I have dear friends who have kids and dear friends who don't. Our interactions and conversations are so different and yet so important to who I am and, also, to how I raise my kids.
I had lunch with a friend who doesn't have kids a few weeks back and I must have voiced some complaint about being tired or the kids driving me crazy or something because she looked at me and asked, "Do you like having kids?"
I was silent for a moment. Yes. I like having kids, I said. But, honestly, I often feel totally unequipped to be raising kids, and it is tiring to do so much of it on our own, and sometimes I despair. We have friends who are amazing parents and we frequently lack their patience, resolve, and resources. It is hard not to feel envious and ill-prepared. But sometimes we do alright, and the incredible times--the times when your heart is filled with love to bursting, or when you can pause and just enjoy these incredible people-in-becoming, or when your house is filled with excitement, laughter, joy, play... those times certainly outnumber and outweigh the difficult times. And, I added, thinking of my pat line in these cases, being a parent has grown me up a lot.
I don't know about that response, my friend said, truthfully. Does that mean I'm not grown up?
I laughed. Well, I said, you were more grown up at fifteen than I was at thirty. So I'd say in your case, no. I was a late bloomer. And I think, personality-wise, I tend to be particularly selfish and self-involved. Having kids has forced me a little out of that. Or maybe not that much (see hoarding of Kindle Fire).
But maybe I didn't mean to say that kids have "grown me up" at all. I think what I mean to say is that it gives you a taste of a subject position that you otherwise just don't have, even as a caring Auntie, partner, or friend involved in little people's lives. This has nothing to do with maturity, after all, but it does allow you another turn of the kaleidoscope.
I think that our primary subject position for much of our lives is as child. Our experience of and perspective on parenting, largely, is shaped by our own experiences as a child of parents. We may have experiences of our parents as loving, judgmental, distant, sick, supportive, successful, absent, or any other number of combinations, perceived, real, and otherwise, but when we think about the parent/child dynamic, it is largely our experience as the child that determines how we think about parenting and being parents.
I don't mean to say the child subject position is immature or undeveloped. I don't mean "child" as in "little one," but rather as offspring in relationship to "parent." This also doesn't mean our views on parenting or parents don't have consequence--they have tremendous consequence. Some of you remind me that I must see my children as people in their own right and not simply as "mine," for one thing, and for that I am seriously grateful, and always think hard about our conversations after. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
Perhaps I'm simply deepening the defensiveness and angst that exists between those who have kids and those who don't by writing this. I know it is hard for those who have chosen to be kid-free to always have to say, "I know I'm not a parent, but..." and to be heard in a non-defensive way. I know terms like "childless" or even referring to you as "without kids" lacks sensitivity and emphasizes what one doesn't have instead of what one does. Parents can also be smug in their child-ful-ness, and self-obsessed, and martyr-like. I also know, as a parent, that sometimes advice from the kid-free lacks sensitivity and understanding as well. It can be full of smug judgment, too. I may also resent your ability to drop a bomb about how I'm raising my kids and then go back to your clean, quiet, house and watch t.v. all night, uninterrupted, and without smeared peanut butter on your jammy pants (unless you put it there). We all make our choices. The opportunities for resentment, misunderstanding, and conflict abound. And still so much goes unsaid.
What I'm trying to say is I think one of the by-products of our subject position as children is that we locate a lot of who we are now in the decisions our parents made. This part of me comes from the things that happened to me as a child, and so on. I do this. You do this. It's part of making sense of who we are as adults. This doesn't mean we don't take responsibility for our choices and who we are, but I think, as children, the scale tips toward attributing much of who we are to the way we were raised.
But then we might deliberately choose to have kids, or just have them without thinking much about the choice (which is what E. and I did), or have them on accident. Then we are introduced to a new subject position: that of the parent. All of a sudden, at least in my case, you begin to see the parent-child dynamic, at least in the abstract, in a new light. You have moments when you are exhausted, sick, grumpy, and do shitty, shitty things as a parent. You respond in a mean way to a tired or sick kid, or you collapse in a pile of tears because you just don't know how to handle your sassy, misbehaving, or criminal teenager anymore. You screw up and choose the wrong school for them, or you introduce them to a neighbor who molests them, or you shut down and forget to show them how to feel their feelings. You do permanent damage. You work hard to do things better than your parents did, but find out so much is out of your control, and trying to hold on to control only backfires. You are constantly dealing with your own profound and particular bullshit. You are terrified of projecting it on to your little ones. You figure out that your kids are their own little selves and sometimes you're just there to guide and support them, not make everything right for them. Which leads you to see that some of that must also have been true for you growing up. Which leads you to revisit some of the resentments you might hold as a child toward your parents, and maybe some of your pedestalizing, too.
All those "you's" should be "I's," of course.
Perhaps this is a false dichotomy. My friends who don't have kids have wisdom to share, and remind me frequently of what it is like to be the child (not because they are immature or child-like, but because they remember that as their primary subject position better, perhaps). They return me to sensitivity and love. They help remind me of the care I must express, of the great impact I can have on my kids' lives, of where I must fight and grow and reflect.
My friends with kids remind me of when I have to let go of control because my holding tight is squeezing the life out of things. They remind me to laugh and not take things so seriously. They occasionally ply me with wine and help me to unclench. They help me not feel so tired and old. They remind me that I will make mistakes no matter what and that there is no perfect.
I need both. I love you both.
What do you think? Do I have it wrong?