A letter to… the childfree woman who misses her friends

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

This weekend, the Guardian published ‘A letter to my friends with children’ from a childfree woman who is sad that she sees less of the women she loves when they have children. “Each time one of my female friends has a baby, our friendship changes,” she explained, and a few parents I followed on Twitter understandably rolled their eyes and got a bit annoyed.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Guardian’s ‘A letter to…’ series is basically a collection of anonymous letters people wish they could send to others in their lives. The letter you write doesn’t necessarily have to be an outlet for sticking the boot into someone who can’t argue back, but it is often used for those purposes. See ‘A letter to the neighbours who complained about our baby‘ or ‘A letter to my hypocritical father‘.

I’m not saying either of those letter writers are in the wrong, by the way, and in fact I’m pretty sympathetic to both of them. But writing anonymously to the Guardian has a tendency to result in letters that reek of passive-aggression, even though they’re an absolute gift to nosy old fuckers like me.

Childfree woman seeks friends who’ll stick around

The letter from a childfree woman to her friends begins by laying out the problem:

“It’s happened so often, and now that I’m in my late 40s, and I am so practised at this, I can’t help but have the same awful thought every time a friend announces she is pregnant: “Well, there goes another friendship.”

“I am a woman who is child-free by choice. Great career, wonderful husband, lots of international vacations. I’m satisfied with my life. But it has become an inescapable fact that each time one of my female friends has a baby, our friendship changes.”

I understand the problem, and I suspect you do too. As I trundle through my mid-thirties, and more of my friends start to have children, some of those who have chosen not to have children can be heard lamenting: “So-and-so disappeared as soon as she got pregnant – she never comes out with us any more!”

My response to this is usually “yeah, obviously.” The thing about having children is that they’re a fuck of a lot of work. They take up loads of time, and mean that many of the things you used to do before you had a family are either difficult (popping into London for a picnic on a Saturday afternoon) or impossible (popping into London for a day festival where it costs a million pounds for a can of water and a sandwich, and where most people in attendance will be off their fucking tits). Or sometimes just downright undesirable, because you’d rather hang out at home playing peekaboo with this chubby, smiling bundle who brings you so much joy.

Friends of mine who have had children have sometimes (though not always) done one of the following things:

  • Withdrawn (a little or a lot or entirely) from the social spheres they moved in
  • Swapped full-time work for part-time, or given up their job completely
  • Moved away from the city to somewhere more suburban/rural

Which… sort of makes sense, right? London’s expensive, and if you need a bigger place for your children, moving away makes it more affordable. Kids take time and energy and money, so work and socialising gets deprioritised because now you have this tiny human to nurture, and Tiny Human is a significant priority to slot into the pile of responsibilities that is your adult life. Not to mention that, you know, kids are quite nice apparently: parents I know tell me that spending time with their offspring is usually a brilliant thing. It isn’t just a chore to do before you get to go to the pub, it’s something they love doing because they love their kids.

The weird part about this Guardian letter is that some of the points I’ve mentioned above (kids are time-consuming, expensive and difficult to manage your previous life around) are the exact reasons why some of us choose not to have children in the first place. Expecting pals to navigate parenthood without it impacting friendships is a pretty unreasonable request, and becomes doubly unreasonable if one of your own reasons for not having kids is that you know they’ll impact your social life.

But this isn’t the only thing that leapt out to me when I read this letter.

A letter to my *female* friends

“each time one of my female friends has a baby, our friendship changes.”

Emphasis mine.

I MEAN COME ON. How can someone specifically complain about losing friendships to children without asking why it doesn’t happen to male friends too? How can you be frustrated with your female friends without questioning why you needed to specify ‘female’ in your letter itself?

I have lots of reasons for not wanting to have children, and while some of them are down to biology (I’m a straight cis woman and so if I did have children I would probably have to gestate them myself), many are down to the fact that I’d have to take on the majority of the caring work as they grew up. It’s just a fact. We could have an interesting and productive discussion about why this would be the case, but it would be wildly naive of me to not acknowledge that it definitely would be the case.

To couples in straight relationships who manage to share childcare equally, I say you are absolute legends and I applaud the shining example you set to society to show that this can be done. But also I know – as I know the sun will rise tomorrow morning – that this would not be the case for me. My partner earns a lot more money than I do (and we still don’t have equal pay across the board), I have ‘flexible’ freelance work which is valued much lower than his, it would be harder for him to access the support network of ‘new mums’ which I could access were I to have a kid, and plenty more besides. Sexism means women earn less and are expected to be less career-driven, and it also means it’s harder for men who want to play a significant caregiving role in their childrens’ lives.

