During a very brief, very weird and very recent period of my life, I interned at a literary agency when I was far too old to be an intern. But it was great fun and I read some amazing things, and one of the books that really stuck with me was submitted by a fellow blogger (Jennifer Richardson) who writes about many of the same topics I do. Her memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to Marriage, chronicles her move from Los Angeles to England with her British husband after promising her grandchild-hungry parents that they would soon start trying for a baby. Taking up a noisy London flat eventually inspired them to purchase a very charming, very ramshackle old cottage as a weekend house in The Cotswolds. Where, of course, hilarity ensues with the locals. I truly couldn’t put it down. Not because it was witty, well-written and interesting (though it was all of those things), but because so much of Jennifer’s content mirrored my own wishy-washiness about motherhood:
Between all the house decorating, visits to the wine bar, and auctions, I had hardly had time to think anymore about motherhood. Only when my birth control prescription ran out was I forced to confront my own ambivalence on the matter. And unencumbered by any biological urges, I realized ambivalence was not a foundation that would sustain me, much less my husband, through sleepless nights and chafed nipples. Still I was ill at ease with my choice. I envied those women who have motherhood emblazoned on their brainwaves like Manifest Destiny. I had no tangible reasons to avoid it—good jobs, a home, a willing husband—yet I had no real urge either. More infuriating was that I didn’t feel any particular passion about remaining childless. I was on no high horse about what a crappy world it is to bring a child into or that I was saving the planet by not contributing another carbon energy-consuming being to the cosmos. When I held friends’ babies in my arms I cooed, enjoyed the baby scent, admired their perfect skin, and marveled at their tiny fingernails. And then, after ten minutes or so, I was happy to hand them back.
I too have found myself lacking a determined passion one way or the other for years now, almost wishing for something major to happen (what, I don’t know) that would sway me (which way, also don’t know). After Jennifer’s move to England, she spend a few months avoiding the parenthood thing before she ran into her “something major”: an unexpected diagnosis of multiple sclerosis-like symptoms. Feeling like this latest news was good cause to put the kids issue on the back burner, her doctor made an off-hand comment about new research suggesting that pregnancy – of all things! – could potentially prevent them developing into full-blown MS. Six months passed and the symptoms began to wane on their own when she ran into another something major. And this time, being approached with a job offer finally helped clarify her thoughts:
Toward the end of August I flew to Boston for work, where I was to meet with a particular executive for the first time. We sat in his corner office, his chubby face peering out at me over his desk as he slow-burned through a series of roundabout questions, culminating in whether or not I was “in a good place in my life” to take on more work. It dawned on me that this was the politically correct way a white American male asked a woman in her late thirties if it was safe to promote her. Was she preoccupied by young children? Was she planning on announcing a pregnancy anytime soon? These were the questions that shimmered just under the surface of our chatter. My response, which felt like an awkward confessional, came without hesitation: …
Wait, did you really think I’d blow the ending for you? What kind of jerk do you think I am?
Besides, it’s best you read the whole thing for yourself. Many of you who relate to the issues we talk about here will really feel at home in this memoir. And you’ll get to take a lovely trip through The Cotswolds while you’re at it, where you’ll learn, amongst many other things, how to make the perfect martini (as told to Jennifer in a country pub):
The instructions for the dry martini and the extra-dry martini were provided by the late, legendary David Foster-Ward and require going to New York in the nineteen seventies and grabbing a stool at the old Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel. Upon ordering a dry martini from Bill the bartender, he would simply hold up the glass of vodka and whisper the word “vermouth” over it. If you ordered an extra-dry martini, Bill would call the bartender at the Waldorf Astoria and have him say “vermouth” over the phone as he held the glass up to the receiver.
Even if her book doesn’t help you make up your mind, at least you’ll be left with a collection of country pub lessons such as these. And couldn’t we all use a good dirty martini legend?
The couples featured on House Hunters are generally pretty easy targets in the WTF is Wrong With These People department. There are the women who refuse to buy houses because of easily replaceable dirty bathtubs or unfortunate fruit-themed kitchen wallpaper. And the men who hate those women and therefore need a Man Cave to escape them for as many hours as possible out of the day. But by far, the prospective buyers who took the Crazy Cake for me were the mid-twenties-ish couple buying a house with their parents. We’re not talking about parents chipping in for the down payment. We’re talking about parents living there, full-time. I spent most of this episode with my jaw hanging open; a fly could have taken up residence in my mouth. Who were these nutjobs who thought living with their parents as adults would be a good idea?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy spending time under the same roof as my parents. But permanent roommates? It would be a coin toss to see which of us would smother the other with a pillow in the night after four weeks of me leaving used Kleenexes on the coffee table and my mom plucking shirts she doesn’t like out of my laundry pile and tossing them “for my own good”.
