On a recent Monday, a young woman was walking up and down the halls of a hospital holding the hand of a toddler. The woman was a fair-skinned Caucasian. The child had even fairer skin. The woman had dark brown hair; the child had light brown hair. The woman’s eyes (obscured by glasses) were dark brown; the child’s (unobscured) were blue. It’s the sort of thing that no one would think anything of. They might smile at the child’s curiosity or her eagerness to walk, but it’s totally normal for a mother and child to walk hand in hand like that.
Except the child and the woman aren’t related. The woman was me; the child is my friend’s daughter.
To explain what I was doing in a hospital with my friend’s kid, we have to back this story up about a year.
Last spring, my friend (who is married and has two kids) came up to me and told me that any time that I wanted to come over and play with her kids or hang out with her, I was more than welcome. Any. Time. I just had to let her know before I came.
It took me a while to get that she really meant it. I really could just come over. But I got it. I get to come over and play with her kids. (I once took her kids out for a walk so she could do the dishes.) If I’ve had a rough week and I need baby cuddles, I get to go cuddle babies. If I need to go kvetch to an adult about my life, my friend lets me do that AND see her kiddos. (I’m currently telling her the story of an experience in my life in chapters-one chapter per visit. Right now, we’re on chapter three. Honestly, the drawn-out telling helps me to think through the whole situation more clearly. It also means that she only gets the parts that I remember well.) She likes having adult contact, I enjoy spending time with her, and her kids mistakenly think I’m cool.
(Honestly, that’s kind of the short story of how I ended up walking up and down the halls with Little Miss V. I’d had a rough day and needed baby cuddles. Her mom needed someone to keep an eye on her for a bit during an appointment.)
Now I’m not the only one who gets something out of this arrangement. I get to babysit Little Miss V and her older sister while their parents go out together. I’ve helped work on the house that my friends were remodeling during the second half of last year-in exchange for food and coffee. (If you’re wondering, I don’t think that “marshmallow” is a good name for a really light shade of pink; marshmallows are not naturally pink.) But I’m focusing on my own experience here, so I’m looking at how I’ve benefited from this experience.
My friend once told me that she likes to make sure there’s an even balance between babysitting and “friend time.” I appreciate that. I love getting to spend time with the babies, but I also like knowing that I’m of value as more than just a warm body to chase children and change diapers. I like supporting my married friends by helping them spend time with their spouses without the kids. I like keeping my childcare skills in shape by babysitting. But I also like being treated like a peer by my married friends. (After all, despite what a young newlywed lady once told me, being married doesn’t make you better or more mature than your unmarried friends.)
By allowing me to see her family in more candid moments, my friend is giving me a clearer vision of what daily family life is like (yes, young children eat their own earwax), and she’s also giving me a better vision for what I want my maybe-possibly-someday family to be like. (I’m getting better at putting children in time-out-but not for the earwax eating.) I’m not just seeing well photographed moments or the times when they have it all together. I get to see a messy house and screaming children, and that gives me a more realistic picture of what life with littles looks like. I’ve had a moment (or half hour) in which I felt completely helpless because one child was refusing to go to sleep and the other had woken up abruptly and was screaming for her mama.
I get to see how families (that are not my home family) spend their time together. I get to see how they communicate. I can see them solve problems. I have experience from my own family, but it’s good to see how other marriages work. It gives me ideas for how I want my maybe-possibly-someday family to look. It gives me a more realistic picture of what marriage and family life look like. (And it’s not always clean and pretty.) It’s really helpful to remember that children are not always perfectly dressed or well behaved. It’s helpful to remember that marriage and children won’t solve all of my problems but will rather give me a different set.
Based on my own experiences, I think that it is really important for married couples to attempt to bring a few of their close single friends into their homes when possible. A while back, one of my friends apologized to me for the fact that since her son was born last spring we’ve tended to hang out almost exclusively at her house. Here’s the thing; I don’t mind that. Yes, I love going out and getting one-on-one time. (I really value time with adults to have adult conversation.) But I also think that it’s important to be incorporated into family life, to experience the ups and downs of daily life. (Sometimes I need to reminded that my current stage of life spoils me in a few ways. After all, I get to sleep through the night, and the loudest and messiest thing in my life is a cat who thinks he needs to be the center of attention all of the time.)
Married life, family life naturally looks very different from single life, but as a single woman, I have to say that I feel more valued when I’m allowed to engage in family life. It’s nice to eat dinner with a family rather than sitting alone with a book at the dining room table or on the couch. That makes me feel like I belong, like I’m not some sort of pariah. (Remember that I’ve been explicitly told that being single makes me less valuable and less mature than being married would make me.) It gives me a sense of connection and community in a time of my life that naturally has less connection and community.
I’m not writing this to hunt for dinner invitations or to make married folks feel guilty. But I want to encourage you to invite your single friends over even if you’re feeding them PB&J or your house is messy. We know that your life doesn’t always look like the “after shot” of a laundry detergent ad. But as your friends, we want to be involved in your lives and connected to you. We’re open to your messiness. Being your friend means that we love you and love is not determined by how clean your house is or isn’t.
And for some of us, baby cuddles and a listening ear can be some of the best wards against the stress or struggles of our own lives.