Recently, a friend of mine, who has no children, mentioned that she was reading a book in the middle of the day. When I pictured her reading by a fire curled up on the couch drinking tea in her peaceful home, I was engulfed with envy: I want to read a book in the middle of the day in a quiet house! As this image solidified in my mind, my impulse was to say: “you don’t know how lucky you are!” but I managed to catch the words and swallow them. This friend could not have children and this would have been a cruel thing to say to her, but I realize now that it’s not really a nice thing to say to any woman because either way it is tinged with an underlying resentment, not an emotion I want to aim at my pals.
Since my friends started having kids, I began noticing how easy it is for tensions to surface between moms and the childfree/childless. Moms might think the root of the problem is that childfree women don’t know what we’re up against, but there’s more to it. In a recent “Dear Sugar” podcast, Steve Almond, father of three, admitted to, on occasion, resenting his childfree friends. Resentment is a strong and ugly emotion, but thinking back on some of my interactions with my childfree friends, I realize, reluctantly, that Almond is right on. If you miss your freedom at all, and what parent doesn’t, then your friends’ tales of independence or peace can make you feel taunted, even though they are just living their lives.
On the other side of the same coin, after I had kids, I noticed how easy it is to connect with women who are moms. Even with drastically different beliefs and interests, mothers always have something to talk about: their kids’ potty training, sleep habits, eating preferences, first days of school, etc. Because, as we know, there’s no manual for having kids, and because most of us don’t live with our extended family, we often need to rely on friends and Google to figure out how to tackle the challenging moments of parenting. Friends and Google are the village.
Not only can moms rely on each other for problem solving, mom friends just get the struggle of motherhood. It doesn’t require explanation. This is comforting especially when you don’t have the energy to explain what it feels like when your child is waking up every two hours and not napping.
Pregnancy and motherhood do create a bond between women, but the opposite also tends to be true: a chasm forms between moms and not-moms. As a woman who had her kid late, I’ve been on both sides of that chasm. When I was childfree, I am sure I provoked resentment among my friends with young kids; I likely complained about a bad meal at a restaurant or being tired (and hungover) after a late night dancing. Now, I have an idea of what they might have been thinking in those moments: “quit your complaining, at least you can go out without spending a bazillion dollars on a babysitter and you can sleep through the night or take a nap–a nap!”
If my mom friends resented my freedom, I resented their lack of freedom and how our relationships changed when kids arrived on the scene. My mom friends couldn’t listen the way they used to or sustain a meaningful conversation. Kids affect individual relationships but there’s also the cultural weight of motherhood, which can make women who are not moms feel like they are not part of the club.
The term “the mommy wars” originally described the clash between working moms and stay-at-home moms, but now that there are more women choosing not to have kids, a new war is brewing. But a war between moms and the childfree/childless will not benefit anyone, so how do we stave it off?
Here’s my plan: I will resist the temptation to surround myself with people just like me; I will make a conscious effort to keep old and make new friends who are not moms. Part of making this effort means that I’ll need to notice and tamp down negative feelings that surface when a childfree friend talks about exercising, eating a delicious meal at a restaurant, seeing a movie in the theatre. I’ve traded in my freedom for a while; it was a choice I made, and I’ve gotten a lot in return. Truth is, I’m probably going to feel a little sad when I start to get my freedom back and my son needs me less.
I will also work on being a good friend to my friends without kids. To this end, I’ve fallen into a pattern of calling my friends with kids when my kid is around, but I try to call my friends without kids when my son is asleep or when I’m in the car alone so that I can give them my attention. I want to be able to genuinely listen to the stories from their lives and I want to share mine. This is how friendships are maintained.
My friend and co-editor of this site, Beverly, does not have children, but we have made it our project to listen to and be candid with each other. Here’s a tiny example: typically, I would reserve the messy details of potty training my son for my mom friends, but I decided to tell Beverly, and she listened and instead of offering me a list of things I should(ve) tried, like most mothers do, she offered me something I actually needed more: a “wow, that must be really hard.”