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…
Few things strike terror into the heart of a Childfree person as quickly as being left to make conversation with a child under the age of eight. But here are the top five things I just don’t want to chat about with anyone’s kids…
Aside from being a horrifically boring topic of conversation, I’m afraid I just don’t have a punchy enough answer. Maybe if I had some glamorous color in mind, like the elusive crayon box Chartreuse or some exotic paint name from Sherwin-Williams. What am I supposed to say? Black like my soul, as evidenced by my entire wardrobe?
2. Why the Sky is Blue
Namely because I haven’t the faintest idea. Do YOU? I didn’t think so. You may start out all high and mighty, spouting off about light wavelengths being absorbed by gas molecules, but you’ll devolve into mumbling about photosynthesis just like the rest of us.
3. What They Learned in School Today
How could anything good come of this line of questioning? Do you really want to hear about how a five-year old:
- Thinks Ms. Thompson is more beautiful than you. And younger than you. And nicer than you. And funnier than you?
- Had to participate in active-shooter training and learn how to hide and/or run if someone comes into the school with a machine gun?
- Did digital finger painting on a tablet you couldn’t operate if your life depended on it?
4. Birds, Bees & Other Winged Creatures
Egads. Could anything be more awkward than the birds and bees conversation? Especially with your own child! (My sympathies, parents) Why has this service not been outsourced? Why is there no company called Aunts ‘R Us dispatching chic thirty-somethings to give them all the deets?
5. Why Life Isn’t Fair
Barely edging out “because I said so” for every kid’s least favorite explanation, “life isn’t fair” can be a rather unsatisfying response to the more capricious happenstances of our existence. Why indeed, does Kelsey get to have her ears pierced twice? Or Nate get a shiny new Land Rover? Or Celeste get to stay out till the wee hours drinking Boone’s Farm at her much-older boyfriend’s apartment? Life isn’t fair just doesn’t seem to cover it, and I have no answers beyond that one.
This is, by no means, a comprehensive list. Each time I spend longer than a minute and a half with a child of speaking age, I discover a new topic of conversation I’m ill-equipped to handle. A more enterprising young lady would no doubt catch up on the latest Dora the Explorer drama (Diego gave Boots a rotten banana?!) to ensure a steady flow of dialogue.
But, friends, let’s be honest; pretending to receive a very important phone call and talk to dead air while they busy themselves with Legos is much more practical.
It’s hard to find a Childfree book or blog out there that doesn’t cite a desire not to contribute to overpopulation as a pretty solid reason not to have kids. So imagine my surprise when I opened a letter from my mom* and out tumbled a clipping of the Wall Street Journal’s “America’s Baby Bust” article, with the dramatic subtitle:
The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse.
But for such a strongly worded opening, the article falls short of explaining just what all those problems are, and how they stack up against the alternative – the pile of issues that arise in times of overpopulation. Jonathan Last, who penned the article, warns against the decline in innovation associated with low-fertility societies, but focuses mostly on the economic impact of an aging population, saying…
They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees.
Call me a pessimist, but I haven’t for one moment believed I’ll see a dime of social security when I round into my sixties. It’s why I started dutifully putting away fifty percent of my Burger King paycheck at the ripe young age of 15. It’s why Drew and I are pretty aggressive with our 401k and ROTH contributions.
And guess what – it’s part of the #1 reason why Drew and I are reluctant to have kids: we’re not sure we can afford them. Not having kids is a pretty darn good way to ensure we won’t have to rely on a potentially non-existent social security system some day. To suggest that we need to have babies to create more workers so someone will potentially fund our social security payouts seems, well, a bit like going about things the hard way. Or at the very least, a seriously high-stakes gamble.
And yet, Last believes that…
If our fertility rate were higher—say 2.5, or even 2.2—many of our problems would be a lot more manageable.
But what about the bajillion problems that would be entirely unmanageable if we got that fertility rate up that high? Do we really need to send more kids into already over-crowded classrooms to get a crap education? Do we need working moms to increase the number of days they need to be out with a sick child? More kids on welfare? More crowded prisons? Less places for me to buy already outrageously overpriced homes in Southern California? More energy, water and trees being used up for diapers, laundry and homework?
Not referencing these, the article instead shifts focus to the source of the decrease:
There’s a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.
This is only a partial list, and many of these developments are clearly positive.
Many of them are positive? Which of them aren’t – that part about people focusing education, or the one about women having careers? I’m about the furthest thing from a feminist, but even I was a little ruffled by that one. But even more disturbing was the follow-up passage on happiness:
There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.
Mere happiness? Sort of a dismissive adjective for such a life-altering,. The Dalai Lama told us the purpose of our lives is to be happy. Thomas Jefferson found it important enough to name as one of our unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, placed on the same shelf as life and liberty. I’m going go ahead and argue that a life without happiness isn’t worth living. Is it not then worthy of being a primary (if not the only) consideration in making major life choices? Perhaps he meant to say fleeting or temporary or shallow happiness as most people do who are so quick to judge the Childfree. But he didn’t, so I suppose we’re left to assume that happiness in general shouldn’t be considered a marker for the well-lived life.
He does, however, have a solution for making the act of parenting a happier and easier state of being, believing that…
The government cannot persuade Americans to have children they do not want, but it can help them to have the children they do want.
His remedy? Tax breaks, higher education reform and additional telecommuting options. A good (if not unfair for the Childfree) start. But what about the other things that make it so difficult to raise children today? Insufficient maternity leave policies in a workplace that expects total career dedication? Insane childcare costs? Grandparents, aunts and uncles spread out across the world and entirely unavailable to share the burden? Dora the Explorer videos on loop?
I get it. There are significant economic and social impacts that go along with a fledgling fertility rate. But it seems strange to ignore the glaring problems associated with trying to place the load of parenting responsibilities on a society ill-equipped to handle it gracefully. Stranger still to sum it all up with Mr. Last’s closing statement:
If we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.
*Note: My mom sent me the article not because she agrees with The Wall Street Journal’s inspirational notes on maintaining our world domination, but because she likes sending me what she refers to on sticky notes as simply “more blog fodder”.
Friends, I turned 29 yesterday for the fourth consecutive year in a row. And for the first time since, well, birth – I wasn’t really in the mood to celebrate. For no particular reason – nothing had gone wrong, I wasn’t bemoaning the fact that I was sliding further into my thirties, no one important forgot the occasion. In fact, everyone went above and beyond for what I would consider a relatively benign aging milestone.
Drew surprised me on Friday night with a little last-minute jaunt down to Hermosa for the 10 Comics for $10 with a few friends. He organized a Saturday dinner out, followed by drinks at the local nautically-themed watering hole. He made a double-decker chocolate cake from SCRATCH that experienced some sort of tectonic shift in the car on the way to the restaurant, but tasted delicious nonetheless. He got me thoughtful gifts, only 50% of which I intend to return (a new record in our house). BOTH my brothers remembered to call. My parents sent a card full of glitter, cats and money – my three favorite things. Jacques and Olivia got their furry butts up at 4:45 am to make me breakfast. Wait, maybe that was the other way around…
Even some of my friends with kids battled Santa Monica traffic to make it out to dinner, though little Sienna couldn’t possibly have been more bored.
As you can see, it certainly wasn’t for lack of anyone else’s trying that I didn’t have an exhilarating birthday. So what’s up? Maybe I’m just worn out. Admittedly, the last few birthdays have been over the top. Last year, I dragged everyone out for a heavy Indian meal and then made them. For my 30th, I made Drew (affectionately known thereafter as Jeeves) rent a van to cart us from a Moroccan dinner to a karaoke bar. I forced the boys to belly-dance.
And I was totally jazzed to do it all. It would stand to reason that it’s difficult to sustain that kind of frenzied excitement, year after year. But up until last week, I had. The arrival of my birthday was a much-anticipated event – Drew called it my birthmonth in response to how long I dragged out the festivities. I snapped the old-school equivalent of a roll of film at each, but the only photo I took this past weekend was the fuzzy baby photo above. So where’d my birthday zest go?