But these freaks on House Hunters…they spent most of the episode talking about how well they got along and how they wanted to spend all their time together. Just when I began to think they’d recently escaped from a cult in New Guinea, the young wife made a comment about the parents that brought it all into perspective: “But mostly it’ll be really great to have them around to help with the kids we’re planning on having soon.”
Ahhhhh. Got it. Free babysitting labor. I’ve seen this game before. Friends of mine who previously would have rather slept on the office couch than spend a week camped out with their mother-in-laws are now welcoming them (and their uncomplaining diaper-changing attitude) with open arms, for as long as they’ll stay. Because they’re desperate. Desperate for a night of uninterrupted sleep, a solo shower, a dinner not consumed while standing up or composed of spaghettios straight from the can.
But I’ve always wondered in these scenarios…does their entire outlook on their parents or in-laws change? Do they now have a newfound respect for them and actually enjoy having them under their roof for extended periods of time? Or are things simply so dire that they’re willing to accept any living conditions that provide them with even the briefest respite from the demands of parenthood?
If it’s the latter, well, that’s just terrifying. More terrifying than fruit-themed wallpaper.
On a completely random note, I love this drinking game I stumbled across when looking for a corresponding photo for this post:
After a good deal of speculation in the media, Portia de Rossi’s recent interview in Out magazine finally addresses the question…
Are Ellen and Portia going to have kids?
The answer: A resounding NO. I have to wonder if her portrayal of Lindsay Bluth Fünke on Arrested Development – generally regarded as one of television’s worst, or at least most neglectful, parents – in any way seeped into her subconscious and influenced this decision. Mother to teenage sass-pot Maeby with her husband Tobias, Portia seems to operate much like parents think the Childfree do. Drinking till the wee hours, spending all her money on shoes and make-up, always wanting to try out the hot new restaurant. And she’s consistently slammed for it by her brother Michael (a real stand-up dad).
Perhaps she thought that if she and Ellen had a child, she’d wind up following in the footsteps of her slipshod character by:
1) Being awful at motherly activities like cooking up a homey meal:
Narrator: Michael had asked Lindsay to do the housework, and to his surprise, she was sort of doing it.
Lindsay: Hey, I found that canned ham that we’ve had forever, and I put it in a pot of boiling hot water, and guess what we’re having? Michael: Soup?
Lindsay: Hot ham water.
2) Not remembering important stats about her child:
Jessie: I think it’s best if you got a job.
Lindsay: Oh, come on! I’m a parent, I care about my daughter every bit as much as Michael cares about his son.
Maeby: What grade am I in?
Lindsay: What kind of job?
3) Ruining her sex life:
Michael: Tell me, at what point did you realize that you and Tobias had no chance at a physical relationship?
Lindsay: …Oh, my God! Tobias and I have no chance at a physical relationship?
Michael: …So, just now?
Yes, playing Lindsay for three seasons and now gearing up for Arrested Development’s much-anticipated comeback on Netflix might have had a little something to do with their decision. But I suspect it had a lot more to do with the fact that she and Ellen are happy as hell with the way things are.
“Married life is blissful, it really is. I’ve never been happier than I am right now.” ~ Portia
Who would want to mess with a thing like that? Not someone who’s got a pretty clear head on her shoulders when it comes to understanding how much having a child would change her life:
“There comes some pressure in your mid-30s, and you think, Am I going to have kids so I don’t miss out on something that other people really seem to love? Or is it that I really genuinely want to do this with my whole heart? I didn’t feel that my response was ‘yes’ to the latter. You have to really want to have kids, and neither of us did. So it’s just going to be me and Ellen and no babies.”
Fine by me, because if a cast member pregnancy had caused ANOTHER delay to the new Arrested Development season coming out…well, let’s just say I would have had to hit the liquor cabinet, Lucille Bluth-style.
As the world’s tardiest movie critic, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on a little film that came out over a year ago: Friends with Kids, starring Jennifer Westfeldt (who also wrote and directed it), Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolf, Adam Scott, and Kristen Wiig.
I watched this gem last night, and to sum up my thoughts, I present to you my exchange with my husband:
Me: “Was that really bad acting, really bad writing, or really bad directing?”
I have to admit, I had high hopes for this movie. It originated from a screenplay that the Childfree Westfeldt wrote based on her real-life experience of her friends all but disappearing from her life (that she shares with fellow Childfree partner Jon Hamm) once they had kids. Sounds, no doubt, eerily familiar to many of you? But instead of touching on the subtle nuances of life as the last in your group to have babies (or the only ones to choose not to), they went only for over-the-top clichés: kindercrap blanketing the floor, watching your previously happily-married friends scream at each other about whose turn it is to feed the baby, the horrors of explosive diapers, threadbare dads getting wildly drunk at the dinner table after being criticized for not spending enough time with the kids, et cetera, et cetera.
