19 September, 2016

The pressure to find a substitute

Many people like to offer solutions to someone who expresses sadness. So when we might mention that we didn't choose not to have children, we get the standard suggestions, one of which is to work or volunteer with children - as if that is a suitable substitute. It will, at least, they think, keep us satisfied and most importantly, quiet!

Although I love interacting with my nieces and nephews on a one-to-one basis, being with children doesn't come naturally to me. My mother also was never very interested in other people's children, and by saying to me, "oh, it's different when they're your own," I think she gave me the confidence that I would have been a  loving parent, despite the fact that I was never very comfortable with many young children.

That gives me the freedom now to say that just because I wanted to be a parent, it doesn't translate that I'd be any good at volunteering with or working with children. Just as, on the other hand, there are also wonderful, talented, inspiring teachers/coaches/nurses who work daily with children, but who are perfectly happy not to have their own.

How do you feel when people say that we should volunteer or work with children?


  1. Like you, I have never been particularly comfortable around young children. Once they are capable of basic self-care (feeding themselves, dressing themselves, toileting independently, etc.) I enjoy them a bit more. I find babies to be quite boring. I really love teenagers and young adults though. I always worried that I wouldn't be good with my own kids, but like you, people reassured me that it's different when they are your own.

    I sort of find it insulting when people suggest that I volunteer with children. Don't get me wrong, I think that volunteering is awesome, but it's not the job of the childless to bear the responsibility of volunteerism (similarly, we aren't the solution to reducing the number of kids in foster care by being foster parents or adopting).

  2. I had a friend who knew about our infertile struggles and when she was pregnant herself said that I could babysit her baby as often as I liked. And she said it as if that would make me feel better. Another friend joked once that she could get pregnant again and give me her baby! People have strange ideas sometimes.

  3. I also received a suggestion to make myself feel better by babysitting my friends' children. No, thank you. I don't want to have any responsibility for someone else's children, and it has nothing to do with me being good with children or not. I am good with dogs and still don't like to pet sit. I am planning to volunteer with older people, though, because I feel they are often lonely, disabled and discarded by our society. Babies, on the other hand, receive plenty of attention even without my input.

  4. This post really resonates for me because really, I'm not a baby person, and not much of a kid person. I watch my sisters, who are, and feel very different. I think your mother was right.

    I would not like hearing that solution from others. It seems dismissive, like people just don't get it. Plus, as I said, for me it's not easy being around other people's kids.

  5. I think offering up substitutes is helpful when people are clearly seeking a substitute. I think if you want to volunteer or you're seeking out time with kids, it's a great thing. But your time is your time, and you should spend it in ways that resonate with you (and that you is a general you that applies to all of us), not following anyone else's idea of how a person should spend their time on this earth.

  6. It's so funny that people volunteer this advice when most also say "it's different with your own." The truth is it takes a special type of person to be comfortable around other people's children. It doesn't come naturally. I know for a fact that my tolerance for the Beats is much different then other's children. Part of it has to do with the fact there are those other parents in the picture. People don't take that into account because, really, it is about managing the parents.

    Huh, wonder how people would respond to their own advice? Would they take it or bow out?

  7. I agree with the commenters above. If you like children & want to volunteer with some children's groups, or babysit for your friends' kids, fine -- but it's not something that should be expected of us just because we're childless.

  8. This suggestion has nothing to do with empathy. People try to "fix a problem", which is not up to them.

    Actually, I had to avoid children for quite a while. It was just too painful to be around them. I started seeing my godchildren again a few months ago, but I wouldn't even babysit them. My goddaughter recently said that she wanted to sleep at my house. While that touched me, I know it is still too early for me. Maybe in one or two years?

    So babysitting - no way!

  9. I'm glad you brought this up, Mali. How does the volunteer or work with children serenade make me feel? Undeniably prickly!! Although I happen to have a knack with children (not toddlers as much, but definitely age 5 and up) I know full well there is NOTHING in the world that will substitute for not being able to have my own. When someone suggests something along these lines what it really says to me is that they are not recognizing in any way the magnitude of my loss. If I do end up working with children in any capacity (such as a yoga teacher) it will be because I'm good at it, and it's something I'd have done anyway. It won't be because I couldn't have kids of my own.

    I can also relate to Elaine on the point of it stonewalling the healing process. It was triggering and painful for me to be around children for a full year after we stopped treatments. Then, my ability to enjoy them was able to return but being in the presence of children with their mothers was slaughtering. This still makes me cringe on a level but it's often not as bad as it used to be.

    What did work - I felt so validated when my brother one day volunteered to me that having a nephew (his son) is not the same as having your own child. It was his way of saying that yes, while the connection I have with my nephew is special and valued, it doesn't replace what I lost. I really appreciated hearing this from him.

  10. I dislike when people offer solutions instead of just listening. Or when assumptions are made. I am a teacher, and while I love my 8th graders and call them "my kids" all year long, they are not actually my kids in that sense. I remember doing a phone interview for an online yearbook update when I was 30-something and in the middle of IVF, and the guy asked if I had kids and I said "no" pretty shortly and he said, "well, you teach so that's probably enough for you." Um, no. I love what Cristy said about the same sort of people saying "it's not the same as having your own," because it's true, there's that double standard. I feel like offering substitutes seems like a good idea to people who want to be helpful, but in practice it isn't so helpful. To me anyway.