A question about parenthood from a single, childless guy
June 1, 2014 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I am in my early forties, single and childless. Many of my peers have opted to marry and have babies. I don't see myself joining them any time soon but I'd like to understand them a little better. So what are the aspects of parenthood that single, childless people (men in particular) Just Don't Get?

As always, many thanks in advance.
posted by jason's_planet to Human Relations (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The reasons that most parents gush about the most inane crap is that for a large chunk of time, the person you are raising is doing new things for the First Time Ever pretty much every day. By the time you're 30, whenever you try something new, you tend to tell people about it - it's that rare. And it's usually small stuff like, "oh, I had sushi for the first time". Here it's... this person said "Hello" for the first time, they said a greeting!!!
posted by jedrek at 9:09 AM on June 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The biggest stumbling block we run into with our child-free friends is scheduling stuff, because some kids really need to stay on a regular schedule for naps and bedtimes, and varying from that plays merry hell with everything. (This is also something I really didn't get until I had kids myself.) So the invitation to bring the kids over for dinner, starting at 8pm? Nope nope nope.
posted by ambrosia at 9:14 AM on June 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: One of the biggest aspects is that no matter how busy and time/project-consumed single, childless people are, they typically cannot grasp just how busy and out of time parents (especially parents of younger children) are. There is so little downtime, so little time for hobbies, so little time for anything one used to do, that one constantly feels in danger of having one's entire identity subsumed in the parent role.

As an extension of that, you have not felt jealousy until you have had kids, and watched your single childless friends pursue all the activities they love...or worse, WORSE, meeting new parents who somehow are able to fit in all the things they love to do along with child-rearing (although this often seems to come at the price of daycare or willing grandparents).

There is also, as a bonus, a constant sense of danger, from the big major existential crises, all the way down to (in my case), "If my kid finds a sippy-cup of juice that she hid in her toybox for two weeks, and then drinks it, will she get horribly ill?" (Poison Control says: Don't worry about it!) (Aspect #4 of parenthood--having Poison Control's number posted somewhere obvious.)

And the technologies! The products! Learning new skills you'll use for a year and then never again! Oh my god, all the time it all takes!

(Um, I need to sit down and breathe a while.)
posted by mittens at 9:15 AM on June 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

This seems like a chatfilter-y type of question but I would say that a person who does not have children can not ever truly understand the 100% shift in a parent's mindset where all of your thinking now puts someone else first. (It is a completely different mindset shift from being in love and wanting to make a partner happy. It just is.)

Constantly, continually, in every single moment of your life, your entire way of thinking shifts focus from wherever it was (yourself, your god, your partner) to your child(ren).

They will always come first. From the mundane (We need more Go-gurt) to the daily plans (I bet my kid would love apple picking) to long-term planning (JESUSCHRISTHOWDIDIGETTHREEKIDSINCOLLEGE),

every single moment of every single day is now about your kid(s). It's not about you any more. Parents go to the playground, we go to ChuckeCheese, we spend our time doing things for our kids that in a million years we would never volunteer to do. We save money for college, we take them for haircuts, we get them to try new foods.
posted by kinetic at 9:27 AM on June 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

I really believe there are brain chemistry changes that kick in. I don't think that is disputed for women, for I think it happens for men too. I went from 9 months of scared shitless (but faking it for my wife) to feeling like I was born to be a parent, all in about 1 second, the first time I held my son. That couldn't be behavioral, it had to be a significant, underlying change in how my brain works.

If you haven't undergone that change, I 'm not sure there is anyway to explain it. Everything changes when you become a parent. Everything.
posted by COD at 9:28 AM on June 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Huge drains on your time and brain power + exhaustion due to lack of sleep at first = just don't care about a whole lot outside my own life.

After Girl Squirrel was born, I found myself not caring so much about things that I used to care very deeply about. That new song everyone's talking about? Eh, haven't heard it and don't really have the brain space to care. Hanging out at our favorite bar and trying a new beer? Meh, I kind of would rather sleep or maybe sit in a quiet bookstore.

Unfortunately, this also meant that I stopped caring a whole lot about what was going on in my friends' lives. Although maybe "stopped caring" is a bad explanation for what I experienced. It was more like, I just don't have the mental energy to devote to you right now. (Or to putting on pants in the morning, either, but you didn't ask about that.) I lost some friends, which I regret now, but I just ... couldn't keep up?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:31 AM on June 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

It's a different kind of love than one gets to feel elsewhere in life. It's amazing and overwhelming. I think as a non-parent it's hard to understand how someone's brat could really make them truly happy. But it's true.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:34 AM on June 1, 2014

Free time for yourself is pretty much non-existent. I'm talking "I'd love to get a haircut...in about three weeks" sort of scheduling. I would love to see my friends more often, but it just doesn't happen because when the little guy goes to bed, I follow soon after even if it's 9pm.

Also, you get to relive your own childhood and remember how fun it is to play with trucks and dolls and just running around in circles chasing the dog! It can be tiring, but I generally would rather play with my child than head to the pub these days (most of the time).

Everything you own is full of dirt, food, or boogers. You are more or less broke, because kids are expensive.

Whenever I see some news report about death, I can't help thinking "His/her poor parents", no matter how old the deceased is.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 9:40 AM on June 1, 2014

Best answer: the thing I see a lot of parents not getting is that it's not even that you don't have any free time. You have loads of free time. You can be quite bored, even -- because you never know how much free time you had at once until it's over. Maybe the baby will nap for two hours, but maybe she'll wake up after ten minutes. Or eleven. Or twelve. Or fifteen. It makes it very hard to plan for or execute anything, when at literally any second something will happen that will IMMEDIATELY take EMERGENCY priority. So you don't read complicated books, you read magazines; you play stupid phone games, you watch TV shows that can be easily interrupted. You take a 3-minute shower and then sit around on edge waiting for the baby to wake up for the next 45 minutes, or you take the time to actually shave your legs and get out of the shower to discover that the baby woke up JUST after you got in and has been crying so hard he's thrown up.

What I often wanted, when my babies were little, was for someone to come over while the kid napped so that I could do something, ANYTHING, without being on hyper-alert. Read an entire chapter of a book at a time, plan the meals for the week, drink a whole cup of tea before it got cold, that sort of thing.
posted by KathrynT at 9:50 AM on June 1, 2014 [50 favorites]

Best answer: The need to schedule around my kids' schedules, whether that's getting home in time for naps or not staying out too late so I'll be able to wake up in the morning. I don't MIND doing the logistics, but they're complicated. Parent-friends get that; non-parent friends sometimes thing you're being unenthusiastic about their company.

The need for you to wear pants you don't mind getting sticky handprints on. I always feel terrible when my kids and I, say, meet someone for lunch, and they get a GREAT BIG STICKY TODDLER HUG on their dressy pants. Out to lunch, that's on me, my children should not be sticky savages, but if you're coming to my house, dress down, it's messy here. My kids like you, you're going to end up with mud, food, spit-up, drool, art supplies, or boogers on you.

How willing I am to have tag-alongs to kid events. People are like, oh, I don't want to intrude on your family time. But an extra pair of hands and someone to make grown-up conversation with? YES PLEASE. Lots of kid things are, frankly, kinda dull. I love taking my kids to the park, but watching them at the park for the five millionth time isn't all that exciting. Relaxing on a park bench in the sunshine chatting with a friend while my kids run around? Suddenly it's PERFECTION. If you like parks, zoos, and museums, and you don't mind moving at a kid pace (sometimes painfully slow, sometimes zooming past interesting things), we are golden.

(Also since I am used to momming everyone around me, whenever single friends come with me to the zoo or whatever, they are delighted to discover that I packed THEM snacks too.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:24 AM on June 1, 2014 [17 favorites]

...also, parents have a higher disgust threshold for grime, jammy hands, snot, poop and vomit. But only your own kid's.

Other people's is still gross.
posted by kinetic at 10:33 AM on June 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

When my partner and I were discussing whether to have kids, I made mention of the lack of sleep we could look forward to for several years. He shrugged and said, "yeah, I've heard about this, but it must be overblown. So the baby wakes up, one of us feeds it, and everyone goes back to sleep. It'll take five minutes. What's so hard about that?"

I am rarely rendered speechless, but reader: I was speechless.
posted by scody at 10:59 AM on June 1, 2014 [21 favorites]

Best answer: The free time thing varies by child and parents, and so does the sleep thing. The free time varies due to whether the parents are willing to go do things solo, and also by whether they have easily available childcare (a close friend, sibling, or grandparent), or whether they have to pay someone to watch their child when they go out. The sleep thing varies due to kids (and parenting styles) just being different. I also don't buy the "love of a child is a new and different love!" thing--some people really seem to believe it, but I think it's pretty straightforward: I love my kid just like I love other people whom I love unconditionally (there are only two besides my kid), except with my kid, I know that he has no common sense and that I might have to throw myself in front of a car to save him, and I'm willing to do it. Also, that I am willing to sacrifice more time for him, because he needs mom time to be happy and grow. It's more of a practical difference than a feeling difference.

The one and only thing that I feel like my single friends have never understood is how much energy it takes to chase a kid in a situation where there are things that can be broken/eaten/drowned in/otherwise harm my child when he was somewhere between 12 and 24 months, mobile but with absolutely NO sense of peril or ability to listen when told no. Back then, when we were invited to a single friend's house, we would discuss beforehand how we would handle parenting duty. We usually took turns. Because whoever was chasing my child was not able to enjoy socializing, not at all. This is also, for what it's worth, probably specific to some children. My son has always been super energetic, and continues so, and we could never take him somewhere and expect him to just sit still and be entertained. There's so much to explore, after all! It's about having to be "on" all the time in some environments, and how exhausting that can be.
posted by hought20 at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Something I don't think I realized before having kids is that getting out of the house is a production. I would vastly prefer to have people over versus trying to get all of us out of the house in a presentable manner. (My house is a wreck but people are usually pretty understanding of this when you have a newborn.)

Because truly, as soon as you decide to leave the house, the baby will either spit up or need a diaper change, and sometimes this can mean an outfit change too depending on the damage. Boom - you're now 15 minutes late. Or the baby will start showing signs of hunger and will need to nurse, so there goes the next fifteen minutes. And then they'll need their diaper changed! So all of a sudden, you're getting out of the house a half-hour later than you planned and you feel like you don't even know how it happened.

KathrynT mentioned free time above, and YES to this x1000. You have tons of free time, but you have no idea how much you might get until it's over so it's next to impossible to plan anything. Again, this is why it's way easier to have people come to us versus us going anywhere!
posted by meggan at 11:43 AM on June 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's actually harder to get a baby sitter than you might think. This goes double for very young children.
posted by keeo at 12:13 PM on June 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Tangential to Eyebrows McGee's comment re: scheduling, my appreciation for the value of time changed after I had a kid. For example, before being a parent I would spend days (literally) with my best friend. Now, if I get a free hour to spend with her I do, and she has grown to appreciate that I'm giving up my one free hour to spend with her, instead of wondering why I can't spend time with her like I used to.
posted by lyssabee at 3:45 PM on June 1, 2014

Best answer: Kids are great, but they are RELENTLESS. Mine are 5 and 2.5 and they are really fun and good kids, but they do not stop until they go to sleep. That in and of itself is exhausting. Have you ever tried completing a task while also getting interrupted every 30 seconds to 5 minutes? Try loading your dishwasher by putting in one dish, then walking away for 5 minutes, then put in another dish, then walk away for 5 minutes, etc. Repeat. Congrats, your 10-minute task just took an hour! That is what life is, with kids. Mine are pretty good at leaving me alone when I'm trying to clean up or do something, but stuff comes up all the time - they're fighting or someone's ass needs to be wiped or someone just tripped, or someone wants to know what 2 plus 1 is or what makes blueberries blue or they're hungry, or or or...

They don't stop! I think that is what I didn't realize before I had kids. I had babysat a lot before and have many younger relatives/siblings but I just did not understand how physically draining and exhausting kids can be. They are so dependent on their parents, especially as infants and toddlers.
posted by sutel at 5:06 PM on June 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Even when the kids are older and not demanding the 24/7 attention babies and toddlers do, you still never get to 100% relax. You have a bunch of schedules in addition to your own to keep in your head, you can't disconnect from the phone/ computer for any length of time because there might be an emergency, you can't assume that notice was the house settling because it might be your kid getting hurt or a burglar who might hurt your kid, you have to remember to bring a water bottle when you leave the house because if you don't your kid will whine all day, etc. etc.
posted by metasarah at 6:53 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just remembered, my parents had a friend like you when I was little, a single, childless woman in her 40s, and every time she came over to hang out with my parents, she brought us clown cones from Baskin Robbins. We loved her better than Santa. I ran into her at an professional event a while back, and she was like, "I don't know if you remember me, but --" and I was like, "CLOWN CONES YOU BROUGHT ME CLOWN CONES WHEN I WAS FOUR." Hadn't seen her in 30 years, but you don't forget clown cones.

Non-parents don't realize how easy children are to please with special treats (like 79-cent bubbles from Target! Perfect!), or how much it impresses parents when you remember their kids with stuff like that. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:00 PM on June 1, 2014 [21 favorites]

We're all terribly terribly different too. It doesn't matter that Jo and Sam were happy leaving their two week old with grandma and grandpa for four days, or that Kay and Viv have never been apart from their child for longer than six hours - that's not the barometer for what is good for everyone, or even appropriate.

What we liked/wanted/did before children changes as well. It's a bit like a near death experience, in that the underlying concept of meaningful changes.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:12 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pain because of the vulnerability. Kids are so vulnerable and you spend hours/days/years early on being trained to be responsible for keeping them safe and well (and being constantly bombarded by social messages that you are responsible for their actions) so when they get hurt, the pain is amplified. If someone came along in a hospital and said to the parents, hey we can swap places with you and your kid, almost every parent would eagerly sign up. And when it's pain that you can't help them with or that they've caused themselves (they're sobbing over failing grades or a break-up or it's medical and you can't fix it), it's really awful. And you have to somehow hold it together because the kid needs to be comforted and feel like this is somehow going to okay, while inside you are screaming. It is intensely painful in this weird echo'd way that you don't usually experience with other relationships because you don't feel as responsible and protective the way you need to with a child.

Also child culture is very distinctive in modern countries. You become hyper-aware of the differences between children toy characters and have Strong Opinions about things like why Thomas the Tank Engine is a soulless monstrosity and why Mummy Pig is great. You may not want to have a chunk of your brain devoted to Doc MacStuffins and the Wiggles in your head, but most parents do.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:16 PM on June 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: At least in my experience, contrary to popular belief, people with kids generally do not give a crap that people without kids don't have kids. We don't judge, we don't look down on you for "missing out" on something special. Occasionally we even envy you.

Once in a while we might talk about "Boy, so and so seems like he/she would be a good parent, I wonder why they never had a kid" but it's merely wondering, not judging. And of course there's the parents who really want to be grandparents but that's usually just another case of an overbearing parent not being satisfied with their kid.

I'm sure there are parents who do secretly judge people for not having kids, just as there are childless people who look down on parents for whatever reason, but in 12 years of being a parent I have never met any parent who did this. In those rare cases it has nothing to do with having kids or not having kids, these people would be judgmental assholes about anything.

Also, when you're a parent it's not that you don't have any time, it's just that you're generally not in control of your time. You're all ready to go somewhere and your kid throws a fit, or sprays liquid shit on the walls, or cries all night when all you want to do is sleep. There's really not much you can do to avoid that.
posted by bondcliff at 6:49 AM on June 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One of my greatest frustrations in the early days when my daughter was very small was that both the childfree as well as older relatives who were were decades removed from childrearing were massively oblivious to the constraints posed on outings/visits/whatever by breastfeeding. I mean, I can't really blame them because why would you devote one iota of thought whatsoever to the subject if you personally are not breastfeeding? But yes, young babies really do need to eat every two hours, and yes, it's going to take about 45 minutes each time, and sorry, no, you cannot give them a bottle because I also need...relief. NO ONE ever considered my needs while feeding an infant, never, not once.

And yes, partly the reason new parents lose sight of themselves for awhile and don't even care is that caring for babies is very demanding but it's also equally that watching your own kid grow up and discover the world is FUCKING FASCINATING. Like, I'd major in it were such a course of study available, it really is THAT interesting. My kid is also just so much FUN for me and her dad. Before my daughter was born, I knew I would love her, of course, but I sort of envisioned loving her through a whole lot of newborn difficulties and irritating behaviors and just run-of-the-mill baby tedium, and yeah, there's been some of that, but mostly she is just such an enjoyable companion and has been since day one. I genuinely love hanging out with her.
posted by anderjen at 7:26 AM on June 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Relaxing on a park bench in the sunshine chatting with a friend while my kids run around? Suddenly it's PERFECTION. If you like parks, zoos, and museums, and you don't mind moving at a kid pace (sometimes painfully slow, sometimes zooming past interesting things), we are golden.

This, this, oh this! It's euphoric!
posted by a fair but frozen maid at 2:49 PM on June 2, 2014

Best answer: One of my wife's family members was house-sitting at a really nice house during the holidays. He suggested that the family have Thanksgiving dinner at that house since it had a huge kitchen and the homeowners were on board.

But since we're the only ones with little kids, it was terrible. There were expensive things everywhere, nothing was baby-proofed, and we had two toddlers at the time. That day was exhausting, even after we blocked the stairs with boxes (which made things awkward for the grown-ups, but I was past caring).

In other words: my house is the only place I can really relax because I know the dangers there and know what I've done to make it safe. If a friend invites me over with the kids, I am likely to decline for this reason alone.
posted by tacodave at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a PHD Comics panel that sums it up for me.
posted by dhruva at 7:26 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Someone once said that having a child is like having your heart walking around outside your body. This is spot on.
posted by amro at 10:30 AM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

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