Monday, December 09, 2013

Talking About Identity

I spent much of the weekend with girlfriends who are moms, but among the more understanding moms I know. That's why it was so weird to me when, during a conversation about female characters in literature and film, I froze when my friend asked me this:

If a character was more like you, what would she be like?

I froze. Like an idiot I froze. The real answer? I don't have a maternal instinct. I don't see children in my future, and that changes what a love story looks like. It's something that's never addressed.

I gave that answer, but was surprised to hear her give one of the stock mom responses: "I didn't think I could do it either."

It was hard not to just sigh, but the conversation sort of stalled awkwardly there.

But this isn't about what she said. It's about how I felt. I felt uncomfortable, guarded, scared of offending her like I'd offended so many mom friends in the past. It's always easiest when it doesn't come up in conversation, or if I start discussing my niece or goddaughter to bring myself back into a conversation that's left me behind to talk about children and child development.

I was scared. And what happened was exactly what I worried would happen. Things got awkward, the conversation died.

Being childfree is a huge part of my identity, and I've learned over the years that it really bothers a lot of parents, including super liberal, supportive friends. "I don't understand why you have to call it something," one father of a toddler says in reaction to someone's post that mentions childfreedom. "I don't get why it has to be a thing when it's the absence of something."

But that reminds me of the people who squirm uncomfortably when a celebrity comes out as gay and says "why do they need to tell me that? I don't want to know that."  Because it's a part of who we are, and it's something that heavily influences life every day.

Others look at those of us who do talk openly about our decision and accuse us for overcompensating. This is another variation of "why are you telling me this when it makes me uncomfortable," as far as I can tell, and that bothers me. It says "keep quiet, you're making too big of a deal about this", and it invalidates my feelings.

But it's hard to open up to parents who are friends, especially after feeling a lot of judgment and hurt in the past. Immediately followed by "I didn't think I could do it either" was a flashing and shrieking alarm that said "this is not a safe place." That's a really unpleasant thing to feel when you're with someone you care about deeply. And that's why we clam up, why we don't speak up.

How do you talk to your parent friends? Do you have this problem, when you can get along well as long as the childfree issue doesn't come up but conversation comes to a huge halt when it becomes more than a surface comment or two?