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The anthropology of childless adults

April 19, 2010

Dan and I—in the divide and conquer superhero style that characterizes our nights—get kids to bed and return to the friends swilling drinks at our kitchen table. Beers are refilled, dinner dishes swept away, and topics turn to night-skiing, trekking in Peru and other mind-scrambling events which seem to exist in a parallel universe where semi-continent people don’t follow you around hucking demands like pebbles from a slingshot.

These childless friends are like glamorous rock stars in my kitchen with their clean hair, houseful of chokeables and weekends yawning open like a board book tossed from a crib. Dan and I study them like anthropologists trying to solve an unanswerable riddle about our own lives without children. It’s like a Zen Koan: if you’re a parent who never had children who are you?

Sometimes I pass by a white Subaru, much like mine, except there’s no car seats in the back. And suddenly that car is awash in sophisticated intrigue, like it’s sole purpose must be to transport gorgeous people to exotic locations whereas my ten year old car is probably headed to the grocery store where I’ll be using all my brain power to launch high-level distractions on the cereal aisle.

And it’s not that I’d rather be trekking in Peru, or eschewing my responsible 10:00 PM bedtime for the salsa band that starts at 9:30. But I listen to our friends’ stories of napping in a field of columbines (presumably after doing something even more fun) with a little slug of drool sliding out of my mouth.

Meanwhile Dan and I exit parties just as the fun begins to avoid detonating the bombs ticking inside an overtired child’s head. We can’t seem to leave the house without a steamer trunk of snacks and sundries. Our weekends are a continual attempt to attain that perfect blend of child-friendliness and fun for adults, which exists only under acres of compromise. And what passes for conversation between Dan and I, sounds like this: “You do pajamas, I’ll do teeth.” “Okay. You do books, I’ll do lullabies.”

Last summer on a camping trip I watched our friends, a carefree twosome, walk hand and hand through the twilit meadow back to their tucked away camp, only dogs nipping at their heels. It was the most romantic thing I had ever seen. Meanwhile Dan and I were staring down a night of cuddling up with small, snoring, fleece-covered people who had a propensity to throw elbows and tragically misplace stuffed animals in the dark.

snuggles with Jojo

But, where the two worlds collide is a place of great beauty and opportunity. Our friends without children are dazzled by Col and Rose’s scribbly drawings, squeaky pronouncements on life and their immutable, exotic childness. They pop in after skiing with enough juice to read Col chapters from his Indian Stories book, and to chase Rose until she collapses. If this is the village it takes to raise children, sign me up.

Attacking Cody with love

Assisted breakdancing with Sage

The kids snooze while we get the scoop on the upcoming Peru adventure. Meanwhile, my eyelids sag and back aches from lugging today’s steamer trunk. I notice one freewheeling friend, pushing 40, is completely missing the forehead crease canyoned into my own head as if by the geologic events of motherhood. And as much as I miss several hundred things about pre-parenthood days, I would never trade this messy and lovely journey, not for an eternity of sleep-filled nights, not even for the smooth marble finish of unblemished skin. But, it’s 10:00 PM, too late to contemplate such mysteries.

*a slightly different version of this essay was previously published in The Durango Herald

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy permalink
    April 19, 2010 8:10 am

    “semi-continent people” – I love it! Great post, Rachel. I too, would never trade what I have….but sometimes get caught up in the “what-ifs” or the thoughts of what it will be like 10 years from now. But no need to rush things, right?

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 19, 2010 8:58 am

      Peggy, I console myself often with “what it’ll be like ten years from now,” or even TWO years. But I also know I’ll be a nostalgic mess in ten years, missing the little bodies who plop into my lap and wrap their limbs around me. It’s ironic like that isn’t it?

  2. April 19, 2010 8:30 am

    I’ve found that, for myself at least, I need to experience some of that carefree childlessness, though obviously only temporarily. That scene of your friends that you described during the camping, well, we experienced it once. We decided to go hiking and were on the trail in less than 5 minutes, after each of us attended to our own needs (sunscreen, water bottle, jacket). It was heaven. I wouldn’t give up the flannel wrapped nights for it, but it’s nice to experience every once in awhile.

  3. April 19, 2010 8:30 am

    “And as much as I miss several hundred things about pre-parenthood days, I would never trade this messy and lovely journey, not for an eternity of sleep-filled nights, not even for the smooth marble finish of unblemished skin.”

    Yes yes and yes!!!

    Beautiful post. And thank you.

