Can people with kids ever be good friends with people who don’t have kids? As a childfree woman, it’s something that I think about a lot because both money and babies impact adult friendships.
It’s easier to make friends when you’re a kid
Simply put: it’s easier to make friends when you’re a kid. And that’s for a couple of reasons. The first of which is proximity. When you’re a kid, you go to school every day with the same people. You see them in English class, you see them in math class, you see them at recess. You all work on school projects, you do after school activities, like soccer or theater with them. You’re always around the same general group of people.
As a kid, we have opportunities to learn things together
Second, we have the opportunity to learn things together. So whether that is Calculus or how to make the perfect free throw, when you are around people day after day, and you’re learning something together that creates opportunities for bonding. Learning something together creates opportunities for what I like to call “silly little experiences.” You miss five free throws in a row. Then you sink one perfectly, no net, and everyone cheers for you. That is a memory that you’ve created with those people.
As a kid, we also have a lot of flexibility
And thirdly, a major part of making friends as a kid is time flexibility. When you’re younger, you tend to have fewer responsibilities, and you have more time to do whatever you want with whoever you want. Most kids under 15 are not worried about rent going up or which account they should be using to save for retirement. Young kids are like, “Hey, you like purple, I like purple. Let’s go play on the swings together.”
Kids today are more scheduled than years ago, but it’s still less schedule rigidity than when we’re adults. When you’re a kid, if your friend Julia calls you and says “Hey, you want to go to a movie?” You can say yes. But as an adult, we lose this spontaneity. And we lose this time flexibility as we become adults with more responsibilities.
So, how do we make friends as an adult?
So as we become adults, how do we make friends? And how do kids play into this parenthood is the norm here in the United States. And what I mean by that is, it’s the social norm not that every single person, you know, has kids, but that the expectation here in the United States. The social norm is that you will grow up, get married and have kids. And it’s pretty much been that social norm since 1776. Not having kids is a very recent social development. Now that’s not to say that there haven’t been child free people in the history of the world. Of course, there have been, but it was not common.
Kids were and are a social norm
And in most places, and especially here in the United States, it was not socially acceptable to be child free. Women in particular here in the US were to be pitied or feared. It’s really due to the efforts of first wave and second wave feminism that child free living even became an option. When women were granted legal rights in the early 1900s, such as the right to own land in their own name in 1900, or the right to vote in 1920. This opens the door for women to be seen as legal individuals, that means people outside of their relationship to a man usually their father or their husband.
When the birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, this really opened the door for women or anyone with a uterus to be able to take control of their reproductive health. If you didn’t want to have a child, it became way easier and way safer to no longer have child. However, parenthood still remained the default in 1900, in 1970, and still today in 2023.
Anecdotally, I have a lot of friends and I have a lot of different friend groups. I have the friends that I went to high school with, my friends from college, my friends from Austin, my friends here in North Carolina. Out of all those people, I am the only one who is child free by choice.
Child free by choice is becoming more common, but it is still the minority
While Millennials are having kids later than previous generations, we are still by far having more kids than remaining child free. In 2019, 55% of millennials were married with at least one child. 12% of millennials were single parents and more than 19 million millennial women had given birth.
Having a kid is the single most impactful thing that you can do on this planet. First of all, you literally created life. If you’re someone with a uterus, you birthed that life. That is truly a miracle and frankly very mind blowing to me. And then once it’s out, you have to teach that kid that difference between right and wrong. You have to help that child become a helpful and productive member of society.
Overwhelming expectations for parents
Truly, it is an awesome responsibility, and today becoming a parent is an expensive and often overwhelming experience. Parents are expected to feed their kid all organic homemade meals, while using cloth diapers, while reading to them four or five books every single night, while advocating for their education, while taking them to soccer practice, while maintaining a clean home, while working 40 or more hours a week, while saving for retirement, while saving for their kids education. On and on. And on.
An article for Time Magazine about Millennial parents stated the pressure among millennials to be great parents is fierce. In February, parenting site BabyCenter released its annual report on modern moms. It surveyed 2,700 US mothers ages 18 to 44 and found that nearly 80% of Millennial moms said it’s important to be “the perfect mom,” compared with about 70% of moms in Generation X. 64% of moms across age groups said they believe parenting is more competitive today than it used to be. And to all this perfect parenting comes at a literal cost.
The finances of having a child
In 2017, the USDA estimated that it cost $233,610 to raise one child from birth to age 18. Updated for 2023, Lending Tree now estimates that number is $237,482. Being child free is not the social norm and that means it comes with no roadmap for parents. Kids often dictate how parents will spend their time. Parents will join PTAs, they will coach soccer. After school, they’ll pick up their kids. Then, their evenings will be spent cooking for their kids, helping with homework, making costumes for the school play, etc., etc. Parents also have other parents as a built in social network.
Parenting is a bonding experience
If your kid Jimmy goes to school with Jose for 18 years, you’re going to meet Jose’s parents over time. Parenting itself is a bonding activity. For child free people, we don’t have those same structures in place. Making friends and maintaining friendships is totally on us. We don’t have the option of our kids being in class with Jose’s kids. And for a lot of child free people, the way that the world is structured feels almost weirdly hostile to us because it feels like parenthood is prioritized by the system. Parents literally get a child tax credit on their taxes. And in some industries, parents can get workplace benefits that non-parents don’t.
In August 2020, Salesforce announced parents would get an additional six weeks of PTO during the pandemic. That same benefit did not apply to the child free employees. And this right here, it’s this lifestyle difference that can be very difficult to navigate as adults trying to be friends. Parents often feel that their child free friends don’t understand the experiences that they’re going through. They don’t understand the demands on their time. The challenges to being a parent and their newfound devotion and interest in the things that their kids do. Child free people don’t understand why and how their friend who has a one-year-old now has no sympathy or empathy for the lifestyle that their child free friends live.
What childfree people want parents to understand
What child free people often want parents to understand is that just because we don’t have kids, doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have challenges. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want our victories and our moments of wins to be celebrated. I think that the show Sex in the City hit the nail on the head with their episode, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.”
I’m not a huge Sex in the City fan, although I have seen all of the episodes. In this episode, Carrie gets invited to a friend’s child’s birthday party. It’s the couple’s third child. Carrie has gotten them a present for every single one of their children. She also got them a present when they got engaged and she traveled and attended their wedding.
At the party, Carrie is asked to take off her shoes and if you know anything about Sex in the City, you know Carrie is obsessed with her shoes. Her shoes go missing and throughout the episode there is tension between her and her friend because the friend thinks that Carrie is ridiculous for wearing $485 shoes to a party. Carrie expects that friend to replace those shoes because they went missing at her house and she only took them off because of the friends rule about no shoes in the house.
It’s an experiential divide
I really recommend you check out this episode, even if you’re not a Sex in the City fan. Carrie discusses this tension with her friend Charlotte about how single and child free people are expected to pony up their cash and their time for the life milestones that married people and parents hit. They pay to attend a wedding, pay to attend a bachelorette party, pay for a wedding shower gift, get a child’s birthday gift every single year. The parents don’t reciprocate in the same way because obviously single and child free people are not having those same experiences. And it’s this kind of experiential divide that’s really difficult to overcome between child free people and parents when they’re trying to maintain or grow friendships.
Social divides are particularly difficult for women
It’s my opinion that these divides are particularly difficult for women. Women often face what is known as the “motherhood penalty” at work when they become parents. Research has shown that hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers compared to women who don’t have kids. And when employers do make an offer to a mother, they offer her a lower salary than they do other women.
Men, by contrast, do not suffer a penalty when they become dads. In fact, there’s some evidence of a “fatherhood bonus” in which their earnings actually increase. This Reddit post I found (below) details how a married woman not getting a raise because of her working husband.
“My wife isn’t getting a raise this year because I make good money and the men in the office quote, ‘need it more.’ My wife works as a graphic designer in a marketing firm, she’s great at her job and has never had anything but glowing reviews from her boss. This year, however, she got her review, which was very good. But she was told that even though everyone else was getting a salary increase, she was not.
When she asked why, her boss told her there’s only so much in the budget for salary increases. And since your husband is an engineer and makes good money, you don’t need it. Unlike the men here. I was completely gobsmacked. That’s just so effed up. It just makes me so angry. I mean, I am an engineer, and I do make good money. But that’s not a reason to sell her short. Women also do more home duties, everything from cooking, to cleaning to picking up the kids after school.”
