“My kids keep me young” - a comment I have often heard from parents. It is a comment that makes me cringe, that smug implication that a parent is by definition more youthful than me, that assumption that I am old before my time, that I can't relate to the youth of today, because I am not a parent. It’s a comment we have probably all heard, and I know that those of us without kids have often wondered, and sometimes blogged, whether not having kids has either prematurely aged us, or at least prevented us from keeping up with "kids these days."
As I mentioned in a previous post, over the last month or two I have had my 21 year old niece (and her cousin who is around the same age), staying with us for a few days here, a few days there, as she’s been exploring the country of her birth. We’ve always been close, and can pretty much talk about anything. So having her in the country for so long has been a joy to me.
I was thinking about our relationship, and realised that maybe I am able to relate to her in ways the mothers of my generation* might not be able to relate to their daughters, simply because they have that generational mother-daughter relationship, a relationship full of responsibility, of power and authority (whether intentional or not), of duty and guilt, of role behaviours, of punishment and reward. Whereas our relationship is, I like to think, much more that of two people who have decided they like each other. We don't slot into generational roles. We talk openly about life and aspirations, and about things that she feels unable to share with her parents. Seeing her off at the airport the other day, I joked about “our generation.” And she corrected me –whilst I’m the same generation as her parents, she doesn't include us in the generational stereotypes she applies to her parents. She feels we understand her and, I think, the world she lives in. (Which is not to say she doesn't think we're ancient! She is 21 after all.) Or at least, I think she feels we make an effort to understand her. And she knows I don’t have any judgements or expectations of her behaviour, and that I’m there for her, to support her, in whatever she decides to do in the future. All I want for her is for her to be happy. I don’t have any “standards of success” she has to live up to. She doesn’t have to worry about disappointing me, in the way she might fear disappointing her parents. Our relationship simply doesn't have that "parent filter." And so it feels more equal. Age doesn't come into it.
And when I think about my own lifestyle, without children, I realise that I don’t live my life any differently now than when I did when I was 30. We keep up with technology because it is something my husband and I are interested in. And we don’t have children to rely on to reprogramme the TV, or fix the laptop, or set up the iPad, like some of my friends whose knowledge of technology has stalled since they had children. We have to do it ourselves, or not at all. And “not at all” is not an option for us. Likewise we stay aware of modern music – I work out at a gym and see the music videos on the big screen as I sweat; we keep up with all the modern movies and TV programmes (OK, we might not have known who Shaun the Sheep was until my sister/niece introduced us, but I can live with that as I chuckle away at Glee or The Big Bang Theory); and we try to remain very aware of the world. It is an attitudinal thing – not having children has nothing to do with staying current, being aware of modern society, or enthusiastically embracing new technology. In fact, not having children is a great motivator to stay current. Because if we don't, we have no-one to drag us back into the 21st century.
But having a 21 year old around has also made me feel very old. Explaining (as I mentioned in a previous post) to her that 1998 was not the dark ages in terms of social policy, and trying to get her to understand that in many ways I fear that young woman have less freedom now than I did in the 1980s or 90s, has made me feel positively ancient. Try telling a 21 year old that 15 years is not a long time, let alone getting her to understand that the 1980s were relatively recent! I've felt very middle-aged; I feel as if I’ve aged 10 years in just the last two weeks. In ways, it has been a rude awakening. Is this how my friends with kids feel? Without children around, I don’t have that constant reminder that I am no longer young (until I look in the mirror, that is). I don’t have the label “mother of adult children” or even scarier, “grandmother” as some of my circle have already. I don’t look at my children and remember them as babies or their first day of school, and feel the intervening years. I don't feel the passing of time in that way. I just feel the way I feel, as old or as young as I feel on any given day. I feel just like I did when I was 30. And that is quite liberating.
* I know this is a gross generalisation, and I can think of at least one friend (also a blog reader) who seems to have a very candid relationship with her daughter (of the same age as my niece).