Finding out a friend is pregnant with her first child immediately puts a damper on our friendship. It makes regular visits and updates emotionally draining and painful.
I want a child so badly that sometimes it physically hurts. But because of health risks, a biological child will never be an option, and adoption isn't currently in the cards. I'm child-free for the foreseeable future, but not by choice. There's a lot of grief tied up in it.
And so, while I'm happy for my pregnant friends, I've stopped going to baby showers. It's the least I can do for my sanity.
The barrage of baby excitement starts well before the shower invites go out. First the mum-to-be's Facebook and Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards become dedicated to the baby's arrival. Then she'll happily share with me the things other parents have told her - how there's nothing more important or rewarding than parenting. Visiting her house means listening to her playfully and passionately argue baby names with her significant other. And after every visit, I cry like a baby once I'm home and safely out of earshot.
I have done a lot of kid-related crying over the past few years - while shopping for baby gifts on Amazon, seeing families with little kids playing at the park, even while reading celebrity baby announcements online. There was a toddler at the grocery store just last week who waved and smiled at me, and I nearly cried in the frozen-food aisle.
When you don't have kids but want them, interacting with friends who are parents can be painful and isolating. A friend once told me how it was sometimes hard when people with kids complained about the mundane, annoying aspects of parenting. "They complain about how baby socks are so tiny they get lost in the dryer," she said. "But I wish that I had baby socks to get lost in the dryer."
Similarly, when several nerdy pregnant friends spent a solid afternoon discussing potential baby names, I was asked whether I wanted to look at a book of baby names, too. Sci-Fi Baby Names: 500 Out-of-This-World Baby Names from Anakin to Zardoz might be an interesting read, but I have nothing to name - not even a goldfish. Conversations with expectant parents can be a hard reminder that I can't have a biological child and won't be naming one in the future.
There's a lot of talk about how it can be helpful to have parent friends when you're about to add a baby to your family, but people rarely talk about how it feels to be the child-free friend in the relationship, and how we might need to pull back, sometimes for our own well-being.
When you're child-free - whether by choice or not - the constant parade of baby pictures on social media can be too much to take. Status updates about how you can't truly know what authentic love is until you've given birth or how raising a child the most worthwhile thing a human can accomplish can leave child-free folks feeling frustrated at best, insignificant at worst.
I used to think I needed to go to baby showers because they can be an exciting event in the life of a parent-to-be, and I didn't want my grief to prevent me from being a supportive friend. But I've realised that my friend's joy and excitement matters, and so does my grief. It's OK to skip an event strictly focusing on the baby when I know it would be too hard.
I know it isn't always that easy for child-free people to skip a baby shower. I don't have any nieces or nephews - and none on the way. I'd love to be an aunt, but an advantage to my small extended family is that I'm not facing the pressure and expectations from family to attend. I can make the choice not to go based on what's best for me.
And for now, that means excusing myself from the baby shower. It's an event that focuses exclusively on childbirth, something I'll never be able to experience. And it's a time to hear strangers tell you how parenthood is the be-all and end-all of life, which is a conversation I'd prefer to skip. So I stick a card and a present in the mail, and then politely decline the invitation.
In the past, I've made excuses, saying that I was unfortunately busy the day of the baby shower. The last baby shower I was invited to I sent the mum-to-be a text the day before saying I wasn't feeling that well - and based on my anxiety about going, it wasn't really a lie.
But I'm hoping this is the start of me being more honest about why I can't attend, so that my friends and I can better support one another. They can't be there for me if I don't tell them what's going on.
The Washington Post