Sunday, November 11, 2012

Etiquette for parents, non-parents and would-be parents

I lucked out when I became a parent.  I had my kids at the same time many of my friends were having theirs and while this made those early years a lot more fun, it also spared me (and them) from the social minefield that sometimes occurs within a group of friends when one becomes a parent and "breaks up the band".

I always wanted to be a mother and knew that it would happen eventually so I enjoyed several years of career development, travel, sleep, dating and partying safe in the knowledge that one day I would be ready to put aside my dancing shoes for something different, something with staying power.

During these years, colleagues would have babies and bring them into the office for viewing and while I'd ooh and aah along with everyone else, I was in such a different head space that much of it seemed obligatory and after ten minutes or so, I'd wonder back to my office to think about the weekend's plans.

These days my weeknights and weekends tend to revolve around my kids - helping them with homework, going to the dollar store for project supplies, attending birthday parties and ferrying them to swimming, karate, soccer and other activities.  When I do go out with girlfriends, it's usually a quick lunch squeezed in between our respective appointments and we seem to talk mostly about parenting.  It's not that we're incapable of more sophisticated conversation; it's just that we're at a stage in life where parenting is important and all-encompassing and that's where the discussion usually gravitates.  There is an unspoken assumption that we will eventually move out of this stage and resume our life of partying, albeit aboard a seniors river cruise.

Not all my friends have children.  I have some friends who have chosen not to have children and others who would like to become parents but haven't been successful so far.  Finding conversation that works for everyone is a bit of a delicate balance.  For example, several years ago, I spent an afternoon with four old friends.  At the time, four of us had babies and one was happily child-free.  The parents were swapping war stories of sleepless nights and endless exhaustion and after a while our childless friend snapped, "If having children is so unpleasant, why did you even bother?" A chill set over the conversation before I gently explained that what may seem like complaining was really a way of bonding and coping with the challenges of new motherhood.  Her question was rude but she had a point and we hadn't realized we had been excluding her.

I can chat endlessly about my children with friends who have kids the same age and they are usually happy to indulge me because they are experiencing many of the same issues and have the same concerns and they're thankful to share ideas and solutions.  However, when I get together with friends whose kids are much older than mine, we don't spend much time on parenting.  They have already passed through the stages I am experiencing and they are dealing with other challenges like missing a child who has gone off to university. We politely ask after each other's offspring and either reminisce about past years or look forward to future years and then move on.

I'm sure my tales of getting an eight-year-old to do his homework are boring and tedious to my friends who have chosen to remain childless and likewise, I often can't relate to their stories and how they fill their time but that doesn't mean I don't ask.  When friends connect, I think it's prudent to at least ask for an update on the people and things that are precious to them, whether that's children, pets or their latest dance club exploits before moving on to mutually interesting topics.

It's also good to remember that prattling on about kids can be difficult for friends who want to be parents but for whom it hasn't happened yet. When I was expecting my second child, a friend who had been trying to have a baby for several years told me that she found it hard to spend time with me.  I wasn't offended.  I appreciated her honesty and felt sadness that something that came so easy to me was frustrating, even heartbreaking for her.  I respected her position and while I don't assume all women who are trying to conceive feel the same way, it has made me more cognizant of how I talk to people who are going through this.

Photos are another touchy subject.  Although we've never actually set official guidelines, my close circle of parent friends don't inundate each other with photos capturing our children's every stage.  We slip them in holiday cards and very occasionally email a proud moment but we don't pull out photo albums during dinner.  We love each other and, by extension, we love each others kids but the truth is most parents are just as bored as non-parents with oversharing.

I'll close this post with a plea for non-judgement.  We live in a culture that currently celebrates babies and motherhood, where celebrities grace magazine covers just for getting pregnant and the baby products industry is worth $30 billion.  With all this, it's easy to assume that parenthood is the only route to happiness for women and that's just ridiculous.  There are countless ways to have a rich, rewarding, full life and having children is just one of them.  If you have friends who have chosen not to reproduce, respect their choices and don't presume that your life is more meaningful than theirs. Likewise, I expect my childless friends to respect my choices and to accept that, while I love catching up with them, my schedule is not as flexible and I'm more inclined to go home after dinner than to continue the night elsewhere.

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