Friday, January 16, 2009

Is this a "people who have children" thing?

I've noticed an interesting divider between my friends who have kids and those that don't, and I'm wondering if this is a coincidence or if I'm seeing a trend.

If I have plans with a friend who doesn't have children, a group that includes my husband, and someone has to cancel, the request to cancel usually sounds something like

"hey, I'm being flaky here and I'm really sorry. But is there any way we could not go with what we were going to do? I mean, we could do it next week, or something, It is really OK? I mean, if it's really important to you..."

while when a friend who has kids cancels, it's always something like

"Can't make it tonight, turns out my husband wants me to do X instead"


"Kids are sick, have to cancel."

Should the person who cancelled something on me today be reading this, I should emphasize that I'm not particularly annoyed about this one time and I get that sick kids happen, I've just observed that the last minute ditching is something that all of my friends with kids do and universally with a certain unapologetic efficiancy, and I'm trying to puzzle out why kids would be what makes the difference.

I've wondered in the past if maybe having kids turns the line between family and friends into a sort of barrier. I totally get how time with one's spouse or taking care of a sick child is really important. But from the childless person's perspective, we have important stuff too, but we don't generally present the issue with the implicit message "Of course you understand that you're less important than the central people in my life, and the minute one of them beckons, I must immediately cancel."

I'm also wondering if this is the social version of the oft-voiced work concern that people who have kids take a lot of time off for kid-related things and bosses are inclined to be cool with it. (FWIW, I have heard that, though my impression is that bosses AREN'T especially inclined to be cool with it.)

Anyway, that's what I'm wondering about today.

ducking and covering, because she rememebers the "little kids in church" fight she started a couple of years ago.


L said...

Ever since my inlaws had children, they basically run our lives (the kids and the inlaws). It's awful. They are always changing plans, there's always some chaotic mess happening, and family get togethers revolve around the children (how many Christmas/birthday gifts does a young child need, anyway?).

I know that my inlaws are not the norm (oh boy, do I know that) but sometimes, I get kind of annoyed about how kids seem to run parents' lives these days.

--From the girl who is now ready for a flame war about how selfish single people are

kimc said...

Since we here in California are still thinking about same-sex marriage -- having it called "marriage" gives permission to do what you describe: having it understood that the immediate family is of first importance.

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, I love all my friends' children, and I love spending time with them, and I don't think any reader of this blog could justly say differently given the things I've written about Her Honor, ZombieKid and TheGnome.

It just trips me out how many times I've had a conversation like:

Friend: "We can't make it to dinner tonight."

Me: "Umm...we've had these reservations for two weeks"

Friend: "Yeah, but I started calling around looking for babysitters this afternoon and none of them can do it."

Me: "This afternoon?"

I swear I had that conversation word-for-word with my ex-housemates on multiple occaisions.


goodwolve said...

As a parent I think it comes down to time and communicaton. You have little time and you have to communicate in short concise ways - I actually prefer the "I can't make it" to the long winded explanation. If you can't make it you can't make it. We don't need to have any guilt about it - Let's move on.

It isn't that you don't have kids it is that you have time and parents don't.

Chalicechick said...

TheCSO and I are married and the last time I called up a friend and said "I know we had planned a girls' night out, but my husband, who was supposed to be out of town tonight, is going to be in town after all, would it be possible for me to cancel or bring him along?"

It was:

A. Two and a half years ago.

B. His birthday.

I've bailed on, say, going to the movies with my friends' family more recently, but they just went on to the movies without me. I'm more thinking about one-on-one or small group plans that get completely ruined when someone can't do it at the last minute.

But yeah, my impression is that married people without kids don't do that as much or at least are apologetic when they do, and that the unapologetic "I've decided to do something else" is a people-with-kids thing.


Chalicechick said...

(((If you can't make it you can't make it. We don't need to have any guilt about it - Let's move on.)))

I get that, and I probably feel that way the first time when it's the first time someone has ditched me recently.

I guess it's just that, especially when the changes of plan happen over and over again, the long explanation signals to me that the person doing the explaining recognizes that they are forgoing something that has value.

That said, your explanation is a good one and does much to remind me that this is probably my issue, not theirs.


L said...

