The incredible Tammy O. brought up something very powerful in the comments section a few days ago when discussing how people with kids treat those without. In fact, I’d go further: besides issues dealing with race and homophobia, I don’t think there’s a bigger chasm in America than the one between The Voluntarily Childless and The Breeders.
Having been both, I feel qualified to make the following sweeping generalizations:
• Neither the Voluntarily Childless nor The Breeders have any idea what the other is all about. Those without kids look at parents of small children and assume they’ve taken some horrible drug that has made them humorless, gossipy, overly precious, uncurious, unadventurous, haggard, whiny shut-ins. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, we used to speak of “those with children” like they had some kind of incurable disease certain to doom the friendship.
Likewise, parents look at their friends without kids and see them as enduring lives half-lived; as vaguely self-absorbed dilettantes overly concerned with their lifestyle, endlessly traveling and doing far too much drinking, still living the catch-as-catch-can in apartments that still have the faint smell of college.
In other words, most parents have completely forgotten what they, themselves, were like only six or seven years before – and those opting out of childbearing look at formerly close friends as though they’ve completely fucking lost their minds.
• Parents are frequently guilty as charged. If your childless friends secretly think you’ve given up on embracing the larger world, it’s most likely because you have. Having a kid means often being stuck in your house, but many parents find that’s the excuse they’ve been looking for their entire lives. You can get out of anything if you’re a parent; simply start a sentence with “My kid blah blah blah” and everyone’s eyes start to glaze over, and they can’t get rid of you quick enough.
It’s true that parenting is hard, and you need to possess an inordinate amount of energy if you’re going to raise a child and still raise hell, but it’s also true that many parents simply shut down vast quadrants of their lives, and a few great things get thrown out with the bathwater.
• The Voluntarily Childless don’t owe you an explanation, even though they frequently give one anyway. If you’re a healthy young woman under the age of 43 – or better yet, also married/partnered with someone else – America demands to know when you’re going to squeeze out a yard monster. If you’ve made the decision to not have children, there’s always the tiniest tinge of judgment.
The pressure and expectation of breeding is so great that two things invariably happen: first off, the childless woman is forced to have a well-rehearsed dictum, strategically phrased in a way to get you off their back as gently and quickly as possible. The other is this – because having kids is so assumed, you can also assume that the woman who decides not to have kids has given it more thought than you can imagine.
• Annoying Breeders actually mean well. Even though they can be ham-fisted about it, the reason parents want their childless friends to have kids is mostly innocent. They just want companionship on the ride, brotherhood in the experience, a shared sense of the journey. They don’t want to be parents alone. It’s the same reason people who get married want their friends to get married too: they’re saying “please don’t make me do this by myself!”
Also, if I’ve ever told you that you ought to have kids, it’s likely because I think you’d make a fantastic mom and dad, and the world needs you. But I can be rather sentimental, magnanimous and prolix after a few drams.
• The Voluntarily Childless don’t mention their pets because they have no perspective, they do it because they’re trying to relate. When parents tell a story or a situation about their child to a person without kids, you’d be surprised how many times the childless person will bring up a similar story about their pets. Parents find this endlessly inapt, partially because they’ve forgotten what pets used to mean to them. But mostly, parents should be thankful someone sat through their fuckin’ stories in the first place.
• For the most part, parents in our generation aren’t driven by reflected glory, they’re trying to fix something long broken. You’d think those of us in Gen X (if you don’t mind me using the term) would’ve remembered to be cool, even in the throes of parenthood. You’d think we spent enough time outside the mainstream, cynically looking in on all brotherhoods and idealism, and mistrusting them completely, to buy into Babies ‘R’ Us.
But there is one element stronger than disdain, and that is redemption. Lots of us came from broken families with horrible divorces, parents who were distracted or absent, growing up in schools that hadn’t yet fully learned the lessons of Waldorf, Reggio, Montessori or Columbine. I know many of my peers decided their childhood was free but shitty, and they were bloody well going to make their kids’ childhood safe and fun. We were going to be present. Problem is, that is tiring.
The Breeders and The Voluntarily Childless just need to keep their perspective limber. Everyone is doing the best they can with the path they’ve chosen. Do I think being a Daddo is the best job I’ve ever had? Yes. Is our daughter the absolute best thing in our lives? Yes. Is every second, even the miserable ones, totally worth it? Yes! Is it for everybody? Nope.