Choosing the Familiar Over the Optimal

My son Marco (left) clowns with a very good neighbor friend who lives a couple of blocks from us.

My son Marco (left) clowns with a very good neighbor friend who lives a couple of blocks from us.

Parents? Yawn. Relatives? Double-yawn. Neighbors? Pullllease!!!

I remember very well thinking that way as an adolescent and young adult. I became critical of all the people I had been surrounded by throughout my childhood. That was mostly my parents, but it was also other relatives and neighbors.

Instead, I resolved to choose who I spent time with. I discovered that I had very little in common with my parents, relatives, and neighbors. So, they became a low priority for me, as I discovered friends who I had much more in common with.

Today, I’m back to spending most of my time with those familiar to me, rather than people I have a lot in common with. In fact, I spend an awful lot of time with my wife’s relatives, many of whom can’t communicate with me very well because of a language barrier. (They speak Shanghainese, a Chinese dialect, and I don’t.)

Outside of family time, I chat a lot with neighbors, and I prefer neighbor friends for my kids over kids who they know from activities like sports teams.

That adolescent impulse to purposely choose to spend time with likeminded people seems quite rational, and in fact, many people don’t retreat back to familiar people as I have in my middle aged years. They focus on their interests, and they choose people to spend time with according to who shares those interests.

In fact, this is the attitude that causes many marriages to break up. “We’ve drifted apart” is a common refrain from people splitting up. Certainly, it’s impossible for two people to remain exactly the same years after they met, so at any given time, it is quite possible that one or both spouses will meet other people with whom they share more interests than their spouses.

So, why do I spend all this time with family, relatives, and neighbors? And, why am I still married?

Fundamentally, I think that having children has changed me. Remember all those surveys of parents that say they’re unhappy being parents? Those are people who are still preoccupied with “common interests.” Who the heck has common interests with a wailing infant with a poopy diaper?

I absolutely, absolutely love the time I spend with my children, and happily admit that this time with my kids crowds out time I can spend with like-minded friends. I see the world through my kids’ eyes. They don’t have a strong sense of identity, and can have fun anytime, with whomever is around at the time.

Neighbor kids are great for my kids because they can play together without parents’ constant involvement. Our relatives are great for my kids because they love my kids unconditionally.

My in-laws come to our house every day to help my wife and I take care of our kids. They’d do anything, and I mean anything, for our kids. And so what if I can’t communicate very well with my wife’s uncles Thomas, Jeffrey, Simon, and George? They love my boys and play with them constantly when they’re at our house. As for my family back in Pittsburgh, going there is my kids’ favorite vacation every year. Who needs Disneyland when you have cousins in Pittsburgh?

Am I sacrificing my interests too much for my kids? I don’t think so. Now, many of my interests revolve around them. I still have many of the same old interests I had – for instance, in New Orleans Jazz or Pittsburgh sports teams or the Palio of Siena – but now, I share them with my kids.

Yes, I know, I may be setting myself up for a huge disappointment when my kids reach adolescence and start pushing me, my wife, our relatives, and neighbors away. I hope they won’t really hate me in a few years, but in any event, I can’t live my life now planning ahead for what might happen then.

Life with my kids is very good these days, and I’d like to think that my wife and I are instilling very important values of family and neighborhood into them every day.

How about you? How do you decide between spending time with familiar people versus people with common interests now that you have kids?

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