It’s not the first time a letter has gone viral, splitting Twitter down a bitter divide, with resentments amassing on each side. And this letter didn’t even concern anything so contentious as Brexit, Marmite, or whether we need the royal family. Instead, it was part of the Guardian’s “A letter to” series – taglined “the letter you always wanted to write” – in which anonymous authors vent cathartically about topics they can’t, for whatever reason, broach in person.
“A letter to… our neighbours with a baby” detailed the sleepless plight of a child-free couple who endured three years of “protracted” and “nightly wailing” of the neighbouring baby on the other side of an (apparently extremely thin) party wall, driving the couple to distraction or at least to the point of composing a tense missive to a national newspaper, which is possibly the same thing.
The social media reaction was swift, passionate and totally contradictory. One group, composed largely (but not exclusively) of parents, declared the letter close-minded, mean-spirited and entirely without human compassion. Others – again, mostly (but not all) people without children – said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to want to be able to sleep”, with some adding: “This is just indicative of how society views people who don’t have children.”
The truth is I have been both neighbours in this scenario.
I spent almost 40 years living in flats, with no plans to have children – before doing a volte-face and starting a family in my late thirties and early forties. So I remember how resentful I felt if I was woken by a neighbour’s baby, and how, if the noisy child was any older than an infant, I would think in private that their parents were “bad” for “allowing” such behaviour.*
Now I have kