While We’re Young (and Childless)

It’s the opening scene of the recent Noah Baumbach movie, While We’re Young, and the forty-something couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are trying, aimlessly, to calm their friend’s baby. It’s been a month or so now since I saw the film in my local art house theater but the sentiment of what comes next still stings true. The new parents sweep into the scene with water-eyed enthusiasm and reassure their childless friends. “You would make great parents.”

And while this is a kind thing to say, this is not always a kind thing to hear.

Naomi Watts in While We're Young

I didn’t expect my thirties to be so lonely. I’ve been around and around about the why’s – is my introvertism sprouting horns? is living in the South so very grisly? is this feeling all that new? – and can’t make much sense of it beyond the realization that we are diverging. We are diverging into family paths in our thirties in the way we diverged into career paths in our twenties and it is making things like getting a drink after work or getting the feeling I’m understood difficult.

At thirty-one, hearing a friend say I would make a great parent is like hearing my father say I would make a great professor. Sure, there’s still time for both but I’ve also made it clear, repeatedly, that I’m not interested in either. “That may be what you want for me,” I tell my sweet father, “but that’s not what I want for me.” It’s what I like to call a coercive compliment. It feels like a nudge toward the trodden path of progress in which parenthood, like a PhD, is the highest honor. Why stop now? their words say to me. You just want to be a happy wife? A slow writer? A holy hostess? You’re capable of so much more.

The “more” I’ve found myself in search of is friends. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my Tuesday afternoon trips to the park with my growing goddaughter and her mom. Or the Saturday morning outing to the tea house where my friends’ toddler plays shyly in the sandbox while we sip our Oolong. But I also need more friends in their twenties like Lizzie, the newlywed whose talk of sex is decidedly un-procreative. I need more friends in their sixties like Jeanette, the “unofficial mayor of Durham” who runs a nonprofit for women’s spirituality with an energy that’s refreshingly singular.

It was Jeanette who told me it might have to be like this for a while, seeing my thirty-something friends when I can but also exploring friendships with folks across different ages and stages of life. My college roommate, Jacki, agrees. She loves living in D.C. with a couple whose kids are grown and enjoys spending time with an older friend who’s made it a priority to create white space in her life. She says, “The truth is my “older” friends have really full lives. But I’ve found that they live out biblical hospitality in a way I haven’t seen much in people our age.” She tells me I need to find more people like this, available people.

It’s intragenerational friendship that the movie While We’re Young explores so playfully and poignantly, as Ben and Naomi’s characters befriend a twenty-something couple whose identities are equally in flux. I love that these youngsters don’t end up replacing their newly-parented friends. But they scratch an itch for adventure that had gone unnoticed for awhile. We know that a single friend can’t meet our every need. Do we know that friends from a single generation can’t either?

So while we’re young and childless, Rush and I are getting creative about where we go looking for friends. Some of Rush’s favorite new ones are parents of his middle- and high school-aged youth. To my surprise, I’ve found some internet friends who can connect across time zones and technology. We’ve both had to stop looking at every younger person as a protégé and every older person as a mentor and start seeing them as a bonafide buddy.

The thing is we would make great parents.

But what we really want is to make great friends.

RCWMS Promo - Lessons in BelongingInterested in exploring the shape of belonging through the different ages and stages of women’s lives? If you’re local to Durham, I’d love for you to “bring a friend from another gen.” and join me for a brief reading of my new book and an intragenerational conversation. What questions animate us? What fears limit us? What lessons can the young, old, and in-betweeners share with one another? Sparkly drinks and sprinkly cupcakes provided. Contact: RCWMS, 919-683-1236, rcwmsnc@aol.com for details.

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One response to “While We’re Young (and Childless)

  1. I can relate to your story, Erin. Even though I did become a mom, there was a time when Wil was starting kindergarten and his dad was going through brain cancer treatment, and it was the end of our options for having more kids. Everywhere I looked, my friends and other stay-at-home moms had babies in tow or pregnant bellies. Eventually I stopped wishing for more kids, and we also ended up leaving the suburbs because that was no longer the lifestyle we were living. Ended up in rural orchard land and finding new friends and new life. I love that you’re hosting an intragenerational exploration in your town. Wish I could “beam over” to be there!! 🙂 — Shelly 🙂

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