Women are more likely to do the vast majority of household tasks
And this is true. By the way, whether or not a woman has kids, women are much more likely to do the vast majority of home duties when they are in a heterosexual partnership. So now we’re asking women in particular to be rockstars at work, even though the motherhood penalty, and potentially the husband penalty is working against you. Even though women have to do the vast majority of cooking and cleaning, even though women do the vast majority of child care. And now they have to maintain stellar friendships. It’s a lot to ask.
It’s no individual’s “fault”
It is not the fault of parents or child free people that friendships are hard to maintain after children. It’s the world that we live in. First and foremost, we lose opportunities to make and nurture friendships as we age. Some of this is due to personal choice. You get a job in Cincinnati and you choose to move there, even though you grew up in Iowa City and all of your community is there. Now you’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone. You’re working this new job, and you don’t have necessarily the time or space to be pursuing friendships.
Additionally, not everyone that you grew up with is going to pursue the same career. So maybe you become a teacher, your bestie becomes an engineer, your high school boyfriend becomes a scuba diver. Now you’re not going to be spending as much time together because you’re all doing different things. However, some of the challenges that we have at building and nurturing friendships as adults is not due to personal choices. It’s due to the world that we live in.
Urban sprawl & lack of green space contributes to the problem
For example, we build cities, towns and neighborhoods primarily for cars, not for people. Car culture severely limits how and where we can gather. If you live in a suburb, most suburbs are not walking friendly. It’s very difficult to to walk to the corner bar where you can meet your friend for a drink after work. You have to drive there and there may be limited parking, or you may have to pay more for gas.
In Chicago, which had a population of 2.6 million in 2022, only 8% of the entire city is park or open space. For LA, the second biggest city in the United States, only 10% of the entire city is parks and open space. So quite literally, it’s hard to go to a place where you’re not going to get charged money to see people because we have very few of those places. And that’s by design. When we’re building cities, we’re mostly thinking about building spaces for businesses and homes. We’re not thinking about building spaces where people can easily and affordably gather.
As adults, we have concerns that are highly personal that we are encouraged not to share or talk about money. For example, we all earn different amounts of money depending on what job you’re in, what city you’re in, what state you’re in, and how we spend that money is also incredibly unique. Some of us have health concerns. Some of us have kids, some of us have to take care of family who live in foreign countries. There’s no universal way to be an adult, which means there’s no universal living standards.
Cost of living contributes to the problem, as well
At this exact moment in time, we are also dealing with rising cost of living, high inflation and the housing crisis. We’re also up against a political stubbornness to change very little about these problems. For example, as of 2022, despite two thirds of Americans supporting raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Yet, it has stood at $7.25 an hour since July 2009 when it was last increased.
Since then, the dollar has lost 14.8% of its purchasing power to inflation. In fact, had the federal minimum wage kept pace with workers productivity since 1968, the inflation adjusted minimum wage would be $24 an hour. These things are largely structural. I cannot choose to change the federal minimum wage, and have a change just like that.
The way that we have built and are continuing to build cities is a structural issue. The way that we work in this country is a structural issue with the expectation that you will be in office at least 40 hours a week. And that’s something like an hour long commute is totally normalized, structural issue.
So while yes, obviously kids change parents lives, and they change adult friendships. Do I blame kids for becoming a burden on adult friendships? Absolutely not. It’s important to consider all of these other things when we ask ourselves the question, why is making friends and why is maintaining friends as an adult so hard?
This is as a structural issue
We can’t just zoom in on the cute little baby and say it’s your fault. We have to think bigger. Why do I have so little free time? Oh, it’s because I spend 30 minutes commuting one way, five days a week. And so that is an hour a day or five hours a week that I am losing that I could be spending nurturing friendships or literally sleeping? Let’s be honest, how common is it to have a friend cancel plans and have a wave of relief run over you?
So that’s my hot take. It was crappy urban design and capitalism all along. Let me know what you think in the comments. I’m super curious, especially since I am child free. If you’re a parent, I definitely want to hear from you.
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