Generation X and the Social Gap

I posted this on Facebook the other day but it’s worth repeating here.

“Today’s fathers spend seven times more with their children and yet nearly 50% of them say it’s not enough.”

My wife and I have a fairly large social circle (holla!) and the median age of the group is also about forty. Our group is pretty homogeneous on most social markers. White, middle class, college educated, white collar jobs. As for kids, the average among our group is two per family. The ages range from about 4 to 12. There haven’t been any pregnancies in a few years and the increasing curiosity from the guys about a vasectomy seems to indicate that season of their lives has ended.

Like most middle class parents these days, our friends have children with intensely busy lives. While I continue to read article after article complaining about this trend, it certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing down within our social group. Psychologist Brene Brown puts it best when she says that “exhaustion is the new status symbol.” There is nothing middle class parents enjoy more than talking about how busy they are. The ironic thing is that so much of their stress is by choice.

Children as the nucleus of a family is a model that seems a bit foreign to me. Like most Gen Xers it wasn’t my experience growing up, but it has also never been my experience with my own family. One of the benefits to being a father at 19 is that everyone sets the bar really low for you. If you simply keep your child alive you’re pretty much considered a success. Additionally, because you’re still basically a child yourself you tend to be a bit more selfish than other parents. You put your own needs a little higher on the priority list. Since there was no pressure to be a perfect parent, I just did what made the most sense to me at the time which was to try to maintain my social life and also be a good dad. I carefully cultivated babysitting credits with my sister by watching her kids as much as possible so she could occasionally cover for me on a Saturday night. I worked odd schedules so I could take long weekends to go camping with friends. I had a serious relationship for five years when my daughter was in the single digits and we went on a lot of dates to places like the zoo or G-rated movies with my daughter tagging along.

I definitely missed out on part of my 20s because of my parenting duties and my wife had a similar experience as a single parent herself. When we met we soon realized that we were on the same page regarding our social lives. We realized that having a partner meant we could recapture some of our lost time from our single parent days. Ten years later we still do everything we can to ensure both of us have plenty of time with our friends because that balance seems important to a healthy marriage.

Peer pressure is an interesting phenomenon. When you are the only parent in a social group of childless friends, they support your efforts to find the social/parenting balance. They fully endorse the enlistment of a babysitter so you can go out on a Saturday night. Fast forward a decade and suddenly everyone in your group is married. They are starting to have their own kids and priorities change. The peer pressure still exists but it comes from a different direction. The new reality is that leaving your spouse home alone with your own children makes you an asshole. Or so my friends tell me.

It’s not that the social lives of the middle class disappear when they have children, it’s just that they begin to look much different. The adults no longer dictate their peer group, their children do. Play dates, soccer games and  other child-related functions become the foundation of parents’ social lives. Reconnecting with the old gang to do grownup-only things becomes a luxury and in my experience it is one that is exercised infrequently. Why? Because everyone else is doing the same thing. There is no pressure to maintain relationships where there isn’t a child component included. In my experience this is true for both men and women.

In our situation, with kids that are 16 and 20, we have more free time than ever. So it’s easy to feel resentment when our other friends are not available due to family commitments. We try to tell ourselves that they are simply a product of today’s culture but that it shallow comfort. The truth is, these are conscious choices and when people choose A instead B, something gets left behind. What may be a more important aspect of today’s parenting culture is the reality that most people are not very good at finding a balance in their lives. The number of books, websites and other resources dedicated to finding that balance and eliminating stress is staggering. This feeds into a sense of guilt and the cycle perpetuates itself over and over.

The caveat to all of this may be that it’s just my own friends that suck at maintaining friendships in their post-children world. Or it could be that this ‘social gap’ is a normal part of parenting and I somehow didn’t realize my own parents experienced it all those years ago. Or it could be one of those first world problems bloggers love to complain about. Thoughts?

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

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23 thoughts on “Generation X and the Social Gap

  1. Part of it comes from pressure to have kids that excel. They must be good at a sport, good at something academic, have overcome some form of adversity, and have successfully held a leadership position, so that they can describe all of these things in their personal statements for school applications. By age six.

    I exaggerate, but by how much? To propel very young children to do these things requires sustained effort by parents, and that in turn detracts from the time parents have available. Parents then form social contacts with other parents of kids the same age and they don’t feel like they’re missing out so much on social interaction with people who are roughly their peers — and who am I to talk, they probably aren’t.

    All the same, when my best friends announced to my wife and I a few years ago that they were pregnant, we said that we’d very much enjoyed being friends with them and looked forward to reuniting in eighteen years or so.

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  2. Mike,
    You’re only being an asshole to leave the kids home with your spouse if you do that unequally (and I’ll admit that once the kids get to be around 8 or so, they’re less of a “supervise at all times” issue). Nevertheless, I do think folks will assume — unless you deliberately point out otherwise — that you might be doing so unequally. (Yeah, it’s sexist. Not going to bite no bones about assuming that a person in a sexist society might be doing something sexist).

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    • Kim,

      Good point and my two female editors raised the same question. I tried to address it in the OP but probably didn’t do a good job there. So let me be clear: It should go both ways. Equal amount of ‘friend time’ for both spouses.

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  3. This is part of the reason why Mad Men is so popular among this demographic. Not only is it a throwback to when people dressed well and drank at the office and smoked when they wanted to smoke, but it is a throwback to when adults had fun. That is, it is a throwback to a time when adults’ lives revolved around adult socializing and kids were of concern, but not of central concern.

    I don’t know how accurate Mad Men is in this regard, but I certainly understand the appeal. I am of an age when most of my friends have the two kids and have decamped for the suburbs. As my wife and I plan our own family, I remain determined not to move to the ‘burbs and stress over every parenting decision and feel pressure to get my kids into the best pre-school so they can get into the best kindergarten… so on and so forth. Partly, I want to do this, because I don’t like the idea of placing my kids on a never-ending treadmill where the purpose of every moment in life is to prepare for the next moment in life. And partly, I just want to continue having fun in my adult life. I want to travel and enjoy nights out and shows and lazy weekends.

    I don’t know how realistic my determination will prove to be, but as you say, these things are a function of decisions. They are not inevitable.

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  4. When I was still single I went out with a woman whose family was old-school Catholic and about as conservative as you could get.

    One of the social markers of this woman’s family’s social circles was that the lives of the men and the women (even those who were in their 20s) were somewhat seperate when married. There was the working man/stay-at-home wife dynamic, of course, but it was more than that. If the men didn’t have yard work or office work to do on a Saturday they would get together amongst themselves and golf, or go the Ducks of Beaver game, or do some other all-male activity while the wives stayed home and did the child rearing. And since this seemed what everyone involved liked, wanted, and signed up for it seemed to me to be a fine arrangement.

    But it seems that over the past few generations there has been movement not only toward fathers being more involved with their kids, but with husbands and wives choosing to spend their free time together to connect. (I actually remember when “time to connect with your spouse” was a thing newly being talked about in the early 80s, and how the concept was routinely mocked by most.)

    And the thing is, something has to give.

    You can’t spend your whole Saturday getting away from and hanging out with your spouse. You can’t go to an all-day soccer tournament your kid is playing in and go on an all day rafting trip with your buds. You can’t watch game 7 of the NBA finals in a rowdy sports bar and watch game 7 of the NBA finals with your son so that you can teach him the intricacies of the game. It sucks, but if you’re going to be a connected spouse and an involved parent, eventually you have to choose between your family and your friends. (Or you do up to a point, anyway.)

    For my family this choice meant far less time being spent with friends for a number of years. And even when we did have time to spend with friends, the old ones were somewhat crowded out because there were all these new friends who we knew from Gymboree and preschool and kindergarden and soccer and basketball and music recitals and…

    My kids are at an age now where they need little or no supervision (one isn’t even here any more), and yet even now — and even though I still value my relationship with all old friends — there are a hell of a lot of them I only see a couple of times a year. There are some others that I haven’t actually talked to in a decade.

    The only other option to this, as best I can see, is to choose to be in the kind of marriage and family that my old girlfriend’s brothers and sisters opted for. As bet as I could tell, the dudes got to hang with the dudes their whole lives, and the gals essentially formed mom-groups that morphed into plaits groups that morphed into wine clubs. And like I say, that’s a fine option for those that want that.

    But it was never for me.

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    • I think it’s possible to find a better balance. My wife and I both have monthly guys’/girls’ nights we attend. I hunt on Saturday mornings and the occasional full weekend. She takes yearly trips with her college roommates. I have my UFC nights. She has season tickets to the theater with one of her friends. In each case, when the kids were younger, we covered for each other because we felt like it was important to have that ‘me’ time. All the other time in our lives? We spend together.

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  5. I think there are all sorts of reasons why people in their 30s and 40s experience a social gap. It used to be that people would hit the same societal markers at the same time. More or less. Now that is not the case.

    I’m 34. When I was in my early 20s, it seemed like most of my friends were more or less in the same place socially and economically even if we were doing different things like grad school, working entry level jobs, trying for an artistic career, etc. Now I am at a phase where a lot of those paths have or are diverging. I have friends who figured out what they want to do fairly early on and are now parents and homeowners. They also have careers with reasonable to high levels of responsibility. I have friends who are just getting married. I am seeing the first divorces. And then there are people like me who are still working to find our way and place in the world.

    I am single. Still starting on my career because I decided what to do late in life and with a bad recession. But what I have is maximum freedom if not always the funding. I can choose to see a movie at 12:30 on a Saturday if I want to. But kids and spouses are a responsibility and should be so I totally get that my friends who are married and parents can’t hang out at the drop of a dime anymore. The parents do seem to hang out with each other a lot.

    In some ways, I still feel like I am a 20-something because of my career issues and because I am single. My friends with kids or even just long-term relationships just seem much more pulled together and adult-like. I can’t party like a 20-something any more though.

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  6. My parents didn’t beleive in babysitters. They generally stayed home on weekends or took us out with them.

    If there was an emergency we could stay with my grandparents.

    Did I admire my parents for their dedication to me and my siblings?

    Well, no. I thought they were losers.

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    • I’m not sure Indian parents know what babysitters are.

      If my wife and I were to become parents, I’d assume we’d probably do one of the following (1) do things while junior was in day care, (2) do things we could do together, or (3) do things separately while the other parent stayed home.

      Lining up babysitters sounds like a pain to me (at least in abstract). I think we’d rather just not do anything.

      Which actually does sound kind of loser-ish.

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      • We have a lot of friends who are scared to use babysitters because they are over-protective parents (not saying you all are, I just know my friends are). For the few couples that embrace using babysitters, they enjoy the freedom. My oldest daughter paid for her first car with babysitter money.

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      • I could easily believe that my parents were being protective. (I stop short of using the word “over”protective because I’m not sure how eager any normal parents would be to identify and trust a babysitter in a country that was somewhat new to them.)

        I wouldn’t really have that excuse, but even thinking about what sort of things my wife and I do together, we walk around downtown, go out to eat, go hiking, etc. All of those are much more annoying to do with kids, but they still sound possible.

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      • Vik,
        possible when the kid is 5? Maybe. AFAIK, kids that are too young can’t really be left outside for terribly long, and often have issues going out to eat.

        I think parents who wont’ leave their kids alone with babysitters haven’t heard enough horror stories. (See the one posted on this site about falling down the stairs carrying the kid. Also see, under “bad ideas” the “give him a bit of rum to make him sleepy… — when the kid was just hungry, dammit!”)

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      • There is a whole other side of the social problem that I didn’t cover which is how to successfully have a life with your kids included. For example, my neighbor and I are friendly and when we see each other in the backyard we will chat for a few minutes. I don’t think I have ever had a conversation with him that his kids did not interrupt at least four or five times. Rather than threatening their lives and sending them off to play quietly like I would have done with my kids, he just keeps indulging them and so the conversation is stilted and unpleasant on my end. I know lots of guys my age that do this.

        I never had a problem getting things done as a single parent. I either included my daughter by having her help me in some way (kids are great at helping fold clothes with a little practice) or would have her read a book while I finished something up. Apparently this is a form of neglect by today’s standards.

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      • Hiking with kids is totally doable. Put the little tyke in a baby backpack and go. They usually either fall asleep or have a great time looking around at the world. When they outgrow the pack you take them out on the trail and let them run.

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      • “kids that are too young can’t really be left outside for terribly long”

        Reportedly, people in the Netherlands regularly leave kids outside in their strollers when they go into stores and it’s freezing. (I don’t think I’d try that in the US, but it’d be more for legal concerns than their actual wellbeing.)


        I regularly see parents carrying their kids up the 4000′ mountains that I need my dog to drag me up. Granted, I do live in the sort of place where such dedicated people are likely to live.

        I’d love to still be able to hike, but I think the kid would have to do most of her own work, even if that meant the whole thing would feel interminable.

        Rather than threatening their lives and sending them off to play quietly like I would have done with my kids, he just keeps indulging them and so the conversation is stilted and unpleasant on my end. I know lots of guys my age that do this.

        I feel there is some profound lesson in here and am worried that if I don’t internalize it, it will be lost.

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      • Vik,
        You were talking hiking — when I hike, I’m out all day. Sure, it’s fine to wrap up the kid and leave him outside for 20 minutes…

        Where are you going up 4000 feet near a city? Even grouse mountain is less than 3000…

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      • Kim,

        There’s this cool modern invention called clothes. If you have kids, I’d recommend you check it out.

        When you have your kids outside in cool weather, keep an eye on them. If they’re active, they can stay out longer than if they’re sedentary. Have them wear layers so they can repeatedly fine-tune their insulation. Keep them dry to minimize hypothermia risk. Keep snack and water available and make sure your kids partake of both, also to ward off hypothermia.

        Humans are very adaptable. Darwin recorded people in the cold drizzle of Tierra del Fuego with naked kids–obviously enough survived. With a little common sense and acclimation kids can stay outside in 40 degree temps indefinitely.

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      • Lain would take being on a backpack for about a half an hour and then we would be pretty miserable.

        (Which is funny. She is wonderfully patient in hear seat, whether in a car or on a plane. But boy, when she can see the ground, she doesn’t go very long before she wants on it.)

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