As a person who “has kids,” I try to avoid certain, easily avoidable cliches and other annoying behavior. For example, while having a child has changed my life, I do not assume that it is the Most Life Changing Thing that Can Happen to Anyone Ever, nor do I consider myself or my husband more important than other people, simply because we are parents. I do not expect special treatment, on an airplane, in a grocery line, or anywhere else simply because I have a toddler on my hip. I WILL apologize if my kid is being loud or walks directly in front of someone. (I GET the whole “kids are kids, we were all kids, we shouldn’t have to apologize for them” mentality, however, I AM AN ADULT, and I can recognize inconsiderate behavior as such, and then apologize for it on my kid’s behalf.)
Essentially, when I talk to a person who doesn’t have kids (people in their 20s don’t count, and people in their 30s count, but to a lesser degree than those 40 and up, as the list below could be in the present tense), I try to assume two things simultaneously:
1. They wanted terribly to have kids and they tried and it just didn’t work out.
2. They never wanted children, ever, and always knew it.
Keeping these two things in mind at the same time is a bit of a mindfuck, and probably results in some garbled sentences on my end as I wrestle with the right way to phrase something.
So, Julia, my question for you today is: What can people who have children do to make the world easier for people who don’t, in general AND in conversation? Is it okay for me to tell stories about how delightful she is? Can I talk about how f**king tired I am? (I TRY to do it in a way that doesn’t assume parental tiredness is somehow closer to pure martyrdom than non-parental.) Is it okay that my husband sometimes posts multiple pictures a day of my kid on social media, or should I talk to him about it?
I’m so glad we’re finally getting to do this, although as a childless fortysomething woman in a child-obsessed culture, I’m deeply offended that you would even broach this topic with me.
I’m actually really glad you asked, because I often feel lost, too, in trying to navigate the world as a childless person. As much as you don’t know how to act toward people without kids, I often don’t know how to respond to the constant inquiry into my procreation status.
Which brings me to your two assumptions, which are thoughtful, but also problematic as they leave out a lot of grey area. See, some of us without children are conflicted. Some sort of wanted kids but when it didn’t happen, they accepted it. Some were brought to their knees by the impact of infertility. That makes it tricky for you as an Obviously Thoughtful Person. (Henceforth known as an OTP, which sounds a lot like a Scientology status that Tom Cruise has already achieved and we never, ever will. I assure you it is not.)
I live in that grey area. Which takes us back to my not knowing how to respond to questions about my lack of offspring. What do I do? Let people look at me with their pitying gazes? Or deliver my honest answer which is pretty long and boring and would be something like this: “Well, when I was younger, I was recovering from addiction and carried a lot of shame and assumed I’d be a lousy parent and didn’t wanna do that to a kid and then by the time I felt grown and mature enough and decided I would be a good parent after all, I was 39 and my body wouldn’t cooperate and even though there were heroic and unbelievably expensive lengths to which we could have gone to force nature’s hand, and while it was the most difficult, painful decision of my life, we ultimately determined we weren’t those people and that we would think about other ways in our lives in which we could parent, not ruling out fostering or adopting at some point, and some days I feel really at peace with that and other days I feel full of self-pity and regret. But I really, really don’t want you feeling sorry for me, so I’m going to play it off like it’s not that big a deal. Thanks for asking!”
At which point the person asking the question has keeled over from boredom.
In other words, it’s just too complicated for you or anyone other OTP to be able to reasonably assume why anyone doesn’t have children, as kind as that instinct is. And, on a bigger level, it’s not your job to make the world easier for people who don’t have children. It’s our job to learn how to navigate a procreation-focused society. That might be cruel and unfair, but people have all kinds of challenges in life and I’m a firm believer that we’re responsible for taking care of ourselves and our own situations.
But while it’s not your job to cater to us, at the same time, I’m so, so incredibly grateful for your sensitivity and caring. I love that you’re not so blinded by your own ability to bear fruit that you can’t see how it might be difficult for someone to care about it. I feel really good about the fact that someone as empathetic as you is out there raising children. It gives us all hope.
Thus, you can and should talk about anything you want…but your instinct to curb long child-focused diatribes around childless folk is right on. But that’s less about your knowing what I’m going through and more about conversational courtesy.
