By Elizabeth Beller
We were sitting outside at our corner restaurant with friends. They were letting their one-year-old crawl around a café’s somewhat grotty sidewalk while we gripped our own one-year-old tight and fed him small, non-chokable pieces of grilled chicken as he looked on in amazement at his free-range peer.
“Wow,” said my husband, “you guys are really laissez-faire.”
Tom most likely meant this remark as a compliment. I know this because he often bemoans how tight-assed I am about real or imagined safety hazards. I can be unbearable.
But the parents on the receiving end didn’t know this.
The mother responded: “At least our guy has pants on.”
The above exchange, and the fact that I feel the need to explain our one-year-old had been through about four pairs of shorts that day and was headed for bath and bed right after dinner, both attest to how parenting can get, if not combative, then chippy at a moment’s notice.
If children misbehave it’s seldom seen as a child’s personality or developmental rite of passage. It’s the fault of the parents. We struggle in the quagmire of Mommy and Me Zen Dance, helicopter parenting, attachment parenting, Ferberizing, Kumoning, Elimination Communication, and any other mockable trends as much to avoid censure or guilt as to enrich our kids lives. The popular phrase for this is, “The Mommy Wars.”
The Sisyphian nature of daily parenting makes all parents instantaneous friends, to a degree, or at least fellow travelers. On the other hand, “Nothing can sink a friendship like differences over parenting,” as Judith Warner smartly observed in her recent NY Times piece. Our peers are often our harshest judges.
Perhaps for this reason I want to sing the praises of my friends without kids. They’re available. They’re coherent. They’re not competitive about a job that no one in their right mind believes they are doing 100% correctly.
I have two great friends who I particularly enjoy seeing, one of whom doesn’t have children, and one who does but is a friend of such longstanding that we can’t help but think of each other as human beings first and mothers second. We stay out late talking about things other than the fact that I’m a lactating jungle gym. Rather than harshly judge our parental failings, we laughingly judge only superficialities: Why can’t you move your eyebrows? Is your husband still collecting The Who memorabilia? Do you really think chanting in yoga class is going to work better than Xanax?
Tom tenses up a bit when I announce I’m going out with the FWOKs, and I enjoy that a bit too.
I love this feeling of swimming in the conversational sea of untethered adulthood. I can almost see the self I used to be before the tiny people arrived and consumed all my energy. If I look a bit beyond that, way out at the edge of the visible horizon, I can see, in vague outline, the person I was when I met my husband. The effect is like swimming out for a bit, turning towards the beach, and having a moment of panic. Or, more than panic — longing. And I start to swim back.
Friends Without Kids (FWOKs) probably think ALL parents are crazy to procreate given the current state of the world’s finances, overpopulation and its spiral of chaos and violence. FWOK’s are refreshingly non-nit-picky about your parenting: they judge all parents as all equally crazy. And they are equally annoyed by all children when they act bratty. They likely agree with the subtitle of Jennifer Westfeldt’s movie Friends With Kids: Love, Happiness, Kids.
The movie gets a lot right, like the fact that once you have kids you can play the “come across the Brooklyn Bridge to us because the baby has to nap” card. This applies to places where Brooklyn is just a state of mind. I recently pulled the New Orleans version on some dear FWOKs (they are in the cool Marigny and we’re in child-friendly Uptown) who gave us some ribbing but mainly behaved with good-natured aplomb.
The movie also gets right the havoc children play on a couple’s intimacy if they’re not mindful of the pitfalls, like the fact that sleeplessness makes you mean. One thing the movie does not address is the many people who are not FWOKS by choice, for whom there is a real subtext of emotional pain surrounding not having kids.
But mostly it’s spot-on, except when Jennifer Westfeldt’s character claims she’s doing kegels while standing. That’s nearly impossible.
Jon Hamm, who plays the guy in the movie with whom you’d least like to raise children, aka Don Draper, boyfriend of Ms. Westfeldt, and someone (so far) choosing not to procreate, has said “I like kids but I also like the option to close the door. Becoming a parent is a whole other life, and it doesn’t stop.”
He’s right, it doesn’t stop. Ever. And his honesty is refreshing in the current child-centric culture. Maybe he’s taking on more of the Mad Men zeitgeist than he knows — my parents were of the “Go watch TV in the basement while we have cocktails” generation as well. I think we all had more fun.
I feel like we could use a little more of that attitude these days, but find it hard to stop the cycle of Generation Kid. Until I’m forced to, by virtue of a plan with some FWOKs. That’s when I put on clothes without juice and milk stains, drink too much and neck with my husband on the way home as if we could ever get away with a full night in our bed alone.
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