Here's a question, though: in general, it is considered annoying and inconsiderate when someone who has a new boyfriend/girlfriend/just got married blows off their friends time and time again. I mean, people are understanding for the first month or two, but after a year or so, people are tired of it. So why is it okay when the situation involves children? I agree that your family should be the most important people in your life. But if they ALWAYS take precedence over friends, it implies that the friends are never important enough to get consideration. In which case, what is the point of having friends?

I actually like kids and would like to have some of my own someday. And I feel that family comes first and am generally understanding. But I do get tired of being the second-choice prom date.

Anonymous said...

I'm a parent. You can delegate almost every element of childcare to someone else (I worked fullt ime when my son was a baby, so I'm not a stay at home mom crusader). One of the ONLY things you can't responsibly delegate is care of a sick child. No one but a parent knows the child as well as you do, and can gauge symptoms, etc. Children can get really sick really quickly - in the amount of time it takes to have dinner. This is why parents save their own sick days to take off when their kids are sick. So it;s a tiotally legitiamte excuse to break a date.
As far as the center of the universe stuff, well, pity those children who will grow up to be narcissistic brats.

Chalicechick said...

I will say that at least in my case this happens far from 100 percent of the time, but it happens just enough that it makes me nuts and I feel bad when it makes me nuts.

For a really egregious example, the weekend before law school started in the fall, one friend changed plans on me literally five times in that one weekend, culminating with Sunday afternoon's "Whoa, yeah, I know we were supposed to meet you for lunch. Sorry we were 45 minutes later than we said we'd be and didn't return your call and you gave up and ate without us after half an hour. So anyway, I decided I want to be home while my husband works on our house. So instead of doing something together this afternoon, let's get takeout lunch, go back to my house. Since you've already eaten, you can watch us eat, then we can sit around my house while he hammers!"

This was all delivered in a tone that suggested this new plan was such an obvious improvement on our prior "eat lunch together then take the kids someplace fun while husband works on the house" plans (which she had already changed four times) that OF COURSE I would love the idea and she hadn't even needed to run it by me before deciding that's what we were going to do.

I told her sorry, I really wanted to do something fun that didn't involve hammering and I wish she could have told me that she didn't actually want to take the kids someplace before I sat around waiting for her, and I left.

But I felt like a total bitch.

Maybe I do have less time than someone with kids does, but that doesn't make my time worthless.

Since that weekend, I've found myself less and less patient with the last-minute parental flakeout, and I don't know what to do about it because I love my friends, I just hate feeling like I don't matter.


L said...

Well CC, that was just inexcusable from your friend. You had a right to be mad.

And spikemom, I agree that sick kids are a valid excuse.

Chalicechick said...

You're right, Spikemom. And the "sick kid" reason does get more sympathy than other ones, despite the fact that it happens to be the reason for the cancellation that touched off this specific rant.

(It is an issue that I have had with four friends I have who are parents, and it happend that a fifth friend whose a parent did it this time and that set me off. )

But yeah, that alone is fine, though again the "this is how it's gonna be" tone is suboptimal as far as I'm concerned. (Seriously, if you say "Little Bubba's really sick. Would it be ok if we did it NEXT weekend instead?" I'm not going to say "no." I may be childless but I'm not evil, and phrasing it as a request lets me maintain the illusion that I have some control over my own social life.)


Stephanie said...

I think the preferred term is "childfree".

So part of what I'm thinking here is that if there are repeated cancellations from the same folks for the same reasons then it's just rude because they aren't managing themselves well and aren't respectful of the time of others.

The other thing that comes to mind is that I think often parents (perhaps especially new parents) have trouble judging whether to accept invitations or not, and how to leave early enough to be on time, and all that.

Chalicechick said...

I tend to think of "Childfree" folks as being more militant about it than I am.

There might be kids in my future. I just don't have any now.


Anonymous said...

((I've wondered in the past if maybe having kids turns the line between family and friends into a sort of barrier. I totally get how time with one's spouse or taking care of a sick child is really important. But from the childless person's perspective, we have important stuff too, but we don't generally present the issue with the implicit message "Of course you understand that you're less important than the central people in my life, and the minute one of them beckons, I must immediately cancel."))

