“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I have these three best friends that I met in college more than 10 years ago. We’re all queer, and we’ve always done everything together—I consider them my chosen family. But in the past few years, two have had kids, and the third has one on the way. It sounds awful, but it feels like these babies are basically ruining our friendship. Now, every single conversation is about kids and how hard/amazing being a parent is… and that’s just not an experience I share. I tried talking about this with one friend, and they just rolled their eyes and said I’d “get it eventually’’ when I become a parent, which really pissed me off! Kids are fine, but I don’t ever want to raise one. I feel like I’m being immature and selfish, but I can’t seem to stop feeling this way. Now it’s almost the holidays, and the truth is, I sort of don’t want to go to our annual chosen family gathering. It hurts too much. But I’m also scared of being alone. What should I do?
— Chosen Last
One of the most difficult and under-discussed challenges of adulthood is the way that friendships change as we get older. In adolescence, we are told that friendship is “supposed” to be tempestuous, even painful at times, as we develop our personal values and discover who we are. Yet as adults, we are given little guidance about what to think, how to feel or how to move forward when the relationships we once thought of as rock-solid start to shift beneath our feet.
For queers who rely on our friends as the most important kinship networks in our lives, this instability can feel especially charged. It forces us to confront the reality that chosen family can be complicated or hurtful—just like the blood families that let us down.
What happens when our chosen family no longer meets our needs? Or when our chosen family seems to be, in one way or another, leaving us behind? Nothing brings up these questions quite like the arrival of children, and so I imagine that these questions are particularly raw for you right now, Chosen.
The truth is that your friends’ lives are changing enormously and therefore your friendships must also change, as you’ve already noticed. The tricky part is, your friends chose this change when they decided to have children—and you likely didn’t get to have a say in it.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that queers should ask their friends for permission before having babies (though I have sometimes wished that they would!). But I do believe that we have a right to our own feelings and needs in response to a close friend’s choice to have children—and those feelings might not always be nice or socially sanctioned. It’s understandable that you might feel sad, anxious about potentially being abandoned or even jealous of the soon-to-be-born child that will soon be getting so much of your friend’s time and attention.
This is an extremely shamed, taboo topic in our heteronormative society: When our friends burst through the door, bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, to announce that they are expecting a baby (or that an adoption application has been approved), we are supposed to jump for joy. How could we possibly do anything else?
In private, though, our feelings may be very different—and there is no social script that makes room for those feelings, let alone addressing them with our child-rearing loved ones in a healthy way.
Whenever someone we love goes through a life transition that may change the role they play in our lives, there is the potential for loss, and for grief. Even when the life transition is related to something joyful—like moving away for a fantastic new job, or meeting a new romantic partner, or raising a child—the truth is that we will likely lose some part of the relationship as it once was.
Having a child is an enormous life transition that fundamentally alters the way that parents relate to other people: In simple, logistical terms, most new parents will have much less time for other relationships and less flexibility in terms of social time, their priorities will change and their stress levels will rise (sorry, new parents—I’m told there are lots of great things too!).
This doesn’t mean that parents value their old friends any less, but it definitely shifts what these friendships look like: The endless late-night conversations and impromptu getaway road trips you once enjoyed are no longer a possibility for parents of young children. And the types of support that the friendship provides may also have to change. When I was in my early 20s, I often crashed in the spare room of a gay couple I was friends with when I was having a hard time. When they had a baby, that spare room became the baby’s room, and so I had to find other safe spaces for difficult times. This wasn’t wrong of them and it didn’t mean they didn’t care for me any longer (and let it never be said that I begrudged that baby their bedroom!), but it certainly felt hard.
You get to have feelings and needs in your friendships, Chosen—that doesn’t disappear because your friends have kids. However, the way you get those needs met may have to change, and it is your responsibility to help your friends understand where you’re at. In order to do this, Chosen, you may have to do some soul-searching in order to get some clarity about what it is you want, and then think about how you might most effectively talk about this with your friends.
Chosen, I’m curious about what you need to help you feel better when you are with your chosen family right now. Is that you are missing spending time with your friends without kids being around and being the constant centre of conversation? Then you may have to say that explicitly to your friends and come up with creative ways to carve out some kid-free time (free from even talking about kids)—and you know, some of your friends might be really excited to focus on something other than parenting for a change.
Or is it, perhaps, that your friends are all immersed in the child-raising experience and you feel left out of this important part of their lives? If that’s the case, then you might want to offer to get more involved by baby-sitting regularly, offering to take the kids on outings and doing research on daycares, preschools and other kid-related issues. It’s likely that your friends will be appreciative, and you may be surprised at what a difference developing a one-on-one relationship with your friends’ children can make in shifting the dynamic.
These are just a couple of examples of common needs that come up for the friends of new parents, and strategies that sometimes help. You will have your own specific needs and strategies for your specific situation—but the important point is that in order to maintain a healthy relationship with your chosen family, you need to make room for your own feelings, ask for what you want and take an active role in reshaping your friendships.
I do believe that it is possible—and can be very healthy—to discuss these sorts of issues, but timing and sensitivity are everything, Chosen. A good rule of thumb is to wait until your friends’ new-parent euphoria has worn off, and to avoid times of particular stress. I would also suggest treading carefully and being sure to emphasize both the positive and negative, as in: “You know I’m so excited for you to be a parent, and I know you’re going to be amazing! And you know what? I’m also kind of worried about how we’re going to stay close once the baby is here.”
In regards to your chosen family’s holiday gathering—I can see why this might be painful, but I wonder if it might also be a good opportunity to have some tender one-on-one conversations about all of this (it depends on what the holiday gathering looks like). It may also be a good opportunity to practice taking ownership of your needs—for example, by inviting another (non-parent) friend or a partner to come with you, or simply by limiting the amount of time you spend at the gathering if things start to feel bad.
Lastly, Chosen, I think it’s also really important to note that it’s not okay for anyone to imply that you are “supposed” to have children, or that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t want them. As we grow older, we sometimes diverge from the paths that our friends are taking. But just because your own path is less socially accepted doesn’t mean that you’re somehow “behind” or immature. When it comes to having or not having children especially, you have the right to be respected and supported in your own decisions as an adult, just as your parent-friends have the right to be supported in theirs.
Navigating these differences isn’t easy; it’s certainly not always perfect. And it’s also important to know, Chosen, that you do not always have to make it work. We are also allowed to let relationships go when we outgrow them, or maybe allow their intensity to ebb and flow as our lives change. You may have to accept that your old friends don’t have the same kind of time and attention for you right now that they once had, and you may want to spend some time cultivating new friendships and new social networks of support. But remember: Your friends’ children will not always be so demanding of their time and attention, and you might find that as their kids get older your friends will have more ability to focus on friendships in the way they once had.
The work of belonging to a family is complex; this is true for both families of blood and families of choice. The difference, though—at least in my opinion—is that families of choice are not based on the notion that we must change ourselves to fit the family, but rather that the family can shift and change to accommodate the growth of its members. That’s what it means to really be chosen: to be valued and cherished not because of where you come from, but because of who you are and what you choose to become. This is real magic, and it doesn’t happen all on its own—it’s up to you and your friends to find a way to make it work, Chosen. If you want to, I believe you can.