As I get older, I notice the inevitable growing space between those of us without kids and those of us with them.
I find myself drawn more and more to commentary written by childfree* adults, and curious about experiences of other childfree people as I move closer to 40 and away from 30 years old.
I see many new mums around me doing the same, looking for role-models, advice and connection via books and commentary created by other parents- parents they want to be like.
We’re all trying to find where we fit again, looking for our tribe that has suddenly been invaded by enormous changes. It’s a challenging, amazing and curious time.
As a counsellor however, I am privileged to be invited to sit with a great diversity of people- in virtual spaces as well as in person- in their most complex and authentic realities, and it’s apparent that this is also a time when we begin the real job of ‘Faking It’.
We tend to accuse the younger generations of being the Masters of Faking with Instagram accounts and FB pages filled with selfies and hedonistic photographic narratives, but in my experience we really start faking it a lot more in our 30’s and beyond. The need to appear like our lives are just how we wanted them, visions of perfection, is overwhelming.
I imagine this is partially because the reality hits that life is finite. Some of these decisions- like having or not having children- will determine the course our lives take forever. We’ll never know what it’s like to have gone down ‘another path’, and so we have to roll along the path we are on and find a way to be content with it. That can be a struggle for any of us at any time.
Or if you’d care to indulge a social justice perspective, you could also mention the dominant narrative of what makes a human a ‘Success’ that is created and supported by corporate advertising, greed and a financial investment in communities of loneliness ruins our relationships every single day.
Governments prefer squabbling, paralysed humans who are silenced by the fear of not being ‘good enough’ or are so busy in-fighting within our insular communities we don’t have time to band together and stand up for what really matters.
Being radical and taking a stand against Faking It and attempted paralysation doesn’t have to mean standing on the tallest mountain and shouting through a megaphone…
It may stem from something little… like becoming involved in a kinda raw conversation on a FB wall after I posted this quote, which went a little bit like this :
Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile — apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose — then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose. (Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision not to have Kids compiled by Meaghan Daum)
I don’t experience many people openly judging that my life is less meaningful than theirs. I like to think most people in my life agree that we’ve just made different choices.
But what I do experience is some kind of misplaced concern… Like they’re wondering what I’m doing with my life, or they’re ‘worried’ about me because I appear ‘unsettled’ to them. The implication being that to be ‘settled’ you have to find ‘the one’, buy a house, stay in the same job and raise children. Then you will be fulfilled and life will have ‘meaning’. You can see them thinking: what is your life (or your relationship) about if you don’t do that?
A friend replied:
As a parent, I’m sure you will agree I don’t fall into the category of the judgemental type, But just wanted to say that once you have a child it becomes hard to simply connect with who you are, or were, before children. It is really important to me to try to maintain my individuality as this fulfills and empowers me. But also I think it is important to impart this to my daughter, to see her mother being a strong and unique individual. It’s ok to be different and to go out and enjoy life with and without your children or partner.
And so I respect and even envy you for the freedom that you have. Because every single decision I make involves myself and my child, I cannot separate that. And that is fine and beautiful and I love it. But there is definitely nothing wrong or weird or challenging to me about someone that is happy to forgo kids! It doesn’t make my life more meaningful, it makes me think more possibly about decisions I make. But I would hope my life would be just as meaningful without.
I can already see the faces of some parents, knowing that I’ll never understand the feelings they get from connection with their children. And that is true. But I also think parents don’t understand the feelings I get from all the things I do in the world. Usually they’re picturing their pre-children life when they’re imagining my life, which isn’t actually accurate.
If you’ve always wanted kids- or even if you haven’t- very few people have ever really tried to picture a future where you don’t have them. So of course, when you do have kids, that’s meaningful. You have fulfilled something that you’ve always pictured (even if it’s way harder than you thought). You don’t know what it’s really like to have other, rich, solid meaningful pictures of a future. Other things that truly give your life meaning and fullness. So it’s just different. You don’t know what a child-free life is like just because you once were.
I agree that our drivers, motivators and also responsibilities are different and it doesn’t mean that someone without children has less responsibility or doesn’t love someone unconditionally as a parent does their child. But there are also parents who abandon or abuse their children, who choose not to take on the responsibility with integrity and heart, and sad to say there are too many in the world.
“They” say there is nothing more challenging, heart breaking, empowering or fulfilling than parenting a child, but that is not necessarily true. It’s a hard debate as I only know what it’s like to be a parent and you only know what it’s like not to be.
We can only try to be open minded and non judgemental and have conversations like this to understand each other’s lives more fully.
This got me thinking: what would it be like if we genuinely sought to understand one another, rather than assume we know what the other’s experience is like?
From that position looking out, my guess is we all feel helpless at times.
The friend with the new baby or toddlers desperately wants to give her childfree friend the attention she used to, but she just doesn’t have the energy. The childfree friend desperately wants to help her exhausted mum friend, but doesn’t know what to do or how to do it in the most supportive way.
