August 18, 2013

Motherlode: Having kids determines woman's circle of friends

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

A recent Time magazine cover piece, "The Childfree Life," posits a new divide among women. We've moved on, it says, from pitting working and at-home parents against one another to stirring up unrest between the child-ridden and the child-free -- also known as the child-blessed and the childless, depending on your point of view. (You could say "women with children" versus "women without children," but then your title would be too long and not nearly provocative enough.)

Any national discussion about the struggle to reconcile womanhood with modernity tends to begin and end with one subject: parenting. Even Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," a book focused on encouraging women's professional development, devotes a large chunk of its take-home advice to balancing work and family, presuming that, like its author, ambitious women will have both. It's great that we're in the midst of a cultural conversation about the individual choices and structural barriers that shape our lives. But if you're a woman who's not in the mommy trenches, more often than not you're excluded from the discussion.

With fertility treatment widely available, not to mention adoption, even clinically infertile women have more options than ever to become mothers, which increases the possibility that any woman who doesn't will be judged for her choice.

Of course, men and women are equally available in both flavors (with child and without), but it's women, Lauren Sandler writes, who are judged for the choice. Men get a pass on the judgment aspect of life without children, both because they can father children much later (sure, you're child-free now, but when you're 80, who knows?) and because that's the American cultural mind-set -- what one author interviewed for the piece called "the motherhood mandate." And so the child-free life is mostly about women -- about our choices, and about how we judge one another and are judged for this particular choice. (As an aside, I'm charmed that Sandler, who wrote "An Only Child, Happy With an Only Child" for Motherlode, is writing about the child-free life for Time, largely because I'm picturing her saying to people, "Well, I'm almost child-free!")

Which brings me to my question: Do we, as women who are also mothers, judge women who are not? And if we do, do we do it overtly or subconsciously -- or just by excluding and including people in our lives based on proximity and similarity without realizing that the path of least resistance is one that, for a parent like me, includes mainly friends who are piloting similar family boats?

If by judgment you mean choosing who to hang out with at a cocktail party, then maybe we, or at least I, do judge. I have child-free friends, but I'm forced to admit that since being a parent became my primary non-work activity, more and more of the friends I've made have been parents as well -- to the point that I can't, at the moment, point to a real friend I've made within the last five years who doesn't have children.

I didn't plan it that way. It feels as if it just happened. But maybe I'm blind to how I judge potential friends. You know the way a younger colleague's eyes sometimes glaze over when you launch into the story of your middle schooler's orthodontic woes? Looking back on the last few years, I wonder if I've excused myself from a number of friend-making occasions and conversations largely because it was hard for me to imagine bonding with someone for whom orthodontia -- not to mention school lunches, tech use rules and homework -- was simply a thing of the past. They said, "Nope, no kids," and maybe my eyes were the ones to glaze.

That's the perception Sandler found among some of the people she interviewed:

"It's toughest in your late 30s and early 40s," "Going Solo" author Eric Klinenberg says. That's when social isolation tends to peak among people without kids. "What people report everywhere is this experience of watching friends just peel off into their small domestic worlds. That's the real stress point," he says, not aging and dying alone, as people fear -- and strangers and family members alike tend to admonish -- but the loneliness between when friends have babies and when they become empty nesters.

Several of my friends and family members have skipped the child thing (at least for now -- although we talk about many things, I've long since chosen not to be among those who ask, "So, are you planning to have kids?"). We're as close as distant living situations allow us to be. I feel that things are the same between us as they ever were, and that we talk about much the same things as we ever did. But I suspect those bonds would be harder to form now than they were then, and while they may still feel strong to me, my friends and family may see it differently. Daily phone calls (to say nothing of frequent visits and travel together) are largely a thing of the past.

As a parent myself, I don't read my tendency to gravitate toward fellow mothers as judgment -- I read it as practical. Fellow parents are more likely to understand if I bail on dinner because of a sudden teacher conference, and their eyes are less likely to glaze over if my preoccupation at that dinner is more temper tantrums than, say, the right way to temper chocolate (which might once have held my interest for hours). In fact, I'd argue that it's win-win.

But, that said, when I look at my husband and the friendships he's formed since we had children, I suspect he's not making the same call. I may be cheating myself out of a broader social circle, not to mention far more opportunities to get out at night.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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