A few weeks ago my 25-year-old daughter mentioned that the first of her friends was pregnant. "It's weird," she said. To which I replied, "I know. In my experience, having a friend get pregnant was much more disruptive to the friendship than having one get married."
I was reminded of that conversation when I saw the new movie Friends With Kids. Charming as it is, I was disappointed that the movie didn't really address the stresses between friends who never have kids and those who do. I have been both.
For the first 20 years of my marriage -- until I was into my 40s -- I was the one who dreaded being handed a baby and tuned out baby talk. My friends and I managed to find neutral territory; since most of them went to work, we could meet for lunch and we had other things to talk about besides the kids. What was going on with their children was of interest to me only to the extent that it was going on for my friend. But it wasn't the same for either of us. Others simply disappeared from my life -- for a time at least.
Then I became the friend with kids to my friends without and got the other side of the picture. I bugged my parent-friends for advice, but babies were so long in their past that they often couldn't remember what to do. I felt unappreciated by my childless friends, who didn't seem to be paying attention to such a meaningful and stressful change in my life. I finally understood why a father-friend of ours was so outraged when, in our childless phase, my husband said he was getting interested in "having the experience" of parenting. As if that even began to describe it.
Of my many close and long-time friends who never had children, I don't know how many would have liked to had things turned out differently or weren't able to, and how many would say it was a choice. Now we are all past the child-rearing days (though the parenting goes on forever) and I am wondering how it is for those who have no children at our age. And why we have never discussed it.
Several have built intimate and binding relationships with nieces and nephews, and have played significant roles in their upbringing -- including putting them up for periods of time and regularly spending one-on-one time together. Those precious connections with the future are clearly nurturing and fulfilling to my friends. Those friends always ask about my kids.
Others have made that kind of connection by serious commitments to mentoring younger people -- either in life or work -- and becoming immersed in their day-to-day experiences. They talk with pride and passion about those relationships.
Some appear to have simply opted out of the experience altogether; their attention and affection and desire to "give back" is directed horizontally -- to meaningful projects, politics, and devotion to partners and special friendships. When we are together, they never ask about my kids.
One of them has paid a price for her choice; her sister, with whom she was very close growing up, has become resentful of a lifestyle that she sees as a rebuke to hers. I am sure there are many instances like this, of unspoken disapproval -- as if the childless (some say "childfree") were being "selfish."
Jennifer Westfeldt, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie Friends With Kids, has none of her own (with long-term partner Jon Hamm); she is struggling to sort out the expectations -- hers and others -- as her biological clock continues ticking. "I keep feeling like I'd wake up with absolute clarity and I haven't," she told The New York Times. "We have a pretty great life together. The chance that we'll regret it doesn't seem like a compelling enough reason to do it."
I appreciate her honesty about the mixed motives we all wrestle with. She is right that there is no way to predict how you will feel about the way your life turned out by the time you are in your 60s; I certainly can't say what combination of choice and circumstance led to my having kids. I'm sure my friends couldn't either. Still, I wish I knew more about how they feel about having skipped that particular experience -- and why we haven't talked about it in all these years.