Out of all the relationships I’ve made and witnessed since having a kid, I find myself consistently stunned that so many parent/non-parent friendships are fraught with tension, hurt feelings, and anxiety. I find this strange, because personally I have quite a few friends who don’t have kids yet or plan to never have children, and I value their friendship and advice as much as I value any I get from my fellow parents.
But I have a theory about why it happens. First, when people become parents, it can bring up a lot of insecurities about who you were pre-baby and who you are now, with baby. On the flip side, when people choose not to become parents or they haven’t become parents yet (and yes: these are two different things), it can bring up similar insecurities about how your parent friends may or may not be perceiving your life choices. And while sometimes we might feel judged because we’re actually being judged (like that one time when two women sat next to me at the book store and loudly discussed how they never, ever let their kids leave the house with messy hair… and my kid’s hair was sticking straight out in the back and probably had food in it), I think a lot of the reasons this tensions exists is because we’re really judging ourselves on how effective and awesome we are in our new roles or how confident we feel in our decisions (and maybe projecting that on each other a little bit). Also, it doesn’t help that the Internet turns judgment into a veritable Olympic sport, with raising kids—or choosing not to raise kids—as like, the top tier competitive event.
But for me, my relationships with non-parent relationships are super important, and losing one of them over something that could have been prevented (like an assumption one of us made about the other) would suck. So I took to Facebook and asked friends of mine (parents, child-free folks, and people who might be parents someday) what the biggest roadblocks and issues they see to parent/non-parent friendship are, and brainstormed ways to overcome them. So here’s to friends, kids, and #adulting, because we all know growing up isn’t easy.
For Child-free Friends:
1. Realize that parents of young kids will (probably) want to bring them places
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to entrust childcare to family that lives in town, and a lot of parents of young kids feel anxious about leaving a child who isn’t old enough to clearly communicate and/or advocate for him/herself with a relative stranger or new sitter. So with this in mind, don’t be surprised if your parent friends consistently turn down invites to kid-free parties or gatherings… but don’t lose faith or take it personally. A child-free friend put it to me this way:
As a child-free person, I think that understanding friends with kids aren’t as mobile is huge. We make time to go to them, and accept that it’s what we do as friends. We can entertain ourselves during bath and bedtime and still hang out and talk and be people and friends. We can appreciate the adventures of parenting and listen to stories partly because we are part of some of them. We are a family of two spending time with another family of more people. I don’t think anything weird about stopping by to drop off a paper bag with Ben and Jerry’s and tell friends I know it is hard work but they are doing a great job. I don’t think having kids changes the fact that you are friends, if you are really friends. It changes where you go and how often or for how long, but it doesn’t change the Love.
2. Try to not make your parent friends feel bad for leaving early
Some of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to act “cool,” especially if we’re getting negative feedback from friends who don’t have children about the demands of parenthood. As a friend told me:
With my friends who don’t want kids, I always have the pressure to “look cool.” Like, if we go out I’ll say I’m leaving at a certain time but I won’t say it’s because of [my daughter]. I’ll say I have a big job the next day or because I’m not feeling well—saying it’s because I have to wake up with my kid gets way worse responses. If I refuse a certain plan because of the logistics involved (find a sitter, etc.) I always try to come up with other excuses because if I don’t I am seen as someone who “used to be cool” and my kid as “the big burden” while I don’t feel that’s the case at all.
3. Know (or ask) when it’s appropriate to parent your friend’s kids
When my son was two, we had two adult roommates. One of them had been my best friend since I was fifteen, and the other was a friend my husband and I made in college. My best friend was great to live with, and the other guy? Not so much. There were several issues to work through, but one of the biggest is that he would spontaneously parent our child. I think he assumed he could because he has a lot of siblings, and his siblings have kids, and because sharing a living space with a family can create murky boundaries. A little bit of parenting is fine, because if my kid is about to stick his hand in a socket or touch a hot pant and you’re right there, you should totally reach out and stop him. But if my kid is having a highly emotional reaction (read: tantrum) to something that’s happened and I’m also in the room, I do not under any circumstances expect or want you to step in before I do. It’s confusing to the child, and potentially undermines the parent’s authority.
4. make sure your kids know that not having a kid is a legit life choice
If you have friends that are definitely child-free, I think there are three very important responsibilities you have as their friend. First, you need to keep your opinions about the glories of parenthood to yourself unless you’re asked or you just can’t help gushing about something particularly sweet that happened, because that’s normal and human. Second, you have to truly believe that being child-free is legitimate and okay, and you can’t be secretly judging your friend and or expecting him or her to change their minds. Third, you need to make sure your kids know that being child-free is a choice people make, and that’s it’s as valid as choosing to have kids. I think these are all important because they all boil down to respecting your friend, and respect is, for me, a cornerstone of friendship.
