Infertile Phoenix highlighted a case when an advice columnist got it wrong when she was asked about a childless couple’s friendships with people who have children. In her post, she included the response that she felt should have been given to the woman who had written in about her childless friends. Go read her post first. I began a comment on Infertile Phoenix’s blog, but then decided to turn it into a post here, because I found I had quite a lot to
The Ask Amy response compared being childless with losing parents. This analogy with losing parents is quite frankly ridiculous. The difference is huge. I’ve experienced both losses.
One loss is effectively the loss of a past, and the other is the loss of a future. One is entirely expected (although the timing may not be so expected), the other is something no-one really expects. One is accepted and normal in society, the other is not – instead it is hidden or ignored, and judged. One has, if we are lucky, happy memories of relationships and full lives. The other holds only never-to-be-met possibilities.
I have lost both my parents, and I am able to remember them both, the lives they had and my life with them too. It is expected that we lose parents. Sure, some of us lose them when we are younger, and some of us care for our elderly parents when we are also getting old. But the thing is, it is entirely natural, and expected, and THE NORM to lose your parents. Yes, I miss them when I think of them. But my day-to-day life has changed little. The loss of the children I never had, however, affects the rest of my life.
As mature adults, we have separated ourselves from our parents to an extent, living our own lives. Sure, if we’re lucky, we can love them and care for them and enjoty their company. But they’re not our primary familial unit, and our relationships with our parents – whether we have them or not – largely don’t affect our friendships. It makes no difference to me whether my friends have parents still in their lives or not. It’s an issue where I can provide support, and love, and they can provide it in turn. But it doesn’t change the way we interact.
This is not the case when people have children. Their children are their main focus – sometimes (often?) even the relationships with a significant other are pushed into the background. It not only affects the time that a parent with children has to spend with friends, but what they think about and talk about with their friends. Many parents are no longer outward-looking, but are focused entirely on their immediate family – them, their partners if they have them, and their children. The childless friend (or couple) may also feel very isolated from their friends who are new parents, because they can’t share in the experiences their friends are going through. When you can’t share in the parental conversations or other activities with your friends who are now parents, then any interaction with them can be very isolating. When parents choose to socialise only with other parents, it can feel like a painful rejection. Many have said that they feel left behind. On top of this, the friend without children is reminded that they didn’t get the future they planned every time they see their friends. They might be happy for their friends. But even if they are, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel some regret.
This level of pain, rejection, and social isolation simply does not occur when we lose our parents. Perhaps a more relevant analogy (though I agree, far from perfect) might be amongst friends who enjoyed the same career, one they were passionate about, and had planned on pursuing for the rest of their lives. Their careers, or their future careers, defined them. But unexpectedly, one of them can’t do so. Maybe they lost their job, or were physically unable to continue with it, despite intellectually and emotionally being capable of doing so, and despite still desperately wanting to do so. They didn’t get a choice, and they have had to pursue the only other option available to them. They were forced into it when their first choice wasn’t possible. But every time they sit down with their friends, all their friends talk about is their career. Their friends can’t meet them or pursue activities they both enjoy because they have to work, and for the most part, they are loving it. Young people they meet talk about when they will follow this career, just assuming it will happen. And the person who didn’t have a choice is sitting there, isolated by the conversation that ignores their reality. They are judged by others who don’t know their circumstances, or even by their friends who thought that they had a choice.
To continue on, the letter-writer in the article says that the woman in the childless couple behaves oddly when she meets children. She "starts out acting excited to interact with a child, then progresses to saying she doesn’t know how to interact with the child because she doesn’t have any, and then she says being with children makes her sad."
I can understand all those emotions, and think it's perfectly reasonable. The prospect of interacting with a child is fun, and exciting. But the reality is that I can feel very self-conscious interacting with children when there are other adults or the child's parents around. I never had a lot to do with younger children when I was growing up, and as an adult, I lived in different cities and countries from my nieces and nephews. I also have never had those years of on-the-job training, dealing with my own children or their friends. I hear all the comments of the watching parents/adults in our heads. There’s the pity - “It’s so sad, she would have made such a good mother.” Or the judgement – “it’s a good thing she doesn’t have children, she doesn’t know how to talk to/play with/discipline them.” Or the mockery or laughter behind our backs – “look at her, she thought the child would like that! It’s obvious she doesn’t have children!” It may be that none of these occur, but it’s very hard to silence the voices in our heads that make us self-conscious about our situation.
Ask Amy’s comment that “If this couple wanted to, they could easily find fulfilling ways to have children in their lives …” frustrates me. We wanted to be parents. Relationships with other people’s children is never the same. Besides, it’s not always so easy. Some parents jealously guard their relationship as the only meaningful relationship their children will have with adults. I’ve seen some people behave that way. But I’ve also been fortunate that I’ve had some lovely times with nieces (and hopefully many more).
It’s the principle that annoys me though. I shouldn’t feel I have to have “meaningful” relationships with children, simply because I didn’t have any myself. I know lots of parents who don’t have fulfilling relationships with any children other than their own. So why should we feel obliged? Is it because they feel we need to prove that we like children after all?
Sigh. Apologies for the rant!