Sharis Mitchell was looking forward to a friend’s party until she realized she’d be one of the few singles in a sea of parents and toddlers.
“All of a sudden it dawned on me that all the people who would be there were married and had kids,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. All my friends tend to talk about their kids like they’re superchildren, when they seem quite ordinary.
“It’s not resentment or jealousy,” she adds. “It’s more like a club you don’t belong to.”
Mitchell, who is “30-ish,” and develops projects for an independent producer, has watched the membership in that club swell as her friends have married and started families. The chasms between them show no signs of being bridged.
Go to Mother University
“When my friends were pregnant, we kept in touch,” she says. “But when the babies came, I didn’t see them. It’s like they go to this Mother University--everything is, ‘Baby this and baby that.’ They’re so wrapped up in it.”
Such obsessive conduct by many new parents--and the alienation it produces among single friends--is, of course, not utterly novel. New parents always have found themselves with changed priorities and drastically different life styles.
But many of the “me-generation” moms and dads--in keeping with a lifetime pattern of self-absorption--have raised the level of baby doting to a new intolerable degree, friends and experts say.
It’s given even the considerate, conscientious parents cause for concern, lest others think they, too, are baby-crazed.
Why this infant fixation? “I think that when you delay something, which has happened a lot (with some couples who postponed having children), the focus becomes even more intense,” says Irene Goldenberg, psychological services director in the children’s division at the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA.
“Anybody who’s focused on anything is a bore. . . . And I see more people now with the kind of attitude that children can be involved in everything.
“Before, you kept your children out of the way when adult things were going on. But because often both people are working, they want to be with their children in their spare time. And that can be even more irritating to people without children.”
If being around friends’ families isn’t enough, singles--who already fret about whether they will ever start their own families--have other reminders of the exclusivity of the parents-only club.
Babies are hot topics in movies (“Three Men and a Baby,” “Baby Boom”), television shows (“thirtysomething”) and comic strips like “Cathy.” Infants also are a retailer’s dream. Designer baby boutiques are crammed with $75 imported infant overalls and $50 teddy bears that indulgent consumers can’t resist.
Edward Zwick, the 35-year-old co-producer of the Emmy-winning “thirtysomething,” draws heavily on his own experiences for the show’s married characters: baby boomers having babies.
The show’s pilot focused on new-mother Hope and her best friend, Ellen, as they re-examined their relationship when Hope’s attention focused on her baby.
“I have a feeling,” Zwick says, “that the raising of children now is maybe a little different from generations gone by. It seems there was more of an extended family, and we all lead lives now that are a little disenfranchised. So maybe those raising children now feel a more acute need of sharing that.”
Echoing Mitchell, Zwick, the father of a 2 1/2-year-old, says of modern parenting: “It is a club in which the membership cannot be described to those who do not have children. . . . When you have a kid, your life immediately becomes more circumscribed and you have to begin to make hard choices as to how to spend what little free time you have. Often it could be a whole host of more casual relationships that suffer.”
In the 1950s, the last major boom time for children, relationships also suffered when friends married and started families.
But in that era, family life was an undertaking that was less a choice than an expectation.
Back in the 1950s
“The norm in 1950 was that the average woman was pregnant within 14 months of getting married. It was pretty much expected to happen,” says Thomas Lasswell, a USC sociology professor. “And it was expected that married life with children would be tremendously different from just being married. There just weren’t a lot of single, childless women in their 20s running around then. Those who had no children were really outside the game.”
Goldenberg agrees, saying: “Single women without children then were very much excluded. I think it’s better now, because we think people should continue to have relationships with one another, even if someone doesn’t have children.”
But maintaining friendships with parent-pals is a tougher task than it seems, say singles--who readily vent their frustrations with each other but seldom with their married friends. Few wanted their names used when discussing their relationships, for fear of having their friends find out how they really feel.
“One of the singularly self-involved things about this generation,” says 25-year-old “Jeff,” is that it “apparently thinks it invented or perfected reproduction. And if you mention to your friends with kids that you’re unsure if you want to have children, they look at you with a goopy grin, like you’re a 6-year-old who says he doesn’t want to have anything to do with girls. ‘Just wait, just wait,’ they’ll say.”
His Pet Peeve
Jeff’s particular peeve is trying to meet with friends without their babies in tow. “They’ll call up and say, ‘I would really love to see you without the baby. We could go some place nice and I could dress up like I used to.’ Then at the last minute they rush in with the baby and say, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t find a baby sitter.’ And they’re always distracted, thinking about three or four things at once.”
Marla Strick, a 32-year-old mother of two toddlers, has noticed some lack of understanding among a few single friends.
“People will call and say, ‘Why don’t you come out to dinner?’ I’ll tell them we need to know a week ahead. My kids are on a schedule, and I’m not that strict, but they work within boundaries. I have structure in my family, and (my single friends) don’t.”
When she had her first child, Strick noticed that her single male friends dropped her altogether.
“I noticed when they came over that they felt awkward. I’d say, ‘Here, hold the baby,’ and it always makes them jump back. I think they’re intimidated, or threatened, or maybe they’ve never really been around children.”
Could there be more to these strained relationships than mere annoyances and inconveniences?
“Emily” thinks so. The 34-year-old public relations executive believes that being around her married friends and their children “brings up my own personal conflicts about having children. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to give up my childhood, and that’s how I see being a parent. This whole generation came out of childhood trying to hold onto it. I see my friends become tied down, less interesting.
“I have one girlfriend,” she continues, “who has remained the most accessible of my friends who have had kids. But even when I talk to her, the baby always needs her. If I had a baby who needed me, I’d go, too. However, it’s irritating. You can never talk to them.
“But then,” Emily says, “I think, ‘Do I want to let this experience go by?’ Part of me can’t imagine changing diapers. I can’t imagine that state of selflessness. I see my friends have made sacrifices. It scares me that I could not fulfill things I want to do if I had a child. I don’t resent my friends. But it raises these issues in me. It’s a tremendous area of conflict. I don’t know what to do. . . .”