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What Not to Say to Friends Without Kids

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Confession: Before I became a parent, parents annoyed me. A lot. All they did was complain about how tired they were, or how lucky I was to not have kids, followed—oddly—with incessant clucking about how “time was running out” for me to embark on the amazing journey of parenthood myself. I vowed that if I ever became a parent, I’d never subject my childless pals to these preachy speeches. Then, in 2010, I gave birth—and, on cue, all the laments and pious musings I once hated hearing from parents came gushing out. 

My friends, of course, were too polite to tell me to shut up. I only realized what I’d done after stumbling across STFU, Parents—a website devoted to airing all the irritating stuff parents say—and realizing that many were things I’d said just that day.

But here’s the thing: It’s not like parents want to annoy non-parents. It’s just that parenthood is such a sensitive issue, even seemingly innocent remarks can hit like nuclear warheads. And so, in an effort to curb the damage, I asked some people without kids to map out their conversational no-go zones. If you enjoy the company of your childless friends and want to keep them around, here are some key phrases you can silently think to yourself all you want, but should avoid uttering at all costs (and if you’ve said them already, don’t worry—we all have).

“Why don’t you have kids?”

Innocuous enough, right? No. Here’s why: Maybe the person you’re asking has struggled for years with infertility, which means this question may make them want to burst into tears (particularly awkward if you’ve just met). Or maybe they just don’t want kids, in which case it’s annoying to have to justify why. Let’s turn the tables: What if you had to constantly field questions about why you did have a kid. Feeling defensive yet?

"You’ll change your mind about not wanting kids.”

This comment is usually accompanied by addendums like “once you’re older” or “once you meet the right person.” Other popular add-ons: “Don’t wait too long!” or “If you don’t, you’ll regret it.” All of these comments paint parenthood as the final step on the path to enlightenment. But it’s not. Parenthood is a choice. A few more years on earth or the right mate might not make a difference in that choice. As Jess, 38, from Greenwich, CT, puts it, “Ahem, the right person will also not want to have kids. Paul Rudd could inexplicably leave his wife for me tomorrow but I still wouldn’t breed with him.”

“You just don’t know what love is until you have kids.”

Those are fighting words to nonparents, since it suggests that the love they feel—for spouses, friends and family members—is somehow inferior to the all-consuming, throw-yourself-under-a-bus love you have for your kid. Yes, parent/child love is wildly powerful, but it’s no better or more meaningful than any other emotional bond. This also applies to people who lavish affection on their pets—yes, those people who dress their Shih Tzu in J. Crew and joke that Snowflake’s “their kid.” As tempting as it is to explain that a pet is nothing like a kid, keep this observation to yourself. Love is love. 

“Think you’re tired? Try having kids.”

Yes, raising kids is exhausting. But that childless friend of yours who’s working 80-hour weeks, planning her wedding, or just couldn’t sleep last night has a right to feel tired, too. Her fatigue deserves validation rather than one-upmanship. So even if you know for a fact that you’re getting half as much shut-eye as she is, keep your lip zipped. Tired is tired. 

“You’re so lucky you don’t have kids.”

At first glance, this sounds like a compliment—you covet your childless pal’s ability to party all night, sleep in all Saturday or jet to Cancun unencumbered. Still, the word “lucky” can come off as glib, particularly if the person you’re speaking to would prefer to be in your shoes. “Since I would have liked to have kids, whenever a mom friend says something to me about envying my independent/free/kidless state I basically want to shoot her,” admits Alison, 42, from New York, NY. “While I am a happy person with a full life, the truth is still that I would probably trade my lot for theirs given my druthers. And in a million years not one of my mom friends would trade their lot for mine. They think they’re supporting me by telling me they’d love to have my freedom. But it’s just not true. They only want it for a day, so it’s very hollow.”

“Wow, I wish I could do that…”

This wistful comment—a close cousin to “you’re so lucky” above—usually follows when childless friends mention they’re engaged in some everyday activity that’s nonetheless hard for parents to do, like watching an R-rated movie or heading out for Happy Hour. It’s annoying because it sounds so melodramatic. Do you live with your kid in a prison? No? Then quit making nonparents feel insanely indulgent for just living their lives. “Yes, I have free time,” admits Kerry-Ann, 31, from Palm Beach, FL. “But I would give it up in a heartbeat to have a baby. Not to mention, you can always get a babysitter for a few hours if you really need it. I can’t borrow a baby. ”

“Who will take care of you when you’re old?” 

To which non-breeders think: Oh, so that’s why you had Asher? To wipe your bum when you’re eighty? Aren’t nursing homes filled with people who thought their kids would take care of them? Anyway, good luck with that.

“You don’t understand—you don’t have kids.”

Parents use this phrase to end conversations on a wide swath of seemingly unrelated topics. As in: “Forget it—you wouldn’t understand my stance on the environment/politics/drone strikes because you don’t have kids.” To justify this brush-off, parents say parenting gives you a totally different perspective on life. Yes, it does. But that doesn’t make your perspective so profound that a nonparent can’t fathom it if you explain. Let’s say, for instance, you hear of a friend’s miscarriage. Can’t a non-mom feel this woman’s pain as deeply as you? Compassion doesn’t just kick in with parenthood, so the next time you assume nonparents just won’t get it, try them. Because the more parents and nonparents make inroads to understanding each other, the less annoyed we’ll all be. 

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