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“You shouldn’t hang out with heterosexuals,” my 40-year-old partner once told me. I was about 20 at the time and thought it was an odd comment. He then elaborated.
“They will abandon you once they have kids. Then you won’t hear from them for ten years, until they get divorced and then all of a sudden they’ll call you up because they want to go out dancing. And they’ll act like they never disappeared in the first place.”
I thought he was being silly and surely my friends would be different.
Yet, his line of reasoning stuck with me. And a few years ago, the kids started arriving. It was like microwave popcorn. First there was one, then a couple more, then another and yet another popped up at a furious rate.
I felt very ambivalent. Of course I was happy for my friends whenever they had a kid. I hit the like button on more distant friends’ status updates and went to pay my respects at my closer friends’ homes.
We said we’d keep hanging out. But, for the most part, it didn’t happen.
When two parents have a child, a closed little unit forms. It’s as though starting a family involves putting up walls to the outside. And the new family unit has new needs, new habits, new routines and new rules. As a friend, it’s difficult to know how to feel about it.
I left Sweden.
I’ve passed the 30-year mark and here in Berlin what defines my friends more than being hetero- or homosexual is the fact that they are all childless. The older I get I realise that the fault line doesn’t run between people of different sexualities, but between parents and non-parents.
But the older I get, I also realise how important the concept of family is, even for those of us who haven’t wanted or been able to have children. Yet I feel I get the same nurturing from my self-selected family of friends that other people get from their children.
Popular culture shows us a lot about at the attitude towards people with children and people without them. For the white, wealthy middle class, it’s fine to break the norm. And you could say this shows that society is more accepting of alternative lifestyles but the nuclear family is still always portrayed as the ideal.
Especially television series never show people who choose to be different, but show people who are different being accepted as normal.
In the NBC sitcom Up All Night there is a character who sums up this cultural depiction of a childless person – Ava, played by Maya Rudolph. She’s the quintessential single girl. Rich like Croesus, utterly self-centred and completely without responsibilities.
Ava will drop in at her friends’ house at midnight, pour herself a glass of wine and ask her friends, who have just had a baby, if they’ll come out partying.
The friends laugh heartily but exchange telling glances.
Because they pity Ava – they think she is self-centred because she hasn’t had a baby who has transformed her, healed her, taught her what real love is about.
This cultural stereotype pops up all the time, not just in sitcoms and drama series, but also in the public narrative of parenthood. New parents will talk about how they used to stagger home after a night out, vomit in a trash can, then roll up at some lover’s home for some carefree sex.
That’s how a life without children is portrayed. Like a life without a care in the world where you just breeze about depending on what takes your fancy.
Even when the occasional pop cultural character breaks loose to fight this obsession with kids the message instead focuses on this lackadaisical approach to life.
In the Simpsons, there’s an episode called Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays. The ever shoulder pad-clad career woman Lindsey forms an action group of all the above mentioned groups to demand the right to administer electric shocks to kids who misbehave in public. They commandeer the school bus to take the pensioners to the casino, instead of shuttling kids to class.
Whenever you want to talk about childless people, these stereotypes rear their head. It’s like people think that all we want is to smoke crack in the playground or take over the wading pool with our jet skis.
It’s not what we want. We want not to be hounded.
The migration stream to Berlin has focused on many a thing. Better housing, a more open cultural landscape, lower cost of living. But I also think the Swedish author Horace Engdahl hit the nail on the head when he moved to Berlin and called it “a Sweden for grown ups”.
Among my Swedish friends here in Berlin, our choice to move is related to our generation’s baby boom. Cafés in Sweden went from smoky hangouts where truant high schoolers, the unemployed and freelancers rubbed shoulder to becoming well lit café latte bars for stressed out parents in the fastlane.
If there were any hangout spots in Stockholm that managed to keep their allure, they were quickly replaced by malls full of organic soap and rustic candelabra.
The urban character of Stockholm was washed away by a middle class ghetto.
For those of us without children, it was like the city no longer offered us refuge. There seemed to be this consensus that you either have a kid and adapt, or you keep a darn low profile.
All the things we liked were all of a sudden outdated or worse still, stood for bad values. The pub was a “superficial meat market”, rock clubs became “irritating hangouts for alcoholics”. And the night clubs? Yup… that was where the druggies hung out in the eyes of the new families.
“I can’t believe that used to be my life,” the smug parents started saying.
We just had to ignore the barely concealed insults while yet again congratulating them on producing a precious little miracle while it refluxed baby food.
Moving to Berlin gave the possibility to dance until eight in the morning on a Wednesday without having to hang your head in shame. To not feel ostracized in your apartment block because your schedule isn’t perfectly in sync with everyone else’s. To not feel left out in the cold just because your life doesn’t necessarily fit all the parameters set up to make the life of parents easier.
Not to have to feel immature, self-centred, different or like the oddball bachelor or spinster just because you haven’t reproduced.
I’d like to see a bit more respect for us who have either chosen not to join the parent gang or haven’t been able to. Does being a grown up have to be defined this way, does it have to be synonymous with parenthood?
Let’s create a new narrative about childlessness. For example, let’s talk about how our groups of friends give emotional support, especially now that some of us 30-somethings are starting to lose our parents.
We do take responsibility. We answer the phone if a depressed friend calls in the middle of the night to talk. We help a friend who is crippled by illness to clean their flat. We go with our lover to their mum’s funeral so they don’t have to go alone.
I’d like to see a fair deal more respect for us who don’t have children and I’d like to see that adulthood isn’t synonymous with parenthood. Our childless families need places and spaces where we can meet and have our needs met.
I never regretted having so many heterosexual friends, despite that warning over a decade ago. Partly, of course, because in the next ten years it became more and more common for gay couples to become parents so the child haves and the child have nots spread over the categories.
I congratulate all the new rainbow families, but I still want to congratulate those of us who don’t have children just as much. We have people who need us just as much as the parents do.
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The original version of this article was published in the magazine Ottar.