Are children a fountain of youth or do they make parents feel prematurely old? Recent research indicates the latter. Yet, parents clamber over one another to talk about the miraculous rejuvenating effect of kids with their childfree friends.
I encountered one of these parents recently, a long-lost friend I hadn't seen in several years. She was giving a party, something she hadn't done in years, since the birth of her daughter. I noticed immediately how much her appearance had changed. She'd aged 20 years in 10, not just physically, but her persona - her entire aura - seemed tired and worn.
She had a 2-year old daughter when I last saw her. The girl has since grown into a pretty and very precocious teen. The daughter was participating at the party, along with a very glamorously dressed giggling group of friends, busily mingling with the crowd of adults. Every ten minutes or so my friend called her daughter over to "check in" and was met with an exasperated eye roll and sarcastic comment. The daughter's demeanor indicated she thought her mother was impossibly old, ignorant and annoying.
My friend struggled for years to reproduce late in life and proudly commented, "It's exhausting keeping up with her, but all the running around keeps me young." Her worn looks and deflated demeanor suggest the opposite. This is a woman who once paid meticulous attention to fashion, loved her job as a therapist, loved spending time outdoors, visiting art museums and socializing with friends. Now she attends to a long list of kid activities as she vicariously relives her youth through her daughter - competitive horseback riding, cheerleading, drama club and on and on. She's cut her clients back to just a "select" few and doesn't spend much time with friends, or on herself. The zeal and desperation with which she seems to be pursuing her daughter's activities is depressing.
I notice more and more that parents are sold on popular kid-culture as the only meaningful form of society. They endow their children with vampiristic power to suck the life out their adulthood. Work, hobbies, intellectual and artistic pursuits are all set aside as parents turn into giddy, wrinkled teenagers.
When I was 12, my parents sent me out to do my own thing without adult supervision for many hours at a time. Family time was family time. Now family time seems to synonymous with kid playtime. There is less natural separation of the generations.
My friend's daughter is at the age when dismissive stares and laughter shared with friends at her mom's expense are common. It's natural to want to hold on, but in my friend's quest to remain her daughter's best buddy she seems to have lost the core of herself. At the party, my friend seemed shy and subdued, wearing baggy mom jeans and sweater, sporting a white skunk streak in her dyed-dark hair, yet her daughter was frolicking and socializing with her former style and panache.
In an article titled "Does Having Children Make You Old?" in the UK Telegraph, author Eleanor Bailey shares an interesting quote from psychologist Sheila Rossan, whose research found that women reported feeling "frumpier" for a long time after having children. "They lose the veneer of sophistication," she explains. "Psychologically, having a child is aging because you are immediately and irrevocably shunted up a generation."
Bailey also offers an entertaining perspective on physical aging from a parent, "I have permanent back pain. Four years of breast-feeding reduced my C cup to an A. It's as though they've sucked the lifeblood out of me. As the kids get bigger, I shrivel - apart from my bottom, which is big and saggy. After Daniel (number three), I developed an under-active thyroid, which means medication for the rest of my life. I've aged 20 years in the last decade. It's doubly unfair that childless friends not only get less wear and tear, but have more money and time to spend on looking good."
Unfortunately, Rossen ultimately sees the process of psychological submersion as a necessary step towards maturity. She states, "Psychiatrists say that until you have a child, until you have looked after someone who cannot look after herself, you are not an adult." She goes on to talk about how happiness is not the ultimate goal of parents. More important is the sense of living for something larger than the self. Rossen seems to be claiming that self-righteous sacrifice that leads to a sense of maturity and satisfaction.
However, I don't find parents who give up career, friends, and adult interests particularly mature. Many parents seem to launch themselves into a world of youthful fantasy that temporarily frees them from facing the difficulties of adulthood. Ironically, they abdicate their roles as parents as they desperately seek to be a best friend and key member of their childrens' clique.
And, it's important to remember that caring for others doesnít mean just catering to kids. It can mean caring for the community, the planet, for students, for pets or other aging family members. Caring and nurturing comes in many forms. Parenthood is not the only path to maturity or social responsibility. In fact, if parenting is not undertaken with maturity it can lead to chronic childishness.
I wonder how my former friend will feel when her daughter leaves home and she is left to rebuild her the adult life she chucked for the fantasy of youth. I meet many woman like my friend when they return to school in their 50ís and 60's to try to regain a sense of self lost to parenthood.
One of these women recently said to me, "I thought it was my duty to fade so my daughter could shine. I gave everything else over to being a great mom. Now I realize I was doing us both a disservice."
Attending my friend's party made me realize how much I value my childfree friends as I get older because they value genuine maturity. They may participate in childlike activities or playful behavior, but it comes from the heart. Kid media - the kind that constantly suggests that children are wiser and cooler than adults - with which many parents are bombarded, doesn't impress or oppress them. They donít seek to please children by emulating their behavior. They have the wisdom to realize having kids can't help them recapture their youth, and they donít want it back anyway. Ironically, without pressure to succumb to the cult of youth they seem younger in body and spirit.