It isn't that you're less important than anyone else. It comes down to a simple fact: I'm responsible for my child. I'm not responsible for my friends. At least, that's why we as parents must deal immediately, sometimes very inconveniently, with issues that arise with our son: there is no one else to do so, and he can't do it himself.

TheCSO said...

I think we can all agree that the "sick kid" reason is understandable, and that so long as the parent in question has a reasonably sane definition of "sick", it's just something you have to live with.

It's a lot worse when the reason is something like "we changed our minds" instead. That's just selfish and inconsiderate.

I do think that making the choice many parents do, to put your own family so far ahead of everyone else that you see nothing wrong with placing their whims above commitments you've made to others, is a valid one. But making that choice does not release you from your obligation to only make commitments you are reasonably certain you can keep - so it's a choice that basically means choosing to not have outside friends you do things with. It doesn't mean you can't have outside friends at all, but it does sharply restrict those friendships.

Unlike CC, I've experienced this same thing quite a bit with non-child-having friends. This was mostly in high school and college; I really don't have the time and patience for this stuff now that I'm working, have my convention plans committed a year in advance, and have friends who WILL honor their time commitments when able.

In those cases, it was mostly some combination of immaturity and laziness - it wasn't out of malice or an intentional characterization as a second-string friend. And it wasn't about lack of time either - the more of a slacker someone was, the more likely they were to change their mind at the last minute.

It does seem that the sort of person who chooses to be busy - those who choose demanding high-powered careers, for instance, are far more likely to value and respect schedules and use them as a tool. Certainly some demanding careers are disruptive to schedules - think of the doctor or server admin whose pager goes off. But that's much closer to "sick kid" than it is to "changed my mind".

Parents have also taken on a very busy, demanding role - but unlike most demanding career roles, proven competence at time management isn't a requirement. So you have a lot of people who aren't particularly good at time management or handling being very busy who are engaged in one of the more demanding jobs out there - it's no wonder that many of them don't have the capacity left to be consistently decent to their friends.

PG said...

I don't have kids now, but I fully expect that when I do, I'm going to share Jeff's sentiment that this is a responsibility I can't offload. (Although I already am dodgy about keeping plans, but that's socially acceptable in my circle because half of it also is composed of people working at law firms that make ridiculous and random demands on time, to the point that we have to check before going out of town on the weekend.)

Kari said...

You will not ever understand at all how it feels to be a mother, until you are a mother. It's like an entirely different universe opens that you had no idea ever existed. And from the moment you accept that "mom" title, that's where you live.

'nuf said.

Volly said...

Yes, I see where you're coming from on this. People change when they get married and they REALLY change after they have kids. Not all, but many. I think for some, marriage and family are like their little refuge. It's easier to say "I have family obligations" than "I'm stressed out/I'd rather be alone/my favorite TV show is on/I don't like you and-or others in our group that much."

Another thing that follows from this is the way people change (or SEEM to change) their political views after having kids. I've seen nice, easygoing, non-judgmental people turn into Jerry Falwell as soon as parenthood strikes. "I'll NEVER let my kids [fill in the blank]" -- referring to activities that they either were doing within the last year, or something that both you and they did throughout childhood and adolescence with joy and without guilt or worry. Very, VERY annoying. I think (hope) I dodged that trap -- for the most part -- while raising my son. Hypocrisy was too great a burden to bear.

Lyndit said...

Of course I love my friend's kids, yet in some situations like when you are looking to get together with friends to have adult time I will often plan a different activity if it becomes a young family event... many times I feel very stuck between the teens and the young families..

Masasa said...

In a single moment, my life changed forever. There is a language between parents-- especially parents of young kids (often parents of older children forget)-- that only we seem to speak. When another parent looks at me genuinely and says, "There is just no way I can make it tonight," I am disappointed, but I get questions asked.

Before I had kids, I was sympathetic to parents. My work as a DRE centered on the life of families with children, I was planning to have kids (and even actively working toward having them), and I had a history involving growing up with younger kids under foot. I knew on some level how crazy parenthood could be, and I was as understanding as I possibly could have been.

But then my son arrived (came to us as a foster child at 1.5 days old), and the day I brought him home I sat on my couch sobbing because I was washed over by the most intense experience I had ever experienced.

Parenting involves this really intense non-stop intimacy that I can't describe. It isn't just time and responsibility, but it is just this constant intensity that requires every little bit of us as human beings. It is so intimate, so profound and yet so mundane. And it is non-stop. It makes sense to me that sometimes we just manage to keep our heads above water.

That said, some of the excuses and behaviors you have posted really are inexcusable and seemingly quite rude, and the best I can say to them is to agree with this:

"The other thing that comes to mind is that I think often parents (perhaps especially new parents) have trouble judging whether to accept invitations or not, and how to leave early enough to be on time, and all that."

and this:

"As a parent I think it comes down to time and communicaton. You have little time and you have to communicate in short concise ways -I actually prefer the 'I can't make it' to the long winded explanation. If you can't make it you can't make it. We don't need to have any guilt about it - Let's move on."

and this:

"It isn't that you're less important than anyone else. It comes down to a simple fact: I'm responsible for my child. I'm not responsible for my friends. At least, that's why we as parents must deal immediately, sometimes very inconveniently, with issues that arise with our son: there is no one else to do so, and he can't do it himself."

Heck, with my kids, some days they just are "off," and there is no option but to re-set my focus until equilibrium is re-established. A spouse might be able to deal with their own "off" days, but our children need us. There are some days when I tell myself I am going to get into my office at 9:00 in the morning, but in the end, the only thing I can do that will be good for our souls is to delay going in until say, the afternoon, (and stay at work late or go home for dinner and then come back in as needed).

I wish there was a way I could explain it better, but it is just one of those things that one can't possibly fully understand until/if they are there.

Not that I am making excuses. I still think some of the stuff you posted is really awful, but I think your generalizations may be accurate and that the reasons behind what happens is valid.

Chalicechick said...

Thanks, everybody.

I learned a lot from both sides on this.


ogre said...

My, what a kettle of fish...

Let's start with this; some people are flakes. Some are near-flakes and become flakes when loaded with more (high priority) demands.

Some people should never be parents--but, alas, that doesn't stop many (not all!) of them.

At least some of CC's cases sound like flakes (with/without kids). Or near-flakes.

Having kids is 24/7 in a away that nothing else is. Nothing. Nothing at all. Literally.

Not being a doctor on call. Not being a minister.

I have been obliged to be the parent on duty -- because there was just no other choice -- while having a migraine. I've been the parent on duty while violently ill (without the gory descriptions... I'll just say thank god for good friends who you can call, give a 2-3 sentence explanation and they'll drop everything and drive 45 minutes to come throw themselves on the situation... by which time I was curled up in the bathroom, afraid I might not die--and that's not a joke. My wife worked over an hour from home and... it was some time later that she could get home... and take me to the hospital).

Someone calling to say that they started calling for a sitter yesterday or a few hours ago... is a flake.

Someone calling and saying "I'm really sorry, but little Katie is sick and I can't come," is just cutting to the chase and dealing with reality. Given a sick kid, the time and energy and emotional energy for a nice, social, gentle preamble and an extended postamble is... not likely.

People without kids don't get calls from a younger sibling (with kids) who's a good parent, but is home with sick kids, whose spouse is traveling... and has been for a week... and is concerned that she's a lousy parent, because she's burned out.

Really, truly, totally french-fried... and there's no take a break option, usually. Can't get a sitter (sick kids). Can't stop for a coffee (sick kids), or go visit, or go shopping to cheer oneself up. One gets to stay home for the 137th hour of squalor and foul moods and squalling and fighting and extra laundry and someone else's bodily fluids.

It tends to make even the saintly... brief, and to the point.

Not that they don't love you. Not that they wouldn't desperately prefer to have a lunch that isn't PB&J or baloney with adult conversation, even if only part time...

Telling you how sorry they are is likely to be a time demand that... may not be supportable. It's also entirely plausible that if indulged in, it might bring the speaker to the point of tears, as in you have no idea how much I was looking forward to this, and having to call and cancel makes me want to scream.

It's unapologetic for a range of reasons. Time, utility, and pragmatism. And because nothing comes before the kid, ever, particularly if we're talking young kid. You don't have the option of saying "Johnnie, I'll be back in an hour and a half, here's your milk and PB&J and just sit and watch Sesame St." People get in deep trouble and lose their kids who do that.

It's reality.

When you call and say "My boss is a schmuck and I have to stay tonight and prepare something for a meeting that he should have done and could ahve done a week ago..." you've explained what "my kid is sick" says. Only it's more likely to actually get sympathy for you. You're the one being unreasonably imposed on. Sick kid? That sucks. But... you had a kid. They get sick. (Of course, people choose to have jobs and continue to work for schmucks...). But you're not sick (no, you're enjoying someone else's illness intensely).

And no, bosses are rarely cool about it. Can't your spouse take care of the sick kid? Isn't there someone who can?

It's... ever so slightly like trying to explain why now that you're married you have to blow off doing something transparently more fun and interesting to go spend time with in-laws you'd rather have dental work than spend time with.

I hear the question, CC. It's legit.

Part of it is flake spectrum disorder (and some parents suffer it too, of course). And part of it is just the banal reality of life that may drag you out of bed at any time of night, repeatedly, every night... for years. Literally.

Our eldest literally did not sleep for a six hour stretch that either of us can remember until he was two. Life among the sleep-deprived is so interesting... and they you get to add sick to that.

When you've already invested the deep reserves of your life into soothing a sick kid on-and-off all night... and then, dammit, it didn't pass like a rain squall, and they're still sick the next day, making a civil but succinct phone call to cancel may feel more like a success--you managed to remember, and to act responsibly....

But sometimes, yeah, they're flakes.

But I suspect you can discern the difference, after a while. Even the ones who are good at hiding it... aren't that good at it.

(Volly, I've heard so much more of that "My children will never..." from people without kids. A couple of them have been self-aware enough--and solid enough--to call me up years later and eat crow, as their kids did and/or are doing those things.)

Anonymous said...

Good responses! I have nothing to add, except to say that I really, really miss being able to spend time with my friends the way I used to.

kimc said...

Calling off for sick kids is responsible parenting, doing it without bothering to call you and tell you they are calling it off is flake syndrome.
Could some of it be generational? Some of the tolerance of flakiness seems to be from people who grew up in the raised-by-day-care-workers-and-therefore-had-no-training-in-manners generation.

Chris said...

I agree that the beg-offs get much less apologetic once you have kids. I'll point out, however, that we parents don't save the pithy beg-offs for our kid-free friends. We do it to each other all the time.

Also, I think that as children and teens, we get accustomed to friendships being "steady-state." Kids see their friends every day at school-sports-activities-church-whatever. I think adult friendships are much more prone to phases of inactivity and intensity. Those phases can last years, sometimes, and the seams between them can be hard to negotiate for one or both parties.

Doug Muder said...

My wife and I are life-long childless, coming up on our 25th anniversary and past the age where we could produce a child biologically. We made a decision early on that we wanted kids in our life, though, and that meant doing whatever it took to stay close to our friends as they became parents.

A lot of what it took was dropping our expectations. We'd plan stuff with parents, but always have in the back of our minds, "Yeah, maybe that'll happen."

We just forgot about stuff that required a sitter. That's hopeless; you'll see folks every six months, tops. Sitters are mostly teen-agers, and they're way unreliable. So we had a lot of dinners with kids, went to a lot of baseball games, and stuff like that.

The bottom line is this: If you're childless, and especially of you're single, you absolutely can't count on parents to be your best friends. Everybody needs somebody who will drop everything and pay attention to you when you really need it, and parents just can't fill that role.

Once you understand that, it's OK. You figure out what they can do, and fit them into your life that way.

Anonymous said...

This post is a few days old, so maybe you won't read my comment, but here goes. I love your blog, btw.

I am the mother of a 2.5 year old. If he were suddenly and acutely ill, I would feel I had to cancel social plans. I can't quite leave the teenaged babysitter with a child who is vomiting, or who might have to go to the ER. It is pretty much as if I were sick myself. If either my husband or I could keep the date, and that was ok with our friends, we would do that--or reschedule.

But--it drives me crazy when friends with or without children cancel plans at the last minute for flakiness or mind-changing! We do all we can to keep plans we have made. This means we make fewer plans than before we had kids, but we try hard to keep those we have.