During my twenties, childfree friends vastly outnumbered those with kids. It took me years to get to a stage where my knee-jerk reaction to a friend’s pregnancy announcement stopped being “oh no! What are you going to do?” It was hard to adjust to the idea that my friends were getting pregnant on purpose, and that pregnancies now warranted announcements and celebrations rather than panicked whispers. As we moved towards our thirties, the balance started to shift until there were more of us with kids than without. And finally, at 35, I became just about the last one standing alone.
I knew that this was bound to happen eventually. When I made the decision not to have children, I did so with the understanding that there was a strong possibility that I’d be in the minority among my friends. Likewise, I was well aware that as my friends became parents, our relationships would change. But I really wasn’t prepared for what those changes looked like, and how they would make me feel.
If I had to choose one word to describe what it feels like to be the only one of your friends who doesn’t have a child, the word I would pick is “Lonely”. When I was first contemplating whether or not I wanted kids, I was warned that to do so would be to opt for a life of loneliness. That warning hinted that the loneliness would come from not having a house full of tiny people, but that’s not my experience.
Firstly, the loneliness comes from gradually finding your pool of available friends dwindling. While once your mates were carefree, with wide-open calendars ready to be filled with coffee dates and Halloween parties and karaoke nights. Now it seems like their every free moment is jam-packed with playgroups and swimming lessons and jimberoo classes. Kids take up a lot of time, and it’s hard to find a free moment to organise a catch up. There are people I used to see every couple of weeks that I’m now lucky to get an annual coffee-and-chat date with. Over time, your friends’ lives fill with family commitments, and slowly they have less time for outside friendships.
The second source of loneliness is the feeling of being gradually phased out of your friends’ social circles. People with kids tend to socialise with other people who have kids. They meet new mates at all the extra-curricular activities they’re attending. They bond with other people in their New Parents Groups and begin organising family catch-ups. Not only do they have a lot of shared experiences, they can offer each other support and advice. But that means that if you don’t have kids, you tend to get left out a lot. You don’t get invited to the mum’s coffee meet-ups or the kid’s birthday parties. Often, people assume that because you don’t have kids, you won’t be interested in hanging out at the park or celebrating a McDonald’s birthday party. So you don’t get an invite to family-centred events. On the rare occasion that someone does invite me, I find myself being left out of the conversation. People with kids tend to talk a lot about their children, and if you don’t have one, you can’t join in the sharing of birth stories or offer tidbits for getting them to sleep through the night. It kind of feels like being the weird kid in class, the one who nobody invites to their birthday parties, and who awkwardly tried to join in with the popular kid’s conversations. Your life looks completely different to everyone else’s, and you feel alienated by that fact. There are still some wonderful friends who make the effort to reach out, particularly during hard times. But often I feel like I’ve been swept out by the tide, left behind as everyone else moves in the opposite direction.
Once I sought advice about how to deal with the feelings of loneliness that came up when a close friend had their first baby. I was feeling hurt that this friend never seemed to have time for me, and when we did talk all they wanted to discuss was their child. I felt rejected and frustrated that we never seemed to have time to discuss what was going on in my life. The advice I received was something along the lines of “You have to make peace with the fact that for a while, parenting is going to be their top priority. They’re going to have less time and energy for socialising, and you might have to put in more effort for a few years. And during this period you can spend time with other friends who meet the needs this friend can’t satisfy”. And that’s good advice, but what happens when most or all of your friends have kids? When all of your relationships are unbalanced, and you’re the one keeping them all limping along? What about if you don’t have any other friends who can satisfy that need for connection?
You might try to make new friends. But that’s easier said than done. Firstly, once you reach your mid-thirties, most other people in their mid-thirties have children, so there’s a smaller pool of child-free folks to pal around with. You can try to make friends with people who are significantly younger or older than you, but that can feel awkward and strange. A great way to meet new people is to join clubs or interest groups. When I was living in a country town, the only social groups I could find were sporting clubs (definitely not my thing) or mother’s groups. There were Mum’s Book Clubs, Mum’s and Bubs yoga classes, Mummy and Me craft groups and more. It seems that having a baby was a pre-requisite for joining any club. If you’re lucky enough to live in a big city, there are more options. But trying to make new friends as an adult is hard.
The alienation makes itself felt in other ways too. Little comments, which come from a very well-intentioned place can really sting. Comments like “you don’t know what love is until you’ve held your own child in your arms” or “You have no idea what tired feels like until you have a newborn” never fail to make me feel belittled. Ok, I’ve never had a child of my own. But I have felt deep, unconditional love. I love my parents and my brother, I love my partner, I love my pets. The love I feel for them isn’t less than the love you feel for a child. It’s not less important or powerful because I didn’t grow them in my body. Similarly, I haven’t been woken up multiple times a night by a newborn. But I have studied a double degree at university. I went through a period where I was working three jobs. I’ve been a carer for someone with a terminal illness. I’ve recovered from a stroke. Believe me, I know what tired feels like. The tiredness you experience when you have a baby isn’t somehow more valid than everyone else’s tiredness. These kind of comments, however well-intentioned, invalidate the feelings and experiences of people who don’t have kids. They make me feel like my experience, opinions and feelings are less important simply because I haven’t had a child.
And over time, those feelings of invalidation and loneliness build up. It’s isolating to feel like you’re on the outside looking in, that you’re less valuable than the people with kids. It’s hard not to feel like you’ve made the wrong choice, not because you wish you had a child of your own, but just because you long to be included, to be like everyone else. Your friends don’t seek to exclude you, and some may actively make an effort to include you in their lives. But even so, there’s still a sense of imbalance at times, that you have to wait on the sidelines watching everyone else play the game. And even though you don’t want to be on Team Parenthood, you’d like to do a little more than hand out orange slices at half-time and give everyone a pat on the back for a game well played. I don’t have answers, and I don’t know how to make it better. But I can offer a lifeline to anyone else who feels this way, to remind you that you’re not alone, and not being a parents doesn’t make you less of a person. It sucks, it’s hard, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for living authentically, for not doing something that doesn’t work for you.