Recently, a friend I was out to dinner with sat back as we finished our food and said, "This is nice. Usually, all my friends who are moms literally can't talk about anything but their kids."
She said it like I deserved a medal, and maybe I did. I had been actively working, throughout the meal, to not make the conversation all about my sons, even though I found I could mentally connect every single thing she said back to a story about their eating habits or interests or catchphrases. You should tell her how Mac calls Democrats "Elmo-crats!" the part of my brain that's obsessed with my children shrieked. Don't listen to her, countered my sophisticated-adult brain, who was really enjoying the wine. Just keep talking about the election like a normal person. And I did. But it took effort.
This is something I struggle with all the time: How much should I talk about my children? On that particular night, I had to literally bite my cheek to keep from bringing them up. Often, though, I err on the side of leaving them totally out of the conversation. "How are the boys?" someone might say, and before it's even out of his or her mouth, I'm practically shushing them. "Oh, they're fine, you know, nothing new, how are you?" Sometimes I deflect because I'm just not in the mood to get into it-I didn't escape from the house in a clean shirt to talk about what goes on there. Sometimes it's because 90 percent of the wonderful things infants and toddlers do are total you-had-to-be-there moments.
Most times, though, it's because I simply feel rude talking about them-especially if I am talking to someone who doesn't have children. What if they're trying to have them, and can't? What if they don't have them because they can't think of anything in the world they find more boring? What if they just want to enjoy their latte without hearing about breastmilk? I remember a world in which I, too, would have been startled by casual, normal-volume use of the word "engorgement." I'm the kind of parent who still laughs at STFU, Parents.
I don't think I'm alone in this awkward calculation of when to talk about my kids. Why else would we have contact groups designated, specially, "mom friends?" It's not just about having someone to spot you in the parking lot when it's time to collapse your stroller. It's mostly about being able to turn off that internal clock that you use to time the kid stories you tell in mixed company, trying to gauge how much of the conversation you've taken up on sippy cups. It can be cathartic to stop restraining and just share your labor war stories and stance on Goldfish.
By sticking to a zero-tolerance policy on diapering anecdotes, I may be doing everyone involved a disservice.
But I've also found this dividing up of my conversational partners unsettling. More than once, I've listened to a mom friend imply, eyebrow arched, that her kidless friends just don't get it. I understand that. Everyone's got an acquaintance or two who rolls her eyes when baby stuff comes up. Most of the kidless people I know don't do that, yet I still find myself nervously sorting them into the no-kidtalk bucket. Now, I'm starting to suspect that by sticking to a zero-tolerance policy on diapering anecdotes among friends less well-acquainted with baby nether regions, I may be doing everyone involved a disservice.
After all, I remember that world where I had no clue what it meant to be a mother. I still wanted to hear about my friends' kids very much. I would have liked some warning about what waited down the road for me in parentland. And even when I put myself in the mindset of my friends who have no interest in kids of their own, I still find fault with my withholding. I want to hear about every part of their lives; it's odd of me to keep part of mine off-limits. I'd find it weird as hell if one of them said to me, "Oh, my trip to New Zealand? Well, you haven't been there. Why would you want to hear how it went?"
If I'm this shy about kid talk around my own friends, you can imagine how bad I am at it when it comes to work-and how much more complicated the calculus. I'm not big on excuses, but I certainly used to toss around cheery versions of them-"Sorry for the delay, haven't quite gotten back in the swing of things after vacation" or "Sorry for the delay, hell of a Super Bowl last night, wasn't it?" That kind of utterance is really more of a sign of office solidarity than an evasive dodge.
But do you know what I write when I'm slacking on a deadline because one kid has a fever and the other has a sudden urge to breastfeed all day? "Sorry for the delay, I've been slammed this week." It terrifies me that anyone might think I'm less reliable now than I was before I had children, even though the reality is that my life has been turned upside down and shaken out like my purse when Mac gets ahold of it.
Maybe if I and moms like me stopped worrying about boring everyone, there'd be less stigma and more information out there about the transition from person to parent.
And therein lies the real version for my reticence in both professional and personal settings: I don't want people to look at me differently. I don't want them to see me as duller or different or less competent, and therefore tucked away in a weird corner of the human experience.
Maybe if I and moms like me stopped worrying about boring everyone or the consequences of admitting that sometimes the problem is traffic when you're running behind and sometimes the problem is a toddler who has decided he hates shoes, there'd be less stigma and more information out there about the transition from person to parent. (For what it's worth, this goes for men, too-my husband confirms that he generally limits talk of our kids to discussions with other dads.)
We all mean well, reining in our child-rearing truths. But if you're self-aware enough to banish your kids from happy hour small talk, you were probably never someone who put everybody to sleep with talk of sleep training in the first place. So: From now on, I'm going to trust that when my friends ask about my kids, they actually want to listen to the answer. And when my editor is harassing me to file and it's going to be a few minutes late, I'm going to be honest about the reality of working and raising kids at the same time. After all, it's not that dissimilar from working and dealing with an aging parent, or a chronic illness, or any of the other life stuff that makes people slightly less on their game in the moment but hardly less productive in the long run. If you're a similarly kidtalk-shy mom, I invite you to join me in the experiment.
If you're not a mom, I invite you to be honest if we prattle on too long. We're not fragile-we probably just came from a long verbal beating for bringing the wrong stuffed owl in the car. Just tell us it's time to change the subject. Or we could always come up with a code word you can use when it's time for us to shut up about our children. Something snappy and subtle, like, "Please, for the love of God, don't use the phrase 'plugged duct' while we're eating.'"
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