It’s funny, the future you imagine for yourself when there is so much of it in front of you. When you’re young and in a circle of friends and you’re all, essentially, at the same point in life – financially, emotionally, romantically – you idly think it will always be this way. Midweek drinks, partying on a Friday and/or Saturday, meeting up for lunch/still going at it on a Sunday, before all trudging back to work on Monday with heads low and tails between your legs, waiting for the cycle to begin again.
But of course it cannot, and should not, always be this way. It’s hard enough to get served at the bar as it is, without entire generations of mates refusing to grow up. Only two or three of you in a group get away with that, and it’s usually the gay ones. Why? Well, until fairly recently, the traditional milestones, the trappings of heterosexual life, didn’t apply to us. We didn’t get engaged, we didn’t get married, children weren’t a particularly easy or common things for us to do – so we had all this freedom, acres and acres of it stretching out in front of us. Free to go wherever or do whatever and be whoever. We don’t have to grow up if we don’t want to. Although many of us do now do fall into line. Sometimes I suspect it’s out of sheer boredom than anything else.
Now, of course, we can marry and have children of our own, instead of the dog or cat substitutes earlier incarnations would have had to settle for, but if following that path isn’t really of interest to you, you can feel like you’re being left behind by the straights.
One by one, the hetero friends in my circle have peeled off in the direction of wedded bliss, pregnancy and moving away, leaving only a few of us here in the cold, hard metropolis, jostling for space on the Tube, dashing through the streets with our cardboard coffee cup, tweeting.
When my straight friends initially began to grow up, it was fun to attend their weddings and dance with the bridesmaids and toast their success and happiness. Nothing will change, we all said, as we twirled to disco in our ill-fitting suits and dodgy early Noughties haircuts. We shall always be this way.
And when the pregnancies started, as they always do, we were all thrilled. We couldn’t wait to become gay uncles, spoiling the children rotten with forbidden sweets and oversized teddies. I pictured taking their offspring to the park, helping with their homework, giving them shoulder-rides at fairgrounds, buying them noisy toys and things that would make a mess. It would be so much fun. I would discover London through new eyes, we’d have great adventures – I couldn’t wait to hear “uncle” squawked in front of my name from a child with their grubby hands outstretched, wiping the remains of a Creme Egg on my brand new trousers.
But your friends don’t have children for you to live out your picture-postcard fantasies about arm’s-length child raising, they have them for themselves, and have their own plan. One by one, as each upcoming bundle of joy was announced, there would be the hushed tones and the mentions of “moving away”, somewhere bigger or cheaper or quieter or nearer their families, where they’ll have more support. You know, then, that you have lost them to parenthood, to the future. Their future. And you congratulate them, excitedly, and say you can’t wait to visit. You don’t say, “But what about me?” because, quite simply – quite rightly – it isn’t.
Since 2010, they’ve been slipping away to all corners of the country and even the continent. Children I always imagined I’d know really well and would be part of my life are springing up and popping out all over the place. And it’s lovely, and when we do see each other, it’s great, but the closeness I’d always imagined – the surrogate family unit I assumed we’d all become – isn’t there. The children are shy – or worse, totally indifferent – when I enter the room. They’re growing up so far away, and we’re all so busy, it’s just not possible to make that connection. I know who they are, because I’ve seen them on Facebook, eating biscuits with pudgy hands, painting pictures, smiling in distant relatives’ arms. But they don’t know me.
Their mums and dads make friends with other people who have babies. They have something in common, they’ve gone through the same journey. At get-togethers, I can only stand and smile as they share horror stories from the birth and teething and leaving them at nursery for the first time. I haven’t done this. I will never do this.
Some have stayed, of course. Families have routines, however, that it can be hard to slot into. I visit my two amazing boisterous, outspoken godsons – children of two of my oldest friends – on the odd Sunday and do temporarily live out that uncle fantasy of yore – but the reality of it is quite different. Most Sundays I used to shout myself hoarse getting them to stop fighting and now they have gaming or watching YouTube videos of skyscrapers being demolished or pop songs to entertain them, so they slink off to other rooms while the adults catch up, their parents glad of the break, of adult conversation. Families have their own lives, they disappear into each other, become units. Availability and accessibility decreases, understandably.
There are plenty of children in London, clambering all over cafes and whacking into my ankles on their micro scooters, but most of them aren’t children of people I love. I only like the ones I know.
And now all the couples have conformed, the final act has begun. Two of my close female friends – the last ladies standing at any party – have announced they too are pregnant, and both are leaving London for new lives with their bumps and their boyfriends, within a week of each other. Next week.
And I’m so happy for them, because they’re getting what they always wanted and starting on a new path – it’s just the beginning. But I am sad for me, for us, for all of us, the fun gay uncles we will never be. We’d have been really good at it too, I reckon. Selfishly, I thought I could do my growing up vicariously, that I wouldn’t need to hit milestones if I could do it from a distance. All I can do is wish them all well and strive to be closer. I don’t feel sorry for myself, just a little… wistful. The old adage is wrong: you can miss what you’ve never had. I already do.
That said: no fucking way am I having a child of my own. Get real.