The point is, if you have children, certain things are expected of you – and they are heavily influenced by your gender. You can fight back against those things and challenge those assumptions, but that doesn’t actually mean they vanish in a puff of smoke. Straight women can insist on their partners taking on more childcare responsibilities than our parents’ generation, and straight men can try to take Shared Parental Leave even in the face of bosses who see it as a reason to sideline them, or do any of a number of small things that aim to redress the balance and prevent childcare swallowing up the entirety of one partner’s life. But there will still be issues, usually: no individual working alone can turn society on its head. Especially not while you’re weaning an infant or juggling work with nappies or any of the other stuff that is expected of you at the same time.

It would be outright miraculous if the letter-writer’s friends – to whom this letter is addressed – weren’t already grappling with some of these issues. The letter writer herself recognises this on some level, because she specifically referred to her ‘female’ friends. But instead of questioning why it’s mainly women who sacrifice friendships when they have children, she’s just chosen to tell those women off. And thus, on top of childcare responsibilities, her female friends must also shoulder the guilt when other responsibilities fall by the wayside.

Childfree women, eh?

Although I’m a bit annoyed by this letter, I’m more annoyed with the general situation. Because on the same day I saw this letter, I also read this article by a father titled ‘Maybe I’m not the ideal father, but at least I’ll give my son an awkward hug, unlike my Dad‘. The piece feels like a trip down a memory-lane-that-never-was, in which the author laments the things he feels he’s lacking in a relationship with his children, while simultaneously defending the fact that he has never worked to build this kind of relationship in the first place.

“I may be vague about my children’s birthdays but I’m not vague in my affection towards them,” he declares, proudly, as if being a parent who doesn’t know when their own children were born is a just a minor issue rather than a sign of a lack of care.

I know birthdays aren’t always a big deal, and many families don’t celebrate them, and some people are bad with dates, and hahaha isn’t it funny how Dad doesn’t know when your birthday is – what are men like?! But presumably in the author’s family they do care about birthdays, or he wouldn’t have mentioned them, so in fact this isn’t funny at all. How is it possible that a parent wouldn’t even try to commit these dates to memory? How is it possible that admitting to this failing – publicly – isn’t a cause of genuine shame? I think it’s because even as we expect women to drop friendships, give up on careers and embrace domesticity as their primary goal, we expect so little of men that even the absolute basics – like remembering your child’s birthday – are considered so insignificant as to be beneath you.

It reminded me of this absolutely tragic Father’s Day ‘Pop Quiz’ video by Jimmy Kimmel. Families are stopped in the street and fathers are asked simple questions about their children, in front of their children, which they then answer incorrectly. At one point a Dad guesses his daughter’s eye colour as brown, and is told he’s wrong, before replying “I have got a brown-eyed daughter though.” Lol. Another Dad fails to remember any of his four children’s birthdays before being prompted by one of his kids to remember that they celebrated one child’s birthday yesterday. Rofl. I’m sure the segment is edited to include only the most clueless dads, because there are plenty of fathers who know when their own kids’ birthdays are, but the fact that this video was made in the first place – and framed as hilarious – made me want to pick up the trashpile labelled ‘society’s pathetic expectations of fathers’ and fire it into the core of the Sun.

And this isn’t a means to have a pop at dads, by the way, though I’m sure I’ll get comments telling me off for hating men. Men are better than this: they just fucking are. I know some incredible fathers – friends or relatives who are swimming against the tide of absolute bullshit which tells them they aren’t capable of raising their children, and proving that not only are they perfectly capable of doing it, they genuinely recognise the value it brings to their lives. So no, I don’t hate men or think all dads are awful: I think society’s low expectations of men do them a massive disservice.

I’m very tired

When I saw people ripping the piss out of the original Guardian letter writer, my instinct was to be on their side – chuck a couple of sarky missiles her way, stick up for the amazing parents I know who were a bit pissed off with her, then settle back into my life as a childfree woman who’s just glad I get to occasionally hang out with my loved ones and their adorable offspring. But on second thoughts, I figured ‘nah, fuck it’: I’m not going to rip into a woman who is sad to be losing her friends, even if her logic is flawed and she’s laying the blame at the feet of the wrong people. Sure, she’s being unfair, but is she being one iota as unfair as the guy who wrote a thousand-word essay lamenting his lack of connection with his own kids while simultaneously making cheeky asides about how he hasn’t bothered to commit their birthdays to memory?