5. ask your friends to baby-sit (And assume they mean it when they offer)
If you have kids and want them to have a good relationship with your friends… ask those friends to hang out with your kids every so often one-on-one (or one on two, three, however many kids you have). Don’t abuse the system and assume you can get free babysitting whenever you want it, but I think explaining to your kid-free friends that you want your kids to know and love them is a good start. After all, even though it sometimes seems like parents are supposed to pretend their kids are monsters to anyone who isn’t related to them (and sometimes, even to those people), the reality is that kids will be kids will be kids. If your friends offer to hang with your children, they probably mean it.
6. It’s up to the parent to set clear boundaries for friend-child interactions
It’s important to make sure you are setting boundaries about how your friends interact with your kids, especially when it comes to social media. Example: maybe you have no problem sharing photos of your own child to your private Facebook and Instagram accounts, but totally do not want your friends to share photos to their own—whether those accounts are public or private. If you don’t communicate this with your friends ahead of time, they might not realize it. As a friend explained:
My girlfriend took a selfie with our friend’s four month old and posted it on her wall later that night. I almost immediately got a text from my friend asking for her to take it down because she wasn’t comfortable with people posting pictures of her daughter without permission. Something seemingly innocuous caused tension among friends because clear boundaries weren’t set up and my significant other didn’t have the kind of insight, not having kids of her own, to ask if my friend was comfortable with her posting a picture with her daughter.
7. If someone says they like hanging out with your kids, you should believe them
It can be a big bummer if you actually like hanging out with the children of your friends, and your friends only see you as a way to get a break from their kids, right? I think communication is key—if you have friends who say they really like hanging out with you and your kids at the same time, believe them.
8. Don’t assume you’re being judged
I think when you’re doing one thing (like being single) when all of your friends are doing another (like having kids), it’s very easy to feel like everyone is judging you (especially if you’re getting on into your thirties and forties and are still rocking your life choice). And you know what? There are some people judging you. There will always be people judging you, but if those people are the people you call friends, then you may want to re-evaluate your friend pool.
I think one way to counteract feelings of judgment or the temptation to judge someone who is living a different life than your own is to be genuinely interested in what’s going on in someone’s life in the first place. For example, pretending to listen to your single friend talk about her dating life while actually feeding one kid and wiping the face of the other isn’t very genuine… just like getting ready to go out or scrolling through a dating website while your parent friend is seriously trying to talk about her life isn’t cool, either. I’ve almost always found that when I feel like I’m being judged by someone it’s usually because I’ve been judging that person, and I feel guilty. Stay cool.
9. Have a little empathy
A friend told me that her biggest struggle with friends who don’t have kids is trying to figure out how to help them understand that while she doesn’t regret having her kids, there are a lot of things she would like to be able to do but can’t. As she explained:
Every time they say something about an improvised trip, a crazy career change, or whatever, they don’t accept my, “It would be so cool to do that!” Their answer is, “You are living the dream! You can’t complain! You met the perfect guy young and now are about to have two kids.” Just because I was lucky doesn’t mean I can’t crave the freedom of having no strings… and that doesn’t mean I regret or resent anything.
On the flip side, a child-free friend said:
Sometimes I feel like I need to filter my life through the lens of my parent friends. I’ll never be as tired or harried as them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still tired and harried… for me. It’s really discouraging for me when I want to vent with friends and am met with something that feels dismissive. I’m always happy to be an ear for how complex it can be to raise a kid, but I still need my parent friends to hear me when I say I’m feeling stressed and exhausted.
10. Understand that you’re not going to come first most of the time
This one goes equally both ways—if you’re friends with a parent, realize that parent is going to prioritize his or her kid and family a lot of the time. I don’t mean just in the obvious ways, because I think most people understand that if a kid has a doctor’s appointment or a school performance, the parent has to be there. I mean in the little ways no one thinks about on the regular. I feel like I’m constantly canceling plans with a close friend who lives about two hours away, and it’s not because I want to—it’s because during the week (and on most weekends) I’m working, driving my kid to and from a class he takes, and I honestly just prefer to spend most of my nights with my family these days. I like knitting on the couch while my husband begrudgingly watches Friday Night Lights with me and we both comment on how amazing Tami Taylor is. Like, it’s kind of my favorite thing to do. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see my friend, because I do and I’m always so happy when I do make it down there and we hang out, but the actual physical event of getting myself from one place to another? It disrupts my family’s regular ole Thursday night, whether or not I want it to.
Likewise, my friend can’t always come visit me when it’s more convenient for me, because surprise: she has her own job, friends, relationships, and stuff going on. We chat on the phone regularly, and I think we have fully realized that we’re not going to be able to drop everything and hang out with the other like we could when we were fifteen (or twenty, or even twenty-five), and we don’t give each other passive aggressive drama about it. Life happens and plans have to change, but holding a grudge against a friend because they can’t come see you every time you want them to? That’s not cool.
What advice do you have for friends who are trying to keep their friendships alive despite different life stages or circumstances? What’s worked for you—and what hasn’t?