I’m sure by now, you’ve seen the controversial TIME article touting “The Childfree Life” as the new way that couples are “having it all.”
I haven’t commented on the story so far, because really, what is there to say? To me it’s total non-news that some people are happier – or, despite a desire for children, can still find happiness – without kids. There have always been people in my life who, for whatever reason, haven’t had children, and it’s never seemed strange to me at all.
In fact, when you grow up in a family where almost every nuclear unit consists of four or five kids, the kid-less aunt or uncle can be a welcome relief, and provide that quiet, calm house that kids in big families might otherwise never experience. Not to mention, my friends who don’t have kids balance out my five. (Between us, there’s a nice 2.5 average!)
But, two weeks later, I think I’ve figured out what was nagging at me about this story. It wasn’t the idea that people without children can and should be happy, because, duh.
Instead, it’s the idea that anyone – child-free or child-full – can really “have it all” (are we still beating that dead horse?). And the (incorrect) implication that life without kids is a joy ride of self-fulfillment, financial security and exotic adventures, while of course, parenting is mostly drudgery and expense.
Can we all just agree right now that the decision whether or not to have children is probably best based on whether or not one feels compelled to parent – and not whether said person would like to travel or live in a nice home or avoid diapers?
The people I know who don’t have kids still have to go to work, pay their mortgages and mow the lawn. Unless one is independently wealthy, the “child-free life” is not a recipe for unfettered relaxation and luxury.
And I know plenty of parents who travel and who have interesting jobs and beautiful homes and hobbies and rich social lives.
But moms and dads in the thick of the toughest years of parenting, covered in spit-up and poop and other bodily fluids, running on about 3 hours of sleep per night average, worried about the costs of daycare and riddled with anxiety over toxins in baby-food jars and plastic teething rings, can easily see a picture of a free-wheeling couple relaxing on the beach and wonder “Did I make the right decision to become a parent?”
Or even if they know they would rather have children than anything else, they can’t help but feel a twinge – okay, an outright spasm – of jealousy and resentfulness toward people who seem to have escaped the muck.
Setting one choice against the other as more fulfilling, more financially sustainable, or more fun just breeds envy between groups of people who, parenting status aside, are still people and not as different as these articles would like to make them out to be.
Here’s reality: Yes, the infant and toddler years are intense, and may not leave a lot of time or energy for fun. But they don’t last forever, and we still have a full, long life left on the other side.
So let me share with you a glimpse of where we are right now.
Clara is four, and is the last child not in school. We have two teenagers, who – so far anyway – are mostly great and, hello, also make very convenient live-in babysitters. I’m no longer nursing or changing diapers. I get eight-plus hours of sleep per night, almost every night.
While we are anything but child-free, we are still the people we were before we became parents. And more and more, we have been embracing that “child-free” side of ourselves:
- We go on impromptu Wednesday night dates. Because we can.
- We spend time together, just the two of us. Because we can.
- We get away with our friends on the weekends. Because we can.
And we “can” not only because we’re in this new and increasingly free stage of our lives, but also because we’ve set up our lives to make it possible:
We’ve created a community that encourages child-care sharing. From the time our friends’ and siblings’ kids were tiny – even when that meant adding more chaos to our own households from time to time – we’ve been willing and available to step up and help watch their kids when needed. And they do the same for us. Weekend cousin sleepovers and long afternoon playdates are common occurrences in our close family, and they make it possible for everyone to have some kid-free time.
We’ve asked for – and accepted – help. My mother-in-law and stepmother have both been happy to take the kids for overnights or weekends when Jon and I have plans. But first, we had to ask for it – and make a plan to use it.
We’ve nurtured friendships with people who don’t have kids. I am a big fan of forming friendships with other moms, but I think it’s easy to become a little narrow-minded after having children, and neglect friendships with non-parents. Some of our favorite couples don’t have kids, like Jeff and Lisa, with whom we recently had a weekend boating adventure. (Jeff snapped the above photo on our sunset cruise. Don’t you love the very classy dollar-store plastic cup I’m sipping wine out of? Talk about “having it all!”)
Our friends without kids aren’t living a high life of endless adventure, but they do tend to have more time in their lives for things like knowing the latest music and movies. Besides the fact that I just enjoy their company, hanging out with them is a nice way to stay tapped into the outside world.
We’ve kept our sense of adventure. “I’m a mom – I can’t do that!” Have you ever caught yourself saying – or just thinking – along these lines? Whether it’s staying out ’til the bar closes, dancing in public, wearing scandalous shoes or running through the Taco Bell drive-through at 3 AM, there are certain things we all associate with the younger, non-parent life.
But embracing the “child-free” side of you might mean doing something outside your comfort zone. Or something downright foolish. Like last year, when I convinced an awesome singer at a piano bar to let me perform “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” with him because it was my 35th birthday. I believe I finally persuaded him by telling him the song was “mother’s milk” to me, so he needn’t worry about my screwing it up. (His equally awesome wife snapped this photo, for which I am forever grateful, if also slightly embarrassed.)
Point being: you can be a mom (or dad) and still spontaneous and fun. Just because your life is all early bedtimes and sensible shoes 95% of the time doesn’t mean you can’t cut loose once in a while.
We’ve been patient.
The years of early childhood are fleeting and fast, my friends. There were entire years – I think of them as the spit-up years – when I simply didn’t go out. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun. I did! But for me, a fun night mostly consisted of having people over at my house and letting babies crawl around on the floor while we talked and laughed.
And while the minutes sometimes seemed to move unbelievably slowly, now that I’ve been in the thick of parenting for almost sixteen years, I sometimes cannot believe how quickly those years have flown. (And most people don’t have five kids, so most parents won’t be in the trenches nearly as long as we have.)
Either way, how you spend the infant and toddler years of your child’s life is not a recipe for how the rest of your years as a parent will go.
Parents or not, most of us are facing some version of “the child-free life”, whether it’s still a long ways off or just a few years away.
Let’s not waste time feeling envious of a fantasy that doesn’t exist for most people, parents or not. Instead, let’s create our own versions of the lives we want to lead.
With children or without, there is space in every person’s life for a little adventure and a lot of fun.
No, we can’t have it all…but we can have a heck of a great time with what we do have, whether we’re child-free, buried in babies, or somewhere in between.