Research (and your diary) shows that becoming a parent decreases contact with friends. But outside the baby bubble, asks Gemma Askham, 38, where does that leave the childfree?
The Instagram posts jolted me like turbulence. One friend announced her engagement; another posted the top table at her wedding (I didn’t even know she was engaged). Surprise and joy turned into something sadder. When had we drifted so far? Living in different cities hadn’t helped. Nor Covid – British and French studies both found that lockdowns shrunk friendship circles. But, in truth, our worlds lost orbit two years earlier: when my now-engaged friend FaceTimed me clutching a bump instead of a G&T, and the other handed me an envelope and beamed as I pulled out a scan.
As someone childfree, a pregnancy announcement means that person is moving to a place I’ll never quite get. Despite all the memories, laughs and common ground before, some things change instantly. My ‘I can’t wait to see you!’ is met with ‘I can’t wait for you to meet them!’ – a third person already in our gang of two. Once a child is here, frustrations build. At gatherings, when the story you’re telling gets cut off by a dropped spoon, you learn that everything you just uttered will have been forgotten. The chasm is felt both ways. During a weekend away with families, my husband and I messed up when the food we were making wasn’t ready until after their kids’ mealtime. ‘A mother would know what time children eat,’ one mum scolded.
#Childfree might be a growing Gen Z movement, with over 174 million TikTok views, but at 38 I’m an outlier. They say the urge for offspring will come: when you meet the right person, own a house. Yet as I ticked off landmarks without a twinge, I realised that the desire to have children wasn’t coming. When mums described the infinity of maternal love, or suggested we try to conceive and let nature decide – as if my own choice couldn’t be trusted – I felt dysfunctional. A gay friend finally offered perspective. ‘I can’t explain why I’m not attracted to women, other than that I’m just not. I expect it’s the same for you not wanting children,’ he said, nailing it.
Simple – and yet not, in practice. In my twenties, I remember the evening my housemate Julia told me she was moving in with her boyfriend. I was so happy for her and yet devastated. A decade older, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt disappointment when yet another couple said they had ‘some news’ – particularly if I thought (or hoped) they would swerve children too.
Now in my late thirties, I ask if other women without children feel the same. ‘You’re thrilled for them, but it’s also, “Oh.” Because that’s it for the friendship as you loved it,’ confides one. Another feels displaced, particularly around Christmas. ‘For years, you live, socialise and holiday together. Then, overnight, instead of you being their person, they have their own person, and everything falls out of sync – routines, priorities, celebrations. Our group of uni friends would always hold a Christmas dinner together in early December. Now it’s a “thing for the kids” and we don’t even get an invite.’
Being childfree is uncharted social territory: even meeting new faces requires more than a free bar and a Secret Santa when you’re older and breaking the mould. Last December, my husband Jordi and I moved to Paris. We’d previously lived in Sydney and Barcelona, and made friends easily. But this time I was 37 and Jordi was 40. Similar-aged expats were wrestling toddlers at the Disneyland Christmas Parade. During house party small talk, being a ‘dog mum’ proved only so relatable to being a human mum: teething issues, yes, breastfeeding, less so. The motherhood questions came again. ‘You don’t feel anything?’ one asked, bemused, as she stared at the family portrait on her phone. It felt as if being childfree had sentenced us to being friend-free, too.
Loneliness made me inventive. I stopped for longer when I met other dog walkers, building a repertoire of faces, then names, then life stories. Instead of using Instagram to track old friends’ lives – which really meant ‘liking’ visual proof of our differences – I pursued my love of interiors, building a network where we chatted design, irrespective of our ovaries. Offline, by surprise, I bonded with mums of teenagers who were also navigating a new life stage now time was their own again.
And when I did feel chemistry with a new mum, I demanded less – accepting that a booked-weeks-in-advance dinner, with a booked-weeks-in-advance babysitter, could bring me joy even if we weren’t each other’s entire social worlds – and hoped for more in time. Researchers in the Netherlands found that new parents’ friendships are weakest when a child turns three, but women regain contact with friends after their child’s fifth birthday. There’s comfort in an academic study validating that drift is, indeed, A Thing – and a temporary one.
Meanwhile, I’ve made a discovery of my own: any new human in your life takes work, but they don’t have to be baby-shaped to be fulfilling.