I have a lot of friends who, for a variety of reasons, are not parents, and I've often thought about the ridiculousness of the prejudices they face. But a sentence in a Slate piece
by the always loathesome but occasionally thought-provoking Katie Roiphe made me think a little harder about my own attitudes toward them. She wrote that parents "secretly feel sorry for or condescend to or fail to understand women who don’t have children." And when I look deep into my heart, I have to admit that yes, I do feel a little sorry for my friends who have never had kids of their own. I feel sorry for them in the way that I imagine triathletes feel sorry for couch potatoes like me -- I'm a little sad that my friends won't get to experience a whole constellation of joys that have been so meaningful for me. Because I care deeply about my friends, I wish them every joy life has to offer, and of course I'd love to share the joys I've experienced with them.
But because I'm an adult with ego boundaries, I also understand that what brings me joy might not bring another person joy. And because I have eyes and a brain, I can see that my childless friends have pretty great lives. They have the freedom to travel during the school year, work late into the night, devote their lives to a cause. There have been many, many times when I envied them -- particularly during the endless days of toddlerhood, when I wished for nothing more than an interruption-free half hour. There was also the time our friends got to stay for the whole Jonathan Coulton concert while we had to leave halfway through the second set because our babysitter had to get up early in the morning to row crew. I still haven't completely gotten over missing out on the live performance of "First of May."
When I was in my twenties and didn't intend to have children, a co-worker told me that because I wasn't a selfish person, I'd probably change my mind. I did change my mind, but I've never seen anything remotely unselfish about it. My childless friends include doctors, engineers, ecologists, university professors, musicians, teachers, writers, and ministers. They're hardly just taking up space in the world. Whether they're childless by choice or by accident of fate, they've all found meaningful work and satisfying relationships. At any given moment, they may be more or less happy with their niches in the world -- just as I'm sometimes more or less happy with mine.
So I don't think occasionally feeling a little sad that some of my favorite people will never get to experience a particular pleasure that has been important to me is the same as harboring some deep, condescending pity for them. I mean, I feel a little bad for my lactose-intolerant friends, too, but I hope they don't think that means I think less of them for it.
Now that my kids are too old for babysitters -- and, in fact, are just a few years from leaving home -- my time with them feels precious. I can't say I've enjoyed every minute with them, but I'm pretty sure I'm happier with them in the world than I would have been without them. And my non-parent friends have been able to share my joy in watching them grow up, and now get to enjoy knowing them as thoughtful, interesting young adults.
Bottom line, I think the whole parent-nonparent divide is overblown. People who want kids should have them. People who don't want kids shouldn't have them. There's room in the world for all kinds of people. Can't we all just get along?