By Christina Gombar
When I was growing up in the 70s, the progressive view held that a person could live a rich, rewarding life full of close bonds, even if she didn't have kids. On prime-time Saturday nights, Mary and Rhoda in their studio singles apartments, Bob and Emily in their Chicago high rise mingled happily with friends and co-workers who were parents, and were accepted as equals despite their childless status.
I am an unintentionally childless woman, and I have grown up to a rich and rewarding life, with one caveat: I wasn't prepared for the social stigma and isolation of living as a non-Mom in the midst of the biggest baby boom since World War II.
My suburban childhood friends began having children in their mid-twenties. I lived in New York City, and on weekends home I was more than willing to celebrate their family lives. But as the years rolled on, and I failed to produce children of my own, I was gradually excluded. I was invited to their first child's christening, not the second's. They were always taking the kids to see Grandma, or to another child's birthday party; mere friends were bumped off their social radar screens. The family-both nuclear and extended--closed ranks, excluding outsiders.
Worse, when my city girlfriends started having babies and did include me, I was reduced to the role of handmaiden, exactly as if I were just another of their housekeepers, secretaries, or nannies. Only unlike the other members of their support staff, I wasn't on salary. It was painful when some of my friendships with Moms ended, but at a distance of ten years, I see this as inevitable. Parents need an enormous amount of practical and emotional support, but are no longer in a position to provide what they demand.
If you're happy being a planet orbiting around someone else's sun, good for you. But I find one-sided friendships as rewarding as unrequited love affairs, and as healthy. To me friendship is like a Siamese twin: the life blood must circulate through both bodies. When the spirit of one twin departs, the furiously working heart of the surviving twin cannot do all the work of keeping the other half alive; the joint life-force dies.
I'm not alone in noting the effects of the Great Mother Divide. In her 2009 book, Silent Sorority: A (Barren) Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost and Found (winner of the 2010 Hope Award for Best Book from RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association) Pamela Tsigdinos recounts a problematic lunch with a friend who went on to have three children while the author remained childless, despite extensive fertility treatments. After admitting her alienation at an exclusively child-centered chat, her Mom-friend asked, "Are you telling me I have to edit out large chunks of my life from now on when we talk?"
Tsigdinos suggested, "Let's just try to pattern-match our conversation a bit."
Despite vows to try to keep their connection afloat, Tsigdinos and her Mom friends continued to drift apart. "Phone calls became less regular. The urgency to schedule visits evaporated. "They didn't know how to relate to me." She and her husband grew "accustomed to broken plans or being put on the bench because the needs of our family and friends' kids, naturally, came first."
Tsigdinos's solution to "the mother divide" was creating her own international community of non-Mom friends through her blog, Coming2Terms. "We don't have to explain ourselves; we just fundamentally get each other. My story is her story and her story is my story and collectively we're writing the sequel. I hear from women in Finland, Rhode Island, Australia, Oklahoma, Ireland, Canada, and in my own back yard. New friendships are born."
Therapist Stephanie Baffone counsels women who exit the fertility treatment maze empty handed into a world of mothers. "Finding a way to negotiate friendships in the face of the 'great divide' is crucial. When friends cross over to join the ranks of motherhood, and the infertile patient is left behind to languish alone on the sidelines, friendships often become strained. Bad enough our bodies have levied against us the ultimate betrayal, but it goes from insult to injury when friendships reach this fork in the road, and the Moms saunter down a road without a backward glance."
Baffone herself wound up childless after failed fertility treatments, and personally closed "the mother divide" by plunging into the lives of her family and friends. "Once I was able to accept that I probably would never be a Mom myself, I began to look for ways I could be proactive in closing the gap, which included regular family dinners, holiday scavenger hunts. It's been so long since I struggled with friendships, it's hard for me to tap into that part of my life now."
But Baffone stresses that this is simply what worked for her, not a one-size fits all solution. Tsigdinos hasn't given up on friendships with Moms, but recently noted on her blog, "The gap isn't easy to bridge. It requires commitment by both parties, and not always being asked to accommodate the mom life."
I second that. Because we childless are a minority, social etiquette hardly gives us a thought. My friend Yvonne relates, "My husband and I were honored to be invited to the home of a co-worker. But my colleague was so besotted with her infant son, so completely absorbed by him during the entirety of our visit with the most embarrassing display of non-inclusive public displays of affection (PDA), I wondered why they had us over at all."
While co-hosting a party in honor of my 90-year old aunt, a Mom immediately handed me her child's computer and commanded me to read a book report and ten page "short" story. Why she felt it appropriate to ask me to take 20 minutes away from entertaining my guests to read anything off of a computer is beyond me, but she was blissfully unaware that this social event wasn't about her child.
So how can parents tell when enough kid-focus is enough? Says Pamela Tsigdinos: "When you see their eyes glaze over."
Christina Gombar is an award-winning author who writes often on childlessness at www.ChristinaGombar.com.