It is a well-known fact that as you move through adulthood, you will either have kids or not, and your friends will either have kids or not. It is an apparently obscure fact that when you don’t have kids, and your friends do have them, the split does not have to signal the death of your friendships.
This situation is so obvious that it’s almost self-mocking to write about it. But The New York Times recently ran a blog post, “Can Parents Stay Friends With the Child-Free?” (responding in part to Time’s new cover story, “The Childfree Life”), which suggested that people in their 30s and 40s without children tend to wind up lonely as their friends who become parents retreat into domesticity. As a 40-something without children who has sustained scads of relationships over two decades with people who have kids, I feel wildly credentialed in pointing out that this is bullshit.
There is a secret to maintaining your friendships, and I am entirely serious about this: when a friend has a kid, assume that you will see that friend primarily, perhaps only, for dinner at their house or apartment for the next seven to ten years. If they have more than one kid, the clock resets with each new one. Oh, and most of the time, you have to invite yourself over. And you may have to bring the food.
In other words, you make yourself part of their domestic world — and you do it when the kids will be in bed at least part of the time. When you want to do fabulous pre-parent things, like going to plays, movies, museums, ball games (Yankees, not T-ball), lectures, bars, cocktail parties and anything that involves walking more than a block, you do it with friends who do not have young kids. If you do not have such friends, cultivate them. If you do not know how to cultivate friends, I will write another post on that.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you have compassion for your friends with young children, who are generally exhausted, have a hard time finding or paying for childcare, cannot nail down plans until the last minute and are prone to sticking close to home. Truly, your feelings about those conditions are irrelevant (no judgement: even though I know parents often struggle, I don’t always have a ton of empathy). What matters is that, practically speaking, your friends with young kids — unless they have childcare that affords them the time and energy to go out with you sans children — have a bunch of incontrovertible reasons that they can’t leave the house most nights. So as I said, if you want to see them, you have go to where they live, and you very likely have to bring up the idea, because they are not (yet) thinking along these lines.
I realize that this approach probably involves changing your expectations so that you do not become resentful. Which is a process. But the approach is not without benefits. It is generally cheaper than other kinds of going out. You do not have to bother getting dressed up. You get to hang out in possibly cozy envrions. You get to keep your friendships.
Here’s how the logistics go: you email or text your friends to say that you want to see them, how about if you bring over dinner next Tues/Thurs/Sun? You can offer to bring something you have cooked, or to get takeout on the way over, or to bring ingredients that you will cook at their house. You can say that you will cover the costs or ask if they’ll split it. They can counter-offer to deal with dinner and ask you to bring booze or dessert. If you do not mind eating two hours after you’ve had lunch, you can suggest that you get there in time to eat with the kids and then hang out for a bit after they put the kids to bed. Or, if you do mind eating dinner insanely early, you can suggest that you arrive after the kids are asleep and eat then or just have drinks/dessert. Alternatively, you can note that you want to see the kids, but you can’t get there in time to eat with them, so you’ll show up just before bedtime, say hi, and then order the takeout or start making dinner while the parents go through the bedtime routine. If you like helping at bathtime, which I do not, you can offer to jump in. See how this works?
Incidentally, this system applies if your friends live next door, across town or 2,000 miles away. It can be used for brunch instead of dinner, but then you hang out with the kids the whole time, which doesn’t lend itself to sustained adult conversation.
Speaking of conversation, how do you even talk with peope after they’ve had kids? All that obsession with diapers and motor skills and school districts! So, yeah, parenting involves learning new things every week, and you, the friend who is not a parent, may have to spend some time discussing things that are unfamiliar or uninteresting to you. But A) you are not fascinating 100% of the time either; and B) most parents are pretty fucking thrilled to hang out with people who can talk about things other than diapers and motor skills and school districts. So I am again dead serious when I say: go to dinner with a few non-parenting topics in mind, and then bring them up. If you are visiting a friend who used to have a job they cared about but they are now a stay-at-home parent, and you notice that you’ve been talking about your job for the past 30 (or 60) minutes, ask if it’s time to change the subject.
It probably does not go without saying that if you are the parent of young children, and you are reading this, you have a role to play here, too. (Paging the NYT blogger!) Namely, you have to sometimes invite your friends who don’t have children over to your house for dinner/dessert/post-dinner drinks. You do not have to cover the costs every time, and you can ask your friends to bring stuff or to chip in. You cannot use as a constant excuse the fact that your house or apartment is too messy for guests. You cannot expect your friends to participate in childcare or cleaning. You can kick them out when you get tired ridiculously early. If you notice that you’ve been talking about buying a new stroller for the past 30 (or 60) minutes, ask if it’s time to change the subject.
There are, of course, reams of caveats here for the friends without children. You, unlike me, may want children and find it painful to be in parents’ homes. Your friends may live in spaces so cramped that having you over will prevent their children from sleeping. Your friends may be coupled or may live with several adults, and you may be close with just one person among them (or worse, you find a spouse or partner intolerable). You may yourself be wiped out by 8:30p and unable to stay up. Your friendships may be based on sharing activities that are incompatible with young children, like clubbing or not going to zoos, and you may have never even been to their houses. You may not be able to afford to travel to where they live.
Adjust the system as necessary, but keep in mind that you want to set up a way of staying in touch that will work practically with the schedule and location of the friends who are parents and will not generate resentment for the friends who are not. Occasionally, you may find that there’s no solution possible. So know that sometimes, even if it hurts to let them go, friendships are well suited to one phase of our lives and not to others. Just don’t give up before you’ve tried.
The really cool thing here, and this is part of the secret, is that people without kids have a unique opportunity to stay close with people who become parents. Because no joke, people who have young kids can see their friends who also have young kids only when the children are all present or when vast babysitting resources have been brought to bear. I’m sure there’s a special closeness that comes from raising your children together, but that intimacy doesn’t preclude other relationships. In fact, it leaves open a nice adult space for lucky non-parents to step into. The thing nobody tells you ahead of time: that space is probably your friends’ living rooms.