I think the reason I’m most upset about this movie is that there was so much good material that never made it in there. What about trying to have a conversation with your first-time parent friends who can’t break eye contact with the baby for more than 5 seconds, which somehow leaves you feeling guilty for trying to switch to a non-baby topic? What about no one showing up to your birthday dinner, despite your attempt to plan it at a baby-friendly locale? What about a Girls Night Out where the moms who actually allowed their husbands to “babysit” spend most of the night on their phone, checking baby defecation stats? What about friends who used to post interesting and thoughtful updates on Facebook, or comment on the interesting/thoughtful updates of others, who now exclusively post photos of their baby laying next to the monthly marker sign? What about people you haven’t heard from in a year coming out of the woodwork to ask for babysitting help so they can go to a dinner you’re not even invited to?
Even as I write these things out, I know they’ll be perceived as trivial and (our favorite Childfree adjective!) selfish. Of course they only post about their baby on Facebook, it’s the most important thing in their lives right now! Of course they have to check their phone when they’re out, they’re a MOM now! Yes, yes. I know. I get it. But the point is that a million trivial little things add up to one big ball of, well, sadness for the way things used to be with your friendships. It’s not hit-you-over-the-head depressing; it’s a slow burn.
The movie isn’t much help because the two childless main characters decide to have a baby and join the malarkey. They no longer notice their friends aren’t around because now they’re not around. But what happens to the Childfree who don’t want to jump on the baby bandwagon? Maybe they form new friendships. But Childfree friends are few and far between and nothing can ever really replace the history you have with your oldest friends. Maybe they appoint themselves captains of maintaining friendships in the group and help organizing babysitting co-ops, etc., so people can still get together. But that sounds like a pretty tough job, and let’s face it, the pay is crap. Maybe they start traveling around the world or developing enough hobbies so they no longer notice that no one’s around anymore. But if you’re tight on vacation funds and aren’t really a hobby person, where does that leave you? Alone with a good book, I suppose. Or if you’re lucky, a couple of cats and a partner.
Are you thoroughly depressed yet? That’s what I was hoping for out of Friends with Kids – some kind of emotional impact that I could relate to, that got to the heart of what it’s like to be the only ones in your friend group not to have kids. It just didn’t get there. I’m being unfair though – they probably did only a cursory sweep of the Childfree woes because that wasn’t really the point of the story. It was, after all, a romance. I think I just expected more emphasis on the “before-baby” phase out of a Childfree writer, but maybe it started out that way and was drained of all its nuance by the Hollywood execs. And perhaps someone else needs to start writing the story that didn’t really get told…
Please don’t ask me why, but I decided to give one of the characters in the book I’m working on a Dr. Phil obsession. In my extensive research on the man (which has consisted mainly of laughing at his mustache from different photographic angles), I came across what I have to admit is a real gem of a quote:
“Sometimes you make the right decision, and sometimes you have to make the decision right.” ~ Dr. Phil McGraw
Wow. I kind of liked that. A lot. Because the implication there is that sometimes you can’t always make the “right” decision, or that there is no right decision. The more time I spend on this issue and the more Fence-Sitters I talk to, the more I’m convinced that there are a category of people who aren’t destined to be parents, and they aren’t passionately Childfree either. But unfortunately, each of us must make a decision, because at a certain point, even inaction is a decision thanks to ‘ole Ma Nature.
The idea that you don’t have to make the right one is somewhat comforting. But then the onus is on you to make it the right one. At first blush, it almost seems like that’s an easier task for those who choose parenthood. Because quite frankly, they don’t have much of a choice. They now have a tiny someone to mold into a productive adult, and doing it while moaning and moping around just isn’t going to work, and isn’t fair to the kid. Even those who didn’t enter parenthood willingly or enthusiastically usually find a way to find joy in the little things. If they didn’t, there’d be a lot more suicide attempts from top row of the bleachers after being subjected to watching a pack of seven year olds take turns scoring points for their opponents or dribbling the ball off their shoe. And to be perfectly honest, parents just don’t have a whole lot of time on their hands to whip themselves into a What-If tizzy.
So what about making the decision right for the Childfree? Suddenly seems a little harder. Maybe it’s because the Childfree are always being asked to defend their choice. To explain why they needed to keep all their time and money and sanity to themselves. And we feel like we have to have some pretty damn good answers. Needing the freedom to do things like spend more time with the extended family you already have, devoting yourself to a meaningful career, volunteering in the community are all good checklist items…but those To-Do’s seem awfully far off when one finds themselves wasting another Friday night on a cheap sauv blanc and a Netflix Cheers marathon. We should be out doing the more noble, interesting things we said we would. But without anyone hanging over our heads to demand it, who’s gonna be around to make sure we make the decision right?
No one, I guess. But much like those who choose parenthood owe to their kids to make it right, the Childfree owe it to their spouses, their pets, their careers, the world (which does, in fact, need Childfree people), but most importantly themselves, to make it right. They may just have to work a little harder at it.
Dr. Phil, thank you for the stimulating quote. I take back every bad thing I said about you when you’re ridiculous hillbilly accent.
And now, just because I love it, a Dr. Phil’s Take on Men Meme: