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Selfishness and Human Needs
What we can learn from the cultural commentary about friendships that end after someone has kids.
What if the reason so many people stop being friends after one of them has a baby has nothing to do with schedules, lifestyle differences, or an “abstract fear of unknown agents of change,” as Allison P. Davis calls it in her recent article for The Cut, “Adorable Little Detonators.”
What if we are actually dealing with a broad-based, collective, societal struggle to get our inner needs met, which simply gets amplified when a baby enters the mix?
The entire dichotomy of “before and after baby” focuses us on the wrong thing. It distracts us from the real work of tending that is inherent to befriending. It keeps us stuck in what I’m going to call a state of suspended teen-drama, embroiled in a set of immature expectations of what friendship should do for us, or should offer.
The problems and anecdotes in The Cut article about lost friendships post baby focus on the surface level of friendship: the logistics, the parties, the events, the distractions. I found myself frustrated by examples like these:
A new dad was on vacation with childless friends and found “mornings were annoying: He wanted to get up and get to the beach, knowing he had only a small window before needing to come back to the house for nap time. His friends got going at a leisurely pace, wondering if they should have eggs before they went to the beach, wondering why he was rushing them.”
The author found herself “re-rehashing the details of a recent situationship that had defined [her] summer. [Her new mom friend] mm-hmmed absent-mindedly and nuzzled her son as he ate a peach… she didn’t notice as [the author] trailed off.”
One single friend “stopped by [a new mom’s house] for dinner and didn’t offer to help, even while [her new mom friend] was juggling care of her infant, doing the laundry, and ordering dinner.”
Another new mom “recalls a time when she was at a party, her newborn was constipated, and she was trying to explain it to a friend who doesn’t have kids: ‘I felt like I was cornering her.’”
While I feel I know these examples intimately, from my own life and the lives of my friends, I couldn’t help thinking the article missed the point. The point is not the vacation or the specific situationship or the friend who didn’t immediately see how to help with dinner or the lurking fear that someone isn’t really into talking about your kid’s poop.
The point is that we’re not being there for each other.
In each of these instances, I see people who have deeper needs they’re not talking about: needs to matter, to feel heard, to feel cared for and understood.
And I see friends who aren’t tuning in to each other or recognizing signs that there are deeper needs. I see people lost in their own worlds.
Love in the era of self-care
I like self care as much as the next person. We need to prioritize the things in life that make our minds and bodies well. But the downside of the self-care movement is the extra dose of selfishness it can engender.
We’ve allowed a positive discourse on loving, selfless acts to be silenced.
Relationships are maintained through the loving actions of their members. The generosity we extend towards those we hold dear is the stuff that chosen family is made of. The selfless support of neighbors bringing food to my friend who is a new mom in a new city is the stuff community is built on.
Sometimes doing the hard thing for a friend is the point. Sometimes that hard thing is being the one who adjusts and flexes and bends for a few years while the other person raises a helpless life form whose needs must come first or they die. Other times that hard thing is being the new parent who listens while a non-parent cries over a heartbreak that just a few years ago would have seemed relevant, but which no longer tugs at your heartstrings. In both cases, it’s about putting your own heavy shit aside for a bit to MEET THE NEEDS of the one you love.
Sure, it isn’t healthy to prioritize others first all the time, while sacrificing ourselves, something many people are prone to doing. A lot of us were trained to silence our own needs. Assays in her post this week on asking for help:
What happens when we have a caregiver who doesn’t respond to our need for help? Many of us learn to stop asking, sometimes forever… Not making requests doesn’t extinguish our needs, it just causes us to feel overwhelmed, lonely, unsupported, and burnt out…
So don’t do that. But do consider ways to flex from self-care to other-care in healthy, loving ways. Perhaps 3 years of resenting your new parent friend for needing to care for their baby is not the way forward. Perhaps 3 years of never fully tuning into what your child free friend has going on is not the way either.
The way is somewhere in the middle, where we both give enough, generously enough, that there isn’t space for resentment. On this path the one who flexes for the other also gets heard and loved, and the one who stays present despite pressing obligations also gets fed, rested, and appreciated. Love, not obligation, care, not transactions, fuel such an exchange.