The problem here isn’t that this woman’s friends have kids, or that they withdraw from life when they have them. The problem is that we live in a society where the first thing we tend to do in the face of an emotional issue is to point to the nearest woman and tell her what she’s done wrong. That the bar is so low for men we can make jokes about Dads knowing nothing about the children they’ve raised, all the while tearing into women for the choices they’re forced to make when it turns out they’re incapable of juggling everything.

If we can blame women, we will.

The letter writer is blaming her female friends, and that’s shit. But blaming her in turn isn’t going to solve the core problem, which is that our expectations when it comes to raising families are still deeply gendered and wildly unfair. We expect so much of mothers that they are bound to drop a few balls, and when the balls drop, someone will be ready with a ‘tut tut’ or a ‘maybe go down to part time?’ or a letter in the Guardian telling them off for neglecting friendships. Meanwhile men get a medal if they remember their children’s birthdays, receive wild applause for ‘babysitting’ their own offspring, and get belittled, mocked, and treated with suspicion if they play a more active role in their children’s lives.

The issue isn’t that people disappear from friendships when they have kids: the problem is that this is framed as entirely women’s fault. That it’s always easier to blame women than it is to change society.



  • John says:

    I’m bothered by the analysis. A woman complains that other women are changing their relationships with her, and it’s society’s fault. Or, because patriarchy…

    By the way, I’m not blaming her because she’s a woman. She specified “female friends”. Male-female friendship (in the het world) diminishes once people have paired up, and it’s unlikely she would have similar friendships with men who have just become fathers, so the issue doesn’t arise much.

    So, as a man, a father, who knows the birthdates, ages, eye colours, foibles, and embarrassing details of all my kids, plus a couple of grandkids, I have a (male) friend who became a father years ago. It took a while – he and his partner needed IVF, and we had many “emotional issues” and never, ever found a woman to blame for them. But they did have kids, and our relationship changed. He didn’t have anywhere near as much time to hang out, he became so much more responsible overnight, almost a different man. Oh, and they subsequently moved to the other side of the country. (Forget London, most people don’t live there, except for Guardian readers.)

    Our friendship changed, but it didn’t end. We adapted. I babysat for them (and there’s a lot I could say about how women treat men in babysitting circles, but it’s not a good read.) Male friendship is said to be different from female friendship, anyway – I have friends I haven’t seen for years, or spoken with, and if we met tomorrow we would pick up where we left off. It’s an unavoidable fact that women have to carry babies, give birth, and in most cases suckle them, and if you have a couple of kids it’s easy for women to step back for a few years. Raising small children is full-on, and both parents can be exhausted and want nothing more than a cosy nest with their new family. (Interesting to see if same-sex female couples also do this, and how their external relationships change.)

    I’d challenge that Guardian reader. Friendship isn’t just about having people who give you their time and attention. Some new mothers/parents do pull up the drawbridge, but many would welcome adult company at a time when they’re spending all day talking goo-goo language, cleaning up bodily emissions, and feeling more like a milk cow than a human being. A changed relationship needs a changed approach. It’s exactly the same if/when your happily single female friend gets into a serious partnership and wants to spend more time with her new best buddy. Now that’s not about gendered expectations, it’s far more serious – “she prefers his company to mine”!

    So – enough with the blame, whoever we’re blaming. Get in there. Engage. Ask not what your friend can do for you; ask what you can do for your friend.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “Get in there. Engage. Ask not what your friend can do for you; ask what you can do for your friend.”

      I fully agree with this, and I think that’s exactly what I’d have said to the letter writer if she were writing to a problem page asking how to work through this difficulty. It’s good advice, as are your points about new parents wanting to spend time with their families – which I think echo a lot of the stuff I said in the post about kids bringing joy and parents wanting to spend time with them.

      I don’t understand why you’re bothered by the analysis that gendered expectations are playing a part in this discussion though, especially because a lot of your comment seems to lean on gender too.

      “Male-female friendship (in the het world) diminishes once people have paired up”


      “it’s unlikely she would have similar friendships with men who have just become fathers”

      Why not?

      “Male friendship is said to be different from female friendship”


      “if you have a couple of kids it’s easy for women to step back for a few years”

      Why is it easy for women?

