huge ice cream sundae

unreasonable.

This essay was written for and appears in Rad Dad 23: Making Family. Writing it last summer helped me realize that raising ‘my own’ children is not a priority for me.

 

MAKING COMMITMENTS TO OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN
Building Intimacy with Parents and Kids
by Kermit Playfoot

I am not a parent and am not planning to be in the near future. I have read and thought a lot about parenting though because many of the people I am committed to are parents and children. It has been great getting to know other people’s kids, to be an adult friend in their community who can hold a hand, read a story, change a diaper, or provide childcare for an afternoon. Often, I have done these things to support friends who are parents; but very quickly, I also develop independent relationships with their kids. Irrationally, I become committed to these creatures without knowing anything about the kind of people they will become.

In the last year and a half, at least half a dozen good friends have taken concrete steps towards having kids, gotten pregnant, or given birth, including my sister and two of my housemates. This has prompted me to think more about my own relationship to parenting and to come to a more concrete realization about the fact that I will probably not be a parent myself. Figuring out how to connect with children and support friends who are parents, however, has helped me know myself better, expand my understanding of the world and strengthen my feelings of connectedness to the intimate life of my community.

As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t really know any young children or anyone I considered a peer who had children. About a year and a half after I moved to Berkeley, a 9 month old baby and his mama moved into my collective house. Oliver was the first baby I knew as an adult. His direct eye contact and the way he felt emotions intensely and expressed them immediately were both appealing and a little bit scary. It took me a while to be relaxed hanging out with him, but once I did, it was great to be able to crawl around and laugh with him, to feel comfortable picking him up and giving him hugs.

In a way, building intimacy is simply the process of letting someone know and care about your experience of the world while you get to know and care about theirs. All of my friendships enrich my life in part because they allow me to understand the world from a different point of view.  Becoming friends with Oliver while he lived with me taught me a lot about what it was like for him to be a baby and toddler, things I used to know but had forgotten and things I never knew.

It was also great getting to know Crystal, both as Oliver’s mama, and as a fabulous friend and person in the world. Living a meaningful life is essentially about finding significant projects, connecting with people in powerful and intimate ways, and inhabiting our bodies as much as possible. For all of my friends who are parents, their kids are both one of their central projects and some of their most important intimate relationships. When two people are paired as intensely as a parent and young child, it can be difficult to figure out how to think of and get to know them separately. I strongly feel, however, that beyond doing actual childcare and being friends to their kids, supporting parents means being willing to view them as whole people, as people who have many interests outside of their own children; to hold and respect the individual humanity of the parent and the child while at the same time acknowledging the importance of the bond they have with each other. To deny their separate identities would mean seeing them more as archetypes than as real human beings struggling to live in the world, to create emotional distance rather than supportive intimacy.

I have managed to see more and less of Crystal and Oliver [who is now six and a half] at different moments since they moved out three years ago, but I remain committed to being someone who cares about what happens to them and a friend who can be called for support when needed. Last spring, I was able to have a regular afternoon play date with Oliver, which allowed us to reconnect with each other a bit. I enjoyed playing with him, negotiating what we were going to do together, asking him questions about his life, hearing him talk about his latest enthusiasms, listening to the way he made sense of his world and sharing the pieces of myself with him that seemed relevant or relatable.

Oliver is able to create stories and express his desires fairly well but gets frustrated when he is not able to do the things he wants to do. One of the challenges of being an anarchist who also has relationships with children is that I find myself sympathetic to the frustration Oliver has about not having control over his life, but I can’t let him do whatever he wants when we hang out. I often have to establish explicit limits around how I want to be treated or what is a reasonable serving of ice cream, to make decisions about the structure of our play that are not negotiable, or are only negotiable within certain limits.

Figuring out ways to set rules and say no to kids while at the same time trying to respect their power and desires and avoid recreating relationships that echo the domination of the system is not a question of either honoring a child’s autonomy or providing structural frameworks but about trying to do both at the same time. Adults have generally figured out how to regulate their emotions, respect their own personal boundaries and those of the people around them. With my friends who are kids, I have to be aware of and responsible about the fact that they are still growing; still figuring out how to exist in the world, socially and emotionally. Treating children like I would treat an adult is as inappropriate as treating them as inferiors or people whose ideas and desires don’t matter.

About a year ago, my sister gave birth to the first baby in our family in almost 18 years. My niece Sophia is pretty great. I have experienced extreme physical joy playing with her, talking back and forth with her without using fully formed words, making her laugh and holding her hand when she was learning to walk – testing the limits of her own autonomy. I feel committed to being in her life in important ways, which will take effort because we live several thousand miles apart. Our connection has been formed primarily during two trips back east in the last year and I am not likely to see Sophia more frequently in the near future. I am motivated to find ways to maintain intimacy from a distance and make the time I do spend with her and her parents count.

I was talking to a friend the other day who mentioned that having his [proverbial] tubes tied had allowed him to be a lot more pro-child. I never really considered myself anti-child and I haven’t had a vasectomy, but I do understand how letting go of the idea that I will have my own kids has allowed me to be more open emotionally with and willing to make some level of commitment to other people’s children. As an uncle, housemate or friend, I have to find ways to negotiate my own beliefs and personality with the way each of my young friends is being parented; to respect the decisions that my friends who are parents have made and be authentically myself. Because I am not trying to practice for my own parenthood when I interact with kids, I don’t need to compare my commitment to my newborn housemate, my one year old niece, or my six year old friend to any sort of ideal parent-child relationship. I think this helps me to have a perspective that it might be harder to cultivate or maintain if I was expecting to be responsible for feeding, clothing, raising and housing a child every day. Bringing this perspective to the collective life of my community hopefully helps to support everyone in it, including parents, children and other people without kids.