Last weekend I went shopping with a friend. Let's call her Karen. I looked forward to our outing. We would take our time scouting bargains at Wal-Mart and then look at a few furniture consignment stores. (I have been seeking the perfect sofa table for a few months now.)
After shopping, we planned to have coffee or lunch and catch up on each other's lives.
I knew I was in trouble when "catching up on each other's lives" turned into a nonstop monologue about the lives of Karen's children. She has two, a son and a daughter, both in their late 20s.
I was treated to a running commentary throughout the entire morning:
"I need new kitchen utensils. Look at this great package of stuff. Good price. But Kathy needs it more; she just got a new apartment. Oh, did I tell you? Her father says if she keeps her job for another year, he is going to treat her to a trip to Greece. She has always wanted to go to Greece. I'll get a package of these for her."
"Look at this great set of dishes. Ron's wife -- you know, Debbie -- could use these. She loves this color. I wish she would stop worrying about her figure and get pregnant. I am dying to give a baby shower."
"Have I told you that Kathy has a new boyfriend? Well, he's not really new. You remember her old one, Michael, who treated her so badly before he started going to that men's group? Well, it seems he had a friend named Paul ..."
After two hours of nonstop kid talk, I decided to take action. I began to talk about my friend, Hannah, whom Karen has met a couple of times, briefly.
"Have I told you about Hannah's new job?" I queried. I went on to describe it in great detail, adding some of Hannah's recent concerns about her car not running well, her husband's retirement package and the new kitchen they are adding to their home. Karen looked puzzled.
What is it with mothers, anyway? (I leave fathers out of this because, bless them, they seldom are guilty of this particular sin.) Does someone swoop down upon them from Planet Parenthood and steal their souls, leaving them virtually lifeless, able to live only through their children's adventures?
And what do these women do when they are with other moms? I doubt that even the most maternal of mothers cares a whit about the exploits of other people's children, and, yet, she is dying to talk about her own. What to do? I imagine they must arm wrestle or something: The winner gets to jabber on about her kids, while the loser has to shut up and grudgingly allow it.
Well, speaking as a nonparent, please count me out of this.
I thought moms were tedious when they gave birth and brought home an infant whose every bowel movement was described in glowing (and nauseating) detail. I thought they were tiresome when they put their 3-year-olds on the phone and made you talk to them (if you can talk to a 3-year-old on the phone).
I had high hopes that things might get better when my friends and I moved into our late 40s and 50s. But they didn't. If anything, they got worse. Now it seems that the mothers I know have forgotten to have lives of their own, and are only too grateful to put on and wear the lives of their adult children.
Kaye was my closest friend from the time I was 25 until I was nearly 40 years old. We went out drinking together, we took hikes and vacations together and we hung out at each other's homes, sometimes for whole weekends at a time.
Then, when she was 42, Kaye met a man seven years younger, married him and had two children within two years. And after that, I lost Kaye. This friend of the bosom turned into a Stepford mom. Overnight, she only talked about her children. She had no interest in me or my life whatsoever, and she also disconnected from her own life. The only lives that mattered were those of her children. I moved away two years after her last child was born; we have spoken only once in the past 10 years.
Which brings me to the rules:
If you want to talk about your kids around me, in the interest of fair play, I'll be happy to give you 15 minutes. But after that, I want to know about you. And I want you to be interested in me. Forget about Buddy's new job at the gym and Kimmy's new cat. I'd rather know what you are doing, how you are feeling, what things you are learning.
For all of you mothers out there who swear you never do this, here are some typical behaviors of mothers who don't think. Are you guilty of any of the following?
1. Condescension. Have you ever told a childless friend that she couldn't possibly know what you are going through or that she doesn't know what she is talking about, because she never had children? That she will "change her mind" once she has kids? Have you ever remarked that you feel sorry for her because she "doesn't know what she is missing"? Do you feel that you are somehow finer, more evolved, and your life is more meaningful than hers, because you have reproduced? Well, can the condescension. She is still your friend and her life is equally relevant.
2. Assuming the worst. Do you assume your childless friend doesn't like kids and that must be the only reason she doesn't have them? Do you use this as a reason to silently disapprove of her?
3. Not being there. Are you consistently unavailable to do things or make plans because one of your "kids" (even if he or she is 36) might need you?
4. Not showing up. Are you unreliable? Do you change dates, drop out of events, back out of a get-together because of a mild case of kid sniffles or a grown daughter whining about her boyfriend (again)? Big emergencies are understandable. But being a mom does not automatically give you carte blanche to ditch your other obligations.
5. Projection. Most important of all, do you truly believe your friends (parents and nonparents alike) are as fascinated by your children as you are? As charming as this is, it's also naive. Don't project your endless interest in your own offspring onto others. Unless we are your kids' godparents or see them on a daily basis, believe me, more than a couple of minutes of kid talk is a yawn.
A prerequisite for mothers who think is that they think about things beyond their own motherhood.