My longtime friend Pam is single and the godmother to my two kids. My children adore her, and she is wonderful with them. For years, she was very accommodating to my family’s schedule. But not long ago, Pam began to chafe under my assumption that she could make herself available whenever I happened to have free time. Whenever I called her, she was often “crazy-busy” with things like working out, tutoring and attending social functions at the Jewish Community Center. I began to feel like Pam was blowing me off.
When I finally confronted her, Pam admitted that she was sick of feeling like everyone expected her to be flexible and available because she doesn’t have a husband and children. She felt like her commitments were completely undervalued by our culture, whereas mine and those of other mothers were lauded. “I love spending time with my friends and their kids,” she told me, “but it doesn’t seem to be a two-way street. It seems like I’m the one accommodating their needs rather than them fitting into my life.”
Pam told me that her inability to attend my son’s birthday party last year was a perfect example of the way I fail to validate her commitments as a childless person, compared to my “higher-calling” maternal duties. The party was on a Sunday at the Museum of Natural History. As much as I knew she was not going to relish hanging out with T. rex and a bunch of kindergarteners, I assumed that she’d be there. Pam reminded me in advance that she had a commitment on certain Sundays, leading a group of volunteers at a soup kitchen downtown.
When the date approached and she told me that she couldn’t make the party, things got pretty tense. The soup kitchen just didn’t seem like a good enough excuse for missing my son’s sixth birthday. I couldn’t relate at all. But, as Pam said later, “There’s a tendency when you have kids to use your kids’ schedule as a beyond-your-control thing. It’s inflexible.” I finally began to see that I wasn’t being sensitive to my childless friends’ needs. The fact that I don’t even consider it rude anymore when my kids scream in the background while I’m on the phone shows just how dementedly kid-centric I’ve become.
“We’ll have time to talk when the kids are in bed,” I promised Pam when she came over for dinner, as my daughter was complaining that all the popular kids in her class have cell phones. As we sat in my library, sipping cup after cup of herbal tea, not only was I able to focus on issues in Pam’s life, but I could just enjoy the luxury of adult dialogue (disrupted only a few times by my daughter coming in and telling me she couldn’t sleep).
I try to schedule one-on-one “dates” with my childless friends so that we can really talk. But, of course, I’m more apt to want to eat dinner early so that my sitter can get home, while my friend would rather eat later and stay out late. And I’m not sure who’s checking her cell phone more often—me for the kids, or my friend to find out what she’s going to do later that night. The breadth of opportunities in the city for a fabulous, independent lifestyle often grates on a mother who can no longer have leisurely, boozy dinners at Atlantic Grill or see the latest Broadway show.
Meanwhile, I realize that there are some women who are fine with not having kids or actually don’t want to have them. But when single female New Yorkers are wrestling with the highly charged emotional issue of whether or not to become parents, their mother friends need to be ready to duck. My friend Lauren is a very successful businesswoman who was single and childless for years and felt somehow inadequate. “I felt like my life was less meaningful, and that others thought it was, too,” she said. She also knows that she wasn’t very understanding of her mommy chums, just as they weren’t always understanding of her demanding career. “Am I supposed to give up my time just because she has a baby?” Lauren said. “I felt like I had a busy schedule, too.” Sure enough, Lauren would often ask me to do brunch over a weekend, which wasn’t a time I could get away without my kids. I would try to schedule weekday lunches, which occasionally worked for her, but she never wanted to do dinner during the week because her job was so stressful.
Just a few months ago, Lauren became a mother herself, and she now has a completely different perspective on the friendship issue. “I’m really sensitive to my girlfriends now,” she said. She realizes just how demanding motherhood is and also remembers how hard it is on the other side, as she spent many years as a single woman who had different kinds of commitments. “I do expect people to be more accommodating now,” she said. “But I understand if they are busy and they can’t see me.”
Not having a gazillion things to do in this city is tantamount to being labeled a sloth or a loser. Still, even though it’s hard for all New Yorkers to fit in time for friends, the “children” factor seems to inspire particularly acid accusations of insensitivity and selfishness. My friend Betsy, a doctor and divorced mother, is convinced that women without children are actually the most rigid and the hardest to make plans with. “If your life is completely self-centered, you become more inflexible,” she said. But my single male friend Richard thinks that allowances are always made for mothers that aren’t made for those without kids. “People are constantly using their kids as an excuse for everything, especially at work,” he said. “However, as a childless person, I don’t have such an excuse. Saying I want to leave early because my parent, or even a pet, is not feeling well just does not have the same resonance.”
Despite our vastly different social lives, Pam and I have managed to find ways to compromise and still enjoy each other’s company. Last year, we went to Connecticut for a spa weekend. We enjoyed long dinners and relaxing massages and wraps. (I tried not to call home too much, as it usually made me want to get another spa treatment.)
And recently she and Richard spent a day at our country house. We tried to have “adult” conversations during lunch on the deck, but I was constantly running back and forth into the house to retrieve food for my son. When Pam rode back to the city with us that evening, my son fell asleep and, finally, we were able to talk without distraction. I told her about a midtown steakhouse that’s wall-to-wall testosterone. She was going to come over for dinner with the kids this week, but I’ll understand if she’d rather go to the steak place. Even an arrogant banker is probably better company for her than a friend who’s only half-listening as she’s escorting her kid to the potty.