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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cast-Offs: The Strange World of the Married without Children

Last year about this time I wrote of the common misconceptions made about those who have not conceived, whether by chance or by choice. The response to that piece has been and continues to be overwhelming - from both friends and family who are squarely on the baby bandwagon, and those who for various reasons are not. The discussions reached a fever pitch this year with the release of Jennifer Westfeldt's motion picture, "Friends with Kids,"a relationship piece that put the breeding wars front and center. This year also marked my tenth wedding anniversary and my fortieth birthday, two milestone events that force an appraisal of your life whether you want to or not. Well, I'm happy to report that the state of our union is good, very good, except for the one thing that's missing - our friends!

What? You thought I was going to say a child, didn't you? But, no, we've got plenty of children - nephews and the children of our friends who have become like our nieces and nephews, thus significantly expanding the kiddie pool. We have friends who have successfully adopted, and others who are still waiting, but hopeful. And there are even friends who've been paid surprise visits by the Stork, well after they had given away the last of the onesies and forgotten how to work the breast pump. It would seem our life is teeming with children, but not our friends.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, we get to experience the daily highs and lows of our friends and their families. We see happy babies on bouncies, 8-year-olds in their baseball uniforms, and a tutu or two on precious little ballerinas. We hear about scouting trips and epic Girl Scout Cookie sales figures to rival Mrs. Fields. Our more tech-savvy friends get us breaking news live Tweets from the scene of paint-peeling toddler temper tantrums and showdowns in the Babies R Us parking lot with suv-driving SOBs who almost mow them down while they and their little one are attempting to walk to their car. But that's all we get.

Somewhere between labor and delivery to high school graduation (and sometimes beyond), we got cast aside. Now, to be fair, it's been well-documented that parenting comes with all sorts of trade-offs and compromises - time, sleep, you know the drill, and I know the drill because I hear about it...a lot. My husband and I would be the super-understanding couple when our new-parent friends would cancel plans/not call/not invite us to their children's birthday parties. "No problem," we'd reply, "Of course it's ok." The problem, though, is that once your friends go from new-parent to just parent, the excuses don't stop, and soon, your parent-friends are friends with other parents and not you.

There was one parent couple who were always busy with their kids' merciless, and bottomless, schedule of team sport practices, games, recitals, sleepovers, camping trips, etc, ad nauseum. If we wanted to see them, we had to contact them months in advance, and even then, those plans could be changed on a dime if there was a last-minute scheduling oversight or the sniffles. We issued our standard, "no problem," but then we found out that our superbusy parent friends were apparently NOT too busy for the parents of their children's classmates/teammates. We felt betrayed, like a jealous lover thrown over for some shiny, new thing. These were our friends, in whom we confided our thoughts and feelings, with whom we'd shared meals and memories, and to whom we'd given an abundance of benefit of the doubt.  We had been moved from the A-list to the D-list on the friendship scale!

I know this isn't high school, but it certainly has the stink of high school where friendships are based on the "are you like me" index. I may not know the name of a good lactation consultant, but is that the ONLY thing two people can discuss?

So what are my options? Well, there aren't as many as you would imagine. While we do know couples who are child-less and child-free, most keep their schedules chock-a-block full, with every moment budgeted for work, volunteering, and travel. These couples are the ones who chair church committees and tirelessly perform community service (non-court ordered, I should add!!). They are on the boards of nonprofits and sing in community choirs. They have annual theatre subscriptions and love attending concerts by the local symphony orchestra, and, odds are that they've eaten at that hip new restaurant well before Yelp/Urbanspoon/Zagat has rated it. The reasons for the packed dancecard vary - for most it's a genuine interest in new experiences, but for some, there's a bit of wanting to avoid looking like they're bored or unhappy waiting for their parent-friends to call. Whatever the case, apparently our public relations masterplan has worked, because our parent-friends believe that they're doing us a favor by not calling!

Think about this, when that rare parent-friend does call or email (unprompted), what's the the thing they all say within the first 60 seconds/10 words? Is it something like "Wow, you guys are so busy!"?? 

Don't fall for it - it's a trap!

Implied in that statement is this: We would call you more often, but we figured since you're so busy it wouldn't matter if we called, so we don't. Get it?? It's YOUR fault that your parent-friends aren't calling. But it's not your fault, they simply don't want to be your friends anymore.

Sounds harsh? Well, it's time for some tough love. As selfless and sacrificing as parents are called to be in their role of unpaid caregiver, parenting is an extremely selfish endeavor. Parents move heaven and earth for their children and their family unit. Whatever resource they have - of time, effort, money, etc. - is used up in the service of their individual family. If there is a remainder, it must be fed back to the family unit. Society expects this, hell, society demands this. The definition of a "good parent" leaves no margin for friendships that don't do double-duty. If you're a good parent, you expose your children to numerous opportunities for enrichment - sports, music, nature, art, foreign languages, religious instruction. So you develop friendships of survival and convenience with the other moms and dads whose children are also involved in the same sports, music, nature, art, foreign language, religious instruction enrichment opportunities as your children. It's not long before the mom who your child carpools with after softball practice becomes your friend, and soon you're both sitting in the stands, swapping recipes and exchanging thoughts on the latest gossip surrounding the new ball field upgrade. And while it's great that you're making friends with a fellow traveler on your parenthood path, you're also leaving behind a friend, and a new cast-off is born. And worst of all is that you justify it by saying to yourself, "well, she's SO busy all the time, I'm sure she's got lots to do."

Here's the thing - a packed to-do list can't replace a friendship that's taken years to develop and nurture.

So what can be done? Maybe we need to go a bit "old school" with our notions of parenting and friendship. Growing up, my mom's closest friends were a mix of single, married without children, and empty-nester. When Mom wanted to see her friends, she'd pack us in the car and over to their homes we would go. My sister and I would sit reading a book or watching TV while Mom caught up with her friends. These women became my Aunties and they've remained important in my mom's life as well as the life of our family. Their enduring friendship is the model for my own friendships where the line of demarcation is not drawn at the car-seat, well, at least not by me.

I'm just saying.