To wit, as I mentioned, I’m a recovering alcoholic. It’s a central fact of my life and one of the things I’m most proud of. Contrary to what many non-addicts think, my recovery affects all aspects of my life. So I find myself talking about it a lot, even when that’s not the direct topic at hand – which can get tricky with people outside the recovery community. Their faces go blank. They get squirmy. (I promise you, my admission of addiction is much more uncomfortable to you than it is to me.)
What, then, do I do? Not talk about it? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I decided that’s just not an authentic representation of who I am, just as consciously avoiding talking about your children is not an authentic representation of who you are. But I do try to be alert to the reaction of my listeners, their degree of openness and level of interest, all the while bearing in mind this truth: my recovery is just not nearly as interesting to those who have not experienced it as it is to those who have.
Similarly, I have friends who cannot stop talking about their children, as though there is nothing else to their lives. I object to this not because I can’t have my own, but because it’s boring as fuck.
I’ve been sitting on this, and I think I know why. Because what I wanted was a bulletpointed list of what exactly I should and should not be doing to offend people. And I, of course, see how this is 1) impossible, and 2) contrary to everything I love about this blog, where I like to invite ladies to be nice and supportive to me and each other and, you know, tout the sisterhood in general. The tone of this blog is, I hope, very much the tone of your email, which is to say: Let’s all just assume everyone’s trying their best and go from there.
So, keeping all this in mind, and then putting a fine point on the fact that I am ASKING for annoying parental behaviors (like, for example, asking a childless person to speak on behalf of ALL childless people), I’ll just say, if you have a list or could quickly come up with one, please do, as I think it might be for the Greater Good. (We parent-types have an Official List of Annoying Behaviors Exhibited by Those without Children, including — and I am not really supposed to share this with you, but in the interest of a free market, here goes — sleeping ALL THE DAMN TIME, going to movies WHENEVS, and not smiling admiringly when you are within earshot of my kid doing something I deem adorable.)
Or we can just open it up to the comments.
- Don’t dismiss out of hand our opinions about child-rearing. True, we do not have first-hand experience, and we cannot possibly guess what that parent-child relationship is truly like…but we were children once, and we had parents. We are not without agency in this arena. We occupy the world in which your children live and operate. In some ways, that gives our thoughts extra weight, unburdened as they are by any protective bias.
- We wanna hear about your life, and we know that includes your kids. But be mindful of how much you talk about your children. I joked before about how it’s simply boring to some of us, but it’s also deeply painful to others, a constant reminder of what isn’t. You don’t have to read our minds or be prepared to accommodate the deepest corners of our bruised psyches. Just be sensitive to our responses. People who don’t want to talk about kids will change the subject. Consider being open to that.
- You know how some dog owners think it’s absolutely adorable that their dog spends dinner under the table with his nose in your crotch? A lot of parents seem to have lost perspective about how their kids’ behavior may be off-putting to others. This area seems like a minefield to me. I’ve tried bringing it up on occasion, but it never comes across as anything other than an indictment of the person’s parenting. I don’t even know if what I’m suggesting is possible for a parent – but try, just for a second, to see your child through your friends’ eyes and perhaps be willing to intervene if necessary.
- Here’s a toughie, and one that probably just makes me sound like a dick: I’m not your kid’s playmate. I’m your friend. I get invited over to a friend’s house and once there it seems I’m expected to entertain the kids, get up from the dinner table to play a round of Chutes & Ladders. Or we meet at a restaurant and I’m seated between your children and expected to pull funny faces for two hours. Um, in short: no.
- Some of us adore children and want you to disregard all of the above suggestions. So don’t lump all childless folk together. Let us set the tone, and follow that lead. If we gleefully jump up from the table to roll around with little Britney-Madison, then clearly we don’t mind. If you sense hesitation or reluctance, then throw yourself between me and your child as if she were a hand grenade. My general sense is that the more people understand I’m not automatically in love with their children and all their quirks, the more I tend to like and be interested in those children. Ironic, no? But then I suspect parenting is chock-full of ironies.
Yes, I am happy now. Thank you!
Julia Smillie is a writer and editor living in Ann Arbor, MI. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and is currently at work finishing her first novel. You can read more of her writing and laugh about how rarely she updates her blog at readjulia.com.