Is it any coincidence that the time at which your birthday loses its luster coincides with the age at which most people are now having babies? Are we trying to re-capture the excitement of our youth through the eyes of our kids? A Spiderman cake and a bowling alley party is about all it takes to send a youngster into the clutches of ecstasy. I mean, look how thrilled I am just to be watching my brother open a gift:
I imagine my parents got a pretty big kick out of it too. So there’s something tempting about letting your own birthday slide into the sunset in favor of planning celebrations for someone else who’ll be over the moon about it. Put simply, it takes some of the pressure off generating your own zeal.
But the idea of living vicariously through kids in any way has always made me a little wary. Does it mean we’re not capable of sustaining enthusiasm for our own life events beyond our twenties? Are we taking the easy way out of enjoying our own lives by having kids, or are we simply moving on something new? Are we giving up on ourselves or just giving our all for someone else (or are those the same thing)?
Ideally, if we become parents, we should be doing both. Unfortunately, I think it becomes all too easy to let your own grand plans, desires and dreams fall by the wayside. As well as your spouse’s. Luckily, Drew’s needs often mirror those of a child’s. For the past five years, he has been unwavering in his birthday demands: pizza and a pool party. Now if he ever wants to move it to Chuck E. Cheese, we’ll have to have some words.
Last year, we had a heated discussion (literally, it took place in our hot tub) about whether your child’s Godparents should already have kids or at least be planning to have kids someday. The real question being…
Are the Childfree more or less equipped than parents to play an important role in a child’s life?
The evolution of the Godparent role has always been a little fascinating to me. Originally meant to serve as the person who would ensure your child continued their religious education, the role expanded at some point to include some element of mentorship and getting them out of jail without telling their parents when they smash their car through the front of a 7-Eleven after one too many Boone’s Farm Wild Strawberry’s. [Philosophical question: Isn’t one Boone’s Farm Wild Strawberry’s “too many”?] But I think the Godparent gig has gone a little lax of late. Some are now little more than glorified wallets, setting Outlook reminders to send lavish gifts for birthdays, holidays and important milestones to children who don’t recognize the significance of the relationship.
In fact, I didn’t even know I’d been baptized Catholic (and thus assigned Godparents) until high school when I ran across this gem in the family photo shoebox line-up:
I don’t know who looks snazzier here – me in my golden-striped bib or my mom in the lavender couch cover. Perhaps it’s best I have no recollection of this event, but part of the reason I don’t is that the subject of my Godparents was never raised. I never received any flowery cards on kindergarten graduation day signed “your loving Godmother” or some other such rubbish. According to my mother, whom I interviewed upon drafting this post, my Godmother is actually my Grandma Betty. Who, quite obviously, already had children of her own. Five, to be exact. Which isn’t to say she didn’t have time for me. Why, just look how thrilled she looks to be spending time with us at some event involving Town & Country buses! And us with her!
[note: those are my brothers to the left, but I have no idea who the blonde is whose rear end I’m giving such a disgusted look]
In all seriousness though, she was there for us as children and did wonderful things and gave us gifts and welcomed us to her home on vacations, etc., but she did it as a Grandma, not a Godparent. Which makes me wonder about the opportunities for those who don’t have kids of their own, or even nieces and nephews, and therefore haven’t been an automatic candidate for Godparenthood.
Through this site, I’ve gotten to know plenty of Childree people who have no desire to have kids of their own, but do crave some sort of interaction with kids and want to secure an important spot in their lives. With all the free time, relatively undivided attention, and, well, cash, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they’d be great candidates for Godparenthood? But most of the babies I’ve seen come over the past few decades have been assigned to someone who already has kids or is definitely planning on having them.
Some might say there’s no need for official designations, that you can choose to ingratiate yourself into any child’s life simply by stepping up and being there. But for someone like me who’s naturally awkward around kids and disinclined to form a random attachment, the formalization of a role would be all that I would need to really excel as a Godmom. And despite all my blather on this site, I think I’d do a damn fine job at it. But prior to uploading this post, I’m pretty sure 99% of my friends and family would’ve said I wouldn’t have wanted the job.
So here’s my public announcement: I am currently accepting applications for Godchildren (must love cats, REO Speedwagon, and bacon egg and cheese biscuits), and those of you who don’t know me and are going to have children – don’t overlook your Childfree friends and family, because they just might be your most eager candidates.