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.”
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.