Both friends feel misunderstood and distant, but also hurt and confused. No one wants to bore the other one, and no one wants to feel like their life is less important than anyone else.
And underneath is another layer of truth: the childfree friend doesn’t really want to hang out with the baby all the time and wants her friend to herself; the mum friend really is resentful that the childfree friend isn’t helping and isn’t as interested in her life as she used to be.
Throw into the mix the childfree woman who would love to have a child but isn’t in the position, or is seeking a life partner and hasn’t met someone, and it’s painful for her to be around friends with babies. There’s a growing chasm between these two friends whom didn’t even need a bridge between them they used to be so close.
And what about your friend with children who is miserable with her partner, but terrified of admitting it, of what it means to even say out loud ‘I might be thinking about going solo?’
Didn’t things used to be easy between us?
As one friend put to me recently about what life has been like since having her first baby: ‘it’s all so ordinary, yet so extraordinary’. I’ve thought about that statement a lot. I cannot imagine what it feels like to experience the ordinary-extraordinariness of sharing your life with a vulnerable little someone you’ve created, or someone you’ve adopted into your life.
And perhaps the best thing I can offer her is my absolute rapt curiosity. My listening ear and open heart and understanding or striving to understand her experience.
But equally, she can offer me the same thing.
My life didn’t go into a state of arrested development the minute she had a baby. Her meaning-making is now wrapped around a little bundle of tears and joy (and lack of sleep), and her future no longer exists without him in it, just as my meaning-making and future-visioning and life-living are still growing and taking shape every day. We may not have a shared-life experience right now, but we are both striving to live the fullest life imaginable in our own ways.
I think the crucial thing that keeps the childfree community pretending that everything in life is 100% incrediliciously amazingly superwonderful without kids is the judgment from ‘society’. The moment you express sadness or loneliness or dissatisfaction, people leap to a conclusion that it’s because you are a ‘lost soul’ or a person without meaning, rather than someone who is just feeling lonely or frustrated with life right now.
Equally, the moment a woman questions her decision to have children, or wishes to dialogue openly about her struggles, she is pounded with unasked for advice, or leapt on as though she was waking up every day shouting in her children’s faces ‘I wish you were never born’.
No one wants to be pitied, and no one wants to be judged. And we’re all scared to be our REAL selves… because what if I open up that really dark cavern and I can’t close it again?
What if I do that and the other person doesn’t get me at all, doesn’t see me?
What if I admit my worst ever thoughts, the things I really want to change, the hardest deepest fears or hopes and she doesn’t go there with me?
How do I let someone know the times when I want to be embraced and indulged, and then the times when I want to hear something else… something along the lines of ‘I know, I’ve done that too, it doesn’t make me feel good… I wonder how we might do that differently next time?’ instead of ‘No! You’re perfect! Everything’s FINE. Here’s my advice…’
This mess prevents us from sharing genuinely.
More than anything, in counselling and groups I facilitate, people express the strongest desire to be able to really share with others, to give up the pretences and just BE. That’s why therapeutic groups can be so successful: humans in a safe space just being and taking care of each other, it’s beautiful and I’m lucky I get to be a part of those spaces alongside participants.
We are all responsible for how we contribute to ‘norming’, and we are all responsible for how we- even without meaning to- judge others.
So how do we create a space we can all go to seek and find authentic attempts at understanding, and build from there?
I know, it’s a lot easier said than done. We all fall into traps, into familiar ways of being with people even if those ways don’t necessarily serve either of us very well. We can feel anxious or scared about having our ‘realness’ used against us.
But it’s worth taking some time to reflect, and ask yourself some hard questions in the quest for real connections.
In fact the next time you are with someone who has made different choices from you- particularly if you are in a parent and childfree friendship- ask yourself:
- ‘Am I assuming that I understand this person when actually I may not?
- Am I judging this person, even though I didn’t mean to?
- Do I believe their life is less meaningful or less interesting than mine?
- Am I waiting for them to ‘do something’ with their lives when actually, right now, we are just both living and both of us can be admired and respected for our differences and don’t need similarities to connect?
- Can I believe that they are seeking meaning-making in ways that are different from me, and that’s ok?
- Can I put concerns aside and just be genuinely and totally curious about this person who I adore?
- Can I take what they say to me at face value and not inject my own meaning into their stories?
- Can I let down my guard safely and invite you to join me in a space of authenticity, even if just for 30 minutes, because I trust you and value you with my life and my heart…
Maybe it’s just taking that time to sloooooooow down, breathe, look at the person sitting across from them, listen, and believe that they will hold you as much as you want them to hold you.
*Childfree is being used as a collective to encompass all adults without children although it usually refers to those who don’t have children by choice. While I am aware that some people think of themselves as ‘childless’, or even ‘barren’ and yearn for a child they couldn’t have, I prefer the term ‘childfree’ in this context because I don’t think of people without children as ‘less’ no matter what the reason.
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