When I reflect about the tension between self-care and loving care for others— which certainly exists in myself and in my relationships— it strikes me that being less able, less skilled, at voicing our own needs is something that can get us stuck in an odd cycle of selfishness. In that cycle, we fight to meet our own needs, alone. We become depleted. We resent others when their needs flare up past ours and demand the attention of others which we did not receive.
We end up at the place that Davis describes in her Cut article:
Dings and barbs and unintentional acts of impatience and intentional acts of pettiness can slowly pile up until, before we know it, we run the risk of reducing friends — people we theoretically love and know well — to their harshest stereotypes. It becomes us vs. them. On one side: People With Kids (PWIKS: frazzled, distracted, boring, rigid, covered in spit-up; can’t talk about movies, only about how they wish they had time to see them). And on the other: People Without Kids (PWOKS: self-absorbed, entitled, attention whores, grumpy about life’s inconveniences even though their life is easy). When those slights go unaddressed, it becomes all too easy to pull away.
Slights. Self protection. Pulling away. Here is the key.
We must move past the self and the ego to maintain a friendship, even when some of us are parents and some of us are not.
It’s not all our fault we forgot to balance self-care and selflessness
Today, much of people’s time is focused on the production of things: of emails, entertainment, of bountiful goods and services. We have overflowing stores. You can have your nails done in limitless shapes and colors. We buy so much we make celebrities out of those who can organize it all.
Ironically, our volume of effort to produce and consume leaves little time to have our inner needs met.
Society has tipped over to a point where it seems likely we would be better off if we produced less and consumed less so that we could have the time and space to meet needs like rest, reflection, celebration, play, belonging, connection, understanding, nurturing and fun.
When we’re so desperate about our own needs, we may forget that we are the answer to many of the needs that exist in others, and that they are our answer too. Connection requires two, at minimum. Understanding is reflected back to us. Nurturing can be done alone, but is a dish best served warm, from someone who cares.
Our human needs
What do we really need anyway? I talk a lot about human needs here at The Messy Human. I love promoting self acceptance, gentle shifts, play and connection, and an embrace of the messy ups and downs of being human.
In an effort to dive further into the process of helping others with gentle shifts, I recently look a workshop in transformational facilitation. It included an exercise linking feelings back to their underlying needs.
Of course I loved it. A list of needs? What could be more juicy? Well… how about the fact that this is a list that society rarely discusses?
I can’t help wondering what that Cut article would look like if its anecdotes about various parent and non-parent annoyances could be unpacked so that the complaints about vacation, conversation, dinner, and poop could be expressed as deeper needs.
What would we feel for others if we could hear those needs? What would we offer to them? What loving action might we take?
That dad who was on vacation with friends just wanted to be understood and to matter enough that his fatherly duties might be given some consideration by his friends. He needed to feel included and loved. Meanwhile his friends also had needs, though they went unspoken in this article.
That single woman who wanted to talk about her situationship with her new mom friend needed empathy and to feel seen. Perhaps she needed someone to support her grief and integrate her experience with her. And what needs did her mom friend have?
That other new mom, struggling to order dinner while juggling a baby, needed to feel supported in a time when she also probably needed rest, sleep, and relaxation. She needed to know her friend cared. And what was going on internally for her single friend right then?
Meanwhile, that new mom talking about her constipated baby needed to feel heard and understood, along with having her feelings and fears recognized and validated. It also sounds like she needed to feel more belonging. And what did her conversation partner need in that moment?
I see longing for love and the need to matter in all of these stories. I see people stuck in their own side of the story, forgetting the other half. I see disconnection from our inner selves and others.
Find your needs; Meet others’ needs
The New York Center for Non Violent Communication has an excellent list of universal human needs (below). Read through it and see if any of them resonate for you.
Maybe the next time you feel a sense of ire coming up towards those across the child-aisle, try turning the flame towards a new perspective:
Can I figure out what I need and ask for it in this moment?
Can I understand what my friends need too, either by attuning or asking directly?
What would it take to provide what my friends need?
How much would our lives and friendships change through this approach? I imagine it might be transformational for the childfree and the parents, alike.
UNIVERSAL HUMAN NEEDS
to know and be known
to see and be seen
Here’s to loving and being loved, learning about needs, asking for help and caring for ourselves and others.
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