“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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