  4. April 19, 2010 9:20 am

    Eric and I play ‘remember when’ sometimes after the kids have gone to bed. Although we remember our travels, our foodie dinners out, and our nights when we’d check into a hotel downtown and order room service just for the heck of it (oh, to think we used to do that!); we always come back to remembering the present day (even the crazy~want to pull your hair out day) and thank God, Goddesses and Buddha that we have our two sons. Nothing tops the journey we’re on with them. Those days of travel and dinner out will be back someday. :)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 19, 2010 9:28 am

      We love to play “remember when,” also, even if just to *remind* ourselves of how our lives used to look. And when Dan and I do have a date, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, we spent 50% of it talking and giggling and “awwing” over our kids.

  5. April 19, 2010 9:56 am

    so nice to know we’re not the only ones out there with fleeting bouts of childless envy. about 5 years before kids, my partner and took a year and a half to travel around the world and, while it’s given us lots of “remember when” material, I’m amazed at how fast talk morphs into “when we’ll be back” with the boys, and how they’ll see the places we saw with their own fresh eyes, and how we’ll be seeing them different, too, with our new “lenses”

  6. April 19, 2010 10:16 am

    I was looking at pictures of Jonathan and I before kids….We look so different. So young. I wouldn’t trade parenthood for the world either. I started having children in my late twenties. Sometimes actually, I wish I could have started younger. Then I think about my in-laws. They are living the life, I tell ya. They’re always traveling and doing fun stuff. We still have time Rachel! I have hope. But for now, I can still look at childless couples with wonder and envy! I love reading your writing Rachel. Thanks for another good one!

  7. Daryl permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:55 am

    Hilarious!!! So true. They seem so exotic and full of time and life and sometimes I have to keep from laughing at their “problems.” Which then makes me laugh at my own pre-child problems and cringe with embarassment over loud proclemations I made to parents at that time like, “Well if you are just comitted, you will make it happen.” (like about exercising or taking a trip) What planet did I live on? A childless one.

  8. April 19, 2010 1:33 pm

    oh man, so right!

    i read this mothering article yesterday, the last bit, quoting a song, got me all teary:

    “I wish you were here to get underfoot,
    I wish you were here to get in my way;
    To call me from work, to call me to play.
    I wish you were here again.
    Oh what did I do that had to be done?
    And what did I read that had to be read?
    When I could have turned to watch you instead?
    I wish you were here again”

  9. thelocalfarm permalink
    April 19, 2010 1:59 pm

    Loved this post…parenthood is above all else, spectacular! By far a learning experience like no other :).

  10. Ami permalink
    April 19, 2010 2:31 pm

    wow – what a great topic! Thank you for your excellent description of this phenomena! My big thing is not only observing childless people, but thinking to myself “If only they knew the freedom they have….” You can never know until it’s gone! And yet, I too find myself languishing as long as possible in the little-bodied joy that is my son. Even now, I look fondly upon other people’s babies and young toddlers and think more romantically about their life situation – until my logical mind screams in and shouts “Uhhhhh Are you forgetting!!!????”

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 19, 2010 3:19 pm

      Ami, I’m cracking up because I once was so jealous of my friend who took a day off to drive to Albuquerque (4 hrs from Durango) to pick up a friend. It seemed like such a sign of total, unabashed freedom. And yet, I too am so sentimental about babies and toddlers. Our time in Humboldt County when Col was two-ish and I was pregnant shines in my mind like the sweetest, ease-filled year. What was I smoking?

  11. April 19, 2010 3:54 pm

    I, too, fantasize about what childless people haul around in their Subarus … exotic pets, small geologic formations, sculptures acquired at silent auctions?? Certainly not gallons cf Cheerios and lost trains, like me.

  12. April 19, 2010 7:48 pm

    Oh my goodness, I think your blog is my new favorite place to visit!

    I was so filled with glee and a wee bit of sadness reading this! So much to identify with, right down to the subaru and the geologic crevasse on my forehead. :)

  13. April 19, 2010 9:16 pm

    could this have been written any more beautifully? i think not! ah, what a gift you have for putting subtle yet powerful thoughts into words, for plucking out those silent, often unspoken envies that parents have of non-parents. i watch people walk downtown for dinner unencumbered, whereas for us it requires an effort, a plan, an arrangement beforehand. and still being very spontaneous, sometimes that makes me very grumpy that we cannot jump up and go whenever and wherever we’d like. but when i close my eyes and try to imagine what it would be like if our two girls were not with us, i feel like the air has been sucked out of me. at least your mind is composed enough to recognize that the white subaru that passes by you does not have car seats. my head is so muddied by daily doings that when i see a red outback pass by, my first thought is, “was that me?”