      “(Interesting to see if same-sex female couples also do this, and how their external relationships change.)”

      Why do you only ask regarding female couples?

      Honestly, to me the answer to all these ‘why’s is that our expectations around relationships and childrearing are inherently gendered. I’m not sure you’ve really explained why they aren’t, only restated that they are.

      Also, it’s just a minor point but “(Forget London, most people don’t live there, except for Guardian readers.)” – I can’t really forget London because I live here, that’s why it’s my example when I’m talking about my personal experience. If I lived in Manchester, I’d have said Manchester.

  • Erin says:

    As a mom I’ll say… I miss my childless friends too. It’s not one sided. I’ve done my begging to please keep inviting me out because one day the stars will align and I’ll be able to say “yes”, but inevitably after I’ve had to say “no” 5 or 10 or 20 times I stop getting invites. I especially love my childless friends who keep inviting me anyway, or don’t mind that we’re meeting up at the library or a park so I can bring the little one with me.

    And I agree society should expect more from men. My husband is an amazing dad, and I’ve never expected less, and he’s had no problem achieving it. Maybe instead of all the “ha ha dads are useless” pieces people should try reading the plethora of studies about the positive consequences having a stable, loving father has for kids.

    Anyways I think your take is spot on, and it’s always nice to read stuff from people with no kids who are understanding of what it’s like trying to balance kids with the rest of life.

    • fuzzy says:

      I have learned to tell me friends who have … different schedules … and who have expressed guilt at saying “no, not this time” 99% of the time — the following:

      “if you promise not to resent my asking, and to not feel guilty when you say no, I won’t feel guilty for asking you yet again when I *KNOW* you probably can’t come, and I won’t resent you for not being as available as my selfish enjoyment of your presence desires — and then we can both relax.”

      I have also offered a few very special people an open invitation to the parties I throw at my house – “come if you can, even if short notice” reads the invitation, and I try to throw in a “hugs – I know you’re likely to be busy”. Then at least they know I *THINK* of them when I think of fun and company and companionship.

  • Phillip says:

    Perhaps it is because you all live in the UK? You all sound so mature and reasonable. Be happy and thankful that you are all so well adjusted. Something that stands out in my memory, from the decade my wife and I barely lived through, were a number of women saying that having a child was an absolute necessity in the reach for ‘the fulfillment of womanhood’. God, it was so hard stay together for that long ten years in the ‘baby zone’.

    Please don’t ridicule me. I don’t think I could stand it. Maybe it is just the way we are on our side of the ‘Pond’.

  • fuzzy says:

    This post. *This post*, not the posts with all the randy hot cool cock-leaking UNNNNGGGGH. This is why you need to be grinding out more books. Sort of like a Cheryl Strayed but with great sex.

  • John says:

    Just friends? That’s bullshit. While the letter writer sounds disingenuously jealous, I still feel for her; but I also feel for the parents who have lost her. You become a parent, and if you have any sense of propriety, you try to be good at it, and that includes prioritizing your kids and family relationship; otherwise you end up with the same fucked up shit you hated as a kid; and/or you end up as a selfish fuck who doesn’t care about whether your kids end up whole and happy or not. There are SO MANY things I miss about pre-child years — and they almost all boil down to freedom to do what the fuck I want. But what I want even more is for my kids not to start life alone and clueless (even though they have no clue that they are clueless). Friends are great! But my best friend is my spouse, and having kids REQUIRES you to spend time and mental resources that are left after kids keeping that relationship alive and vital (sexually and otherwise). Kids are work. Fuck yes! kids are the hardest work a human being will ever do. Rewards? Eh. They come and they go, but they mostly come. But you always miss pre-child freedom for the rest of your life; but then, if you didn’t fuck it up, your kids look at you and the least little bit of, smile, love, and appreciation makes it all worth it.

  • Brussels says:

    For picking it apart. And for identifying the blame game.

  • Lucie says:

    Yeah it’s sad that you lose friends to babies but surely it’s understandable why that happens. In my experience it happens ages before that point, I’ve lost a few good friends to boyfriends.
    While it’s sad and I wouldn’t advocate cutting people out completely, surely it’s a wonderful opportunity to make friends with other child free women and men that are still keen and able to live the lifestyle you live. People evolve, relationships evolve – few of us are still friends with our school friends and if so the relationship isn’t as it was then. Move on and enjoy your freedom.

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