There is a hobbit in my garden, climbing a tree. He is short—as hobbits are—with dark skin, brown eyes and a bushy beard. My son catches sight of him from the back deck, and races down the steps and into the garden. ‘Frank, Frank,’ he calls, as he runs towards him, excited. Frank the Tree Man (the hobbit’s true identity) turns and sees Billy, and breaks into a smile. ‘Hello matey,’ he says, as he climbs carefully out of the tree. ‘How are you?’
Frank the Tree Man comes two or three times a year to prune and care for our trees. He leads a life of hard, outdoor work, with long hours spent up, in and around trees. He’s very busy, but he always has time to chat to my younger son, explain what he is doing, and even let Billy lend a hand when it’s safe to do so.
Frank’s fantastic with kids—but he doesn’t have any of his own. I found this out on his first visit, when I asked the question that seems to become natural for parents: ‘So, do you have any children yourself?’ Frank smiled and shook his head. He told me that he lives alone, does a lot of yoga, and works virtually dawn to dusk surrounded by the trees he loves. ‘But I have nieces and nephews,’ he said, ‘and I see them every weekend.’ He told me that he loved to spend time with these kids and hear what they thought about the world. And I believed him, especially after I saw how he connected with my son—how intently he listened, how he was genuinely interested in what a 5-year-old had to say.
You see, Frank has that wonderful gift that many parents lose: he isn’t jaded about kids. He isn’t worn out by having to do all the necessary things for them, by the obligations of being a parent. He has lots of energy and he sees children as interesting people in their own right. And who wouldn’t want to meet more interesting people if you could?
Keeping Childless People in Our Life
Meeting Frank got me thinking about how important childless people could and should be in raising happy children in a loving community. And yet, if my experience is anything to go by, once people have children, they tend to socialise more and more with other parents, and childless people can disappear from their lives. Exhausted as we often are by parenting itself, it becomes too hard to connect with most ‘non parents’, so we are tempted to give up.
Of course, childless people often don’t know how to keep the links going either. I know I didn’t! When friends of mine had babies long before I did, I had no understanding of the challenges involved in caring for a young child. I tried to stay in touch and continue socialising, but I was pretty hopeless. I’d invite them to things that started late in the evening, assuming they would just ‘get a babysitter’ (with no thought about breastfeeding, or baby’s routines, or even the cost involved). I’d ask them to come to functions where nobody else had a child, and they’d end up feeling uncomfortable if their baby cried. And I never asked much about their baby, because I didn’t really know what to ask. Not surprisingly, we slipped out of contact with each other, and our friendship was only rekindled once I had my own children.
When I did have babies, there were a couple of childless people who were really important to me. One was my older sister, Maddy. I have three sisters and she is the only one without children. But she is a proud aunt, and has made a conscious decision to develop relationships with nieces and nephews scattered across Australia. Maddy made the effort to come and stay before our second child was due. She spent time with my older son, Johnno, washed dishes, chatted to me, and was generally just ‘there’. Miraculously, unlike my partner and me, she wasn’t tired! It was so helpful to have another adult around who actually had energy to spare. When we went to hospital to have Billy, Maddy looked after Johnno. As Billy made his way into the world, she and Johnno were having a cuddle and watching the rain fall.
Another childless person has supported me quite differently. Pauline has been my friend since uni. She’s single, works hard, plays hard, and knows few people with kids. For a few years we communicated rarely, a snatched get-together or phone call here and there. But I was determined to keep her friendship. And I realised part of that was not getting angry at her for not knowing what I was going through. If she suggested something impossible for me, I’d just say why it wouldn’t work and we’d make another arrangement. I always made an effort to explain things, not assuming that she would understand the constraints I faced. Why should she, given that she hasn’t experienced parenting herself? I didn’t have a clue until I did it.
As my kids grew older, I would talk to Pauline about them, and I found her a wonderful sounding board. With no kids herself, she has no strong opinions about how children should be raised. She just listens and very rarely offers advice — which is a pleasant change! When she does occasionally offer comments or suggestions, they are usually grounded in her own memories of what it was like to be a child — a very different perspective from that offered by most other parents.
More Love for Everybody
It’s natural to want to spend time with people whose lives are like ours, and I think it’s healthy for parents to get together and ‘talk shop’. But it’s also wonderful to spend time with those whose lives are different, and who can offer us and our children something fresh and new.
My experiences make me believe that it is worth persevering with our relationships with childless friends and relatives, even though it won’t always work out. Some people just aren’t interested in children, or their life takes such a different path from yours that sustaining a friendship isn’t possible. I think we have to accept that. But I’ve also learned that relationships can evolve as people’s situations and interests change. For example, my friend Sharon has two daughters and despaired that her younger sister—a carefree student—would ever take an interest in being an aunt. But Sharon kept trying over the years, and eventually her sister got old enough to see there was more to life than partying. Now she spends regular time with Sharon’s daughters and loves it.
Of course, you might not be lucky enough to have any childless friends or relatives nearby—maybe you’re parenting a long way from home, or you have no siblings, or you were a pretty solitary type to start off with. If that’s the case, perhaps there is another childless person you could connect with in your community, someone you would feel safe and comfortable having around your child? One friend of mine lives far from his extended family and is a single parent. He took the time to introduce himself and his sons to the elderly widow who lives alone next door. With no children herself, she was delighted to meet them, and now joins them for dinner once a week. I have seen them sit down together and it’s a beautiful thing—the kids’ faces glowing and her face creased in smiles as she holds their hands and chats. His children are growing up with an extra friend, and she feels included in another family.
And I guess that’s the other reason to try to forge connections with people who don’t have kids: because children are so beautiful (even if we forget it sometimes) that we really should try to share their love around a little.