  14. April 19, 2010 9:34 pm

    It can be such a fine line between this and that, yet at other times it is hard to even comprehend the life of friends without kids. What must they do with themselves?! I love the pics of your kids “entertaining” your kidless friends. So lovely!


  15. April 19, 2010 10:07 pm

    oh another awesome post. Sometimes I daydream about hubby and I when we were childfree and free and free and free. It was awesome.
    But this parenting this is awesome too and soon they will be grown and hubby and I can be free to do the things we like to do together again.
    Oh.. .but for a weekend yawing open ahead of us.
    Seems like ages ago and ages before we get there again.

  16. jojo permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:19 pm

    I’m willing to trade places for an afternoon to soak up some more of that exotic childness — anytime! Give a ring : )

  17. April 19, 2010 11:50 pm

    Look at all those who embrace and hold onto to every word as tightly as a Lovey. What would you possibly find to write about if you didn’t have your little ‘inspirations’ running around?

  18. April 20, 2010 10:59 am

    They all said it already, but yes. Yes. I utterly adore and completely need our children’s childless aunties and uncles, and I do admit I am heartened when I realize that even the childless among us still need to go to bed earlier these days and seem to have no time, either. I fantasize about a parallel life in which I have a bachelor apartment all to myself and no one to be responsible to. And then I realize just how much more I have accomplished in so many ways since becoming a parent than I did before. When the very first time you’ll be able to get away for a weekend, just the two of you? Or have you already?

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 20, 2010 2:25 pm

      Susan, Dan has had many nights away camping and hunting. I have never spent a night away from my children. I’m hoping to try for one night away *together* this summer, courtesy of grandparents. Mom, are you reading this?

  19. April 20, 2010 12:33 pm

    There is nothing like parenthood – I don’t know that the intense love for our children can be felt by those that never have children.

  20. Melissa permalink
    April 21, 2010 12:38 am

    beautifully written. i loved this.

    and i also feel like this little window of time with young children is so fleeting–
    as a working mom, it’s hard enough to be away as often as i am so i don’t often feel “justified” having other time away . . .

    i was just talking to a woman (totally random, post yoga class) about her feelings of ambivalence re: motherhood, i found myself saying (and believing!) that having children made me realize how boundless i really am–that i feel more capable of multiple possibilities, if that makes sense. sure, there are choices to be made, but still–it was nice to hear myself say it–and mean it.

  21. Sage permalink
    April 21, 2010 12:15 pm

    Goodness me, so parents swich roles and look at us “childless rock stars” trying to remember what or who it is that drives our lives? I do the same to you and Dan, knowing exactly who the fuel is, but still trying to figure out how I could wrap my consciousness around the beauty that I feel and the smile that comes to my face when I here miniature feet galloping across the cieling every day. It may only be revealed with experience, and I’m glad you wouldn’t trade anything for it. But oh how I love my freedom. Costa Rica this winter anyone?

  22. April 21, 2010 5:56 pm

    I’m new to your blog and am enjoying it very much! Especially this blog post! I have an eight-month old daughter, Luna, and I have to say I never realized how much work it takes. It’s worth it, of course, and I love her like nothing else, but it is, in some senses, breathtaking. Jeremy, my partner, and I were talking just yesterday about how childless couples can never know just how much work goes into it unless they have children themselves. I like to equate work with love though, because the work we do for our children is out of love, just as the work we do on our garden or the work we do in our homes is out of love, out of a need for expressing our love. Thank you, again, for this and for letting me know that I’m not the only one who feels nostalgic for the old days now and then.

  23. April 22, 2010 8:42 pm

    This…is a beautiful post. I feel absolutely and totally inept in the comment department right now because you said it all. And so brilliantly.

    You managed to describe the admiration for a childless freedom while undeniably delighting in your own joy as a parent.

    Absolutely beautiful.

  24. April 23, 2010 12:01 pm

    I adore this post. You summed up so many wonderful things about being a mom and those days before being a mom.


    (found you via earthy crunchy)

  25. April 26, 2010 6:59 am

    I loved this…. and totally wouldn’t mine either :)

  26. May 5, 2010 11:37 am

    You’ve inspired me! I so enjoyed this post, and have referenced it heavily in my latest post on the question of parenting or not:
    Thank you for your insights!


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