidays are still oriented around the nuclear family and traditional milestones of familial achievement. First, invite your friends without kids to your holidays. Even if they say no, it will still mean a lot to be included. Second, think of ways that you can celebrate the achievements and milestones in your friends’ lives that might not mirror your own. I’ve never had a bridal or baby shower, for example, but my friends threw me one hell of a raucous book party, and it meant the world to me. (In the picture above, some of my friends’ kids on the island planned a birthday quest for my partner that was, well, not unlike a kid’s birthday party. But he was at the center of it).
If a single friend has a surgery or health crisis: start a meal train. I mean this. As a general rule: if you'd do it for them if they were having a baby, you should do it for them if they need help for an extended period of time.
Ask them questions about their lives. This seems obvious, but when your own world feels pulled in a million directions, it’s hard to remember. Ask them what’s hard, ask them what they’re excited about. Again: I know you’re tired. But this is what friendship and community is. Support begets support. And if they ask for help, know that it is often with the understanding that you have many demands on your time and they would not ask if they didn’t need it and they probably feel really vulnerable even asking and are preparing to be refused. Understand this, and make it work.
And if it feels like you’re drowning and don’t know who would take your kid if you had to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night: ask for help. Sometimes the best way to solidify a relationship is to literally put it in writing: they will show up for you, and you will show up for them.
If you’re a child-free, here are some ways you can show up for your friends with kids:
Acknowledge that there will be periods of your friends’ lives during which it will be easier and harder for them to be a good friend to you — but don’t give up on the friendship. This is a hard one; I’ve been there. But all relationships have periods of push and pull, of needing to be held and doing the holding oneself. The hope is that a healthy, enduring relationship will pay real dividends — not in a transactional way, like you’ll get this percentage of return on your investment, but in terms of trust, and intimacy, and care. That doesn’t mean making yourself the Giving Tree or putting up with unending extractive bullshit. But it does mean understanding the constrictions on their ability to be always be the exact sort of friend that they once were.
If you want to be a constant in their kids’ life: put in the time and be consistent. Don’t be the flaky uncle who shows up and riles the kids up and peaces out after 30 minutes. Don’t send a gift a year without asking what the kid is even into. Do talk to the kid as if they are a person with opinions and interests, which they really do start having at around age 2.5. Have conversations about how and when you could spend time with a kid one-on-one, even if it’s just hanging out in the living room while your friend takes a lap around the block or sneaks a nap in the other room.
Be clear about your availability to the kid themselves. If they’re young, tell them that they’re important to you and you will always be there for them. Facetime them knock-knock jokes. If they’re older, they can text from their school tablets, and trust me when I say their emoji game is unrivaled. Again, listen to them, even when it’s hilariously boring, and let them decide what you should do together.
If your friends have just had a baby: they don’t need help with the baby; they need help with the rest of their lives. This is the time to leave the bag of groceries on their stoop, to show up and clean the kitchen while they shower, to take their car to get the oil changed. Offer very specific ways that you will help and when you will be there to do it, because they are too exhausted to schedule anything or even imagine what they need.
If your friends have a baby over six months: understand that schedule is the way that a lot of parents keep their lives at an even keel, and deviating from that schedule can often feel like it’s inviting far more disaster than it’s worth. Have an explicit conversation about the rhythms of the schedule and how you can figure out times to be together that work for both of your schedules. If the kid naps on walks, can you walk together? If the baby goes to bed at 7 pm, can you come over afterwards and have a glass of wine? If you’re planning an event, have you thought about whether there’s space for a toddler to walk around without breaking everything in sight — or if there’s a private place to nurse or pump?
If it feels like your friend only talks about their kids, that’s because they spend a lot of time thinking about their kids. Come up with ways to help decenter the conversation. Bring over clothes that you want to try on and collectively decide if they’re cute or not. Look at ridiculous Zillow listings. Watch TikTok together. Decide that you’re both going to watch the same dumb show or game and live text your reactions to each other.
If you feel like your parent friends are so busy that they can’t help you if you reach out: ask anyway. Far more often than not, they will make it work. If you need a ride home from that medical procedure, ask them ahead of time about scheduling availability, and they will make it work. If you need someone to come over and help you move something, be very clear that this matters and would be a big favor and has been a real struggle for you, and they will make it work. If you have a performance or event and it would mean so much for your friend to be there, communicate that very clearly, without hedging. You are their friend and you matter.
Understand that even though it’s annoying when parents assume your life is completely flexible, you do have more flexibility than pretty much all parents. Sometimes showing up for my parent friends means I can’t have the routine that I like to unwind, or that I eat dinner at 5 pm. You can maintain some of your own boundaries and preferences while also knowing when and how to bend them.
6.) Friendship, care, and community-building is periodically no fun at all. It’s un-optimizable. You can’t put it in your resume. You can’t buy it, or hack it, or fast-track it. But its value is beyond measure.
Friendship means sometimes doing things that are tedious, or gross, or not what you’d like to spend your Sunday afternoon doing, because we all, at some point, need help with things that are tedious, and gross, and that we ourselves would rather not spend a Sunday afternoon doing. There are also very fun ways that we care for each other. But it's a real weave. The good and the bad, the joyful and the slog, the visible and invisible — these are the ways we care for each other. This is how we re-learn how to place just as much value in the well-being of the whole as we place on the well-being of the individual. This is how we fall asleep less afraid and wake up more rested. Not because we did everything perfectly, or have the right degrees, or checked the right boxes. Just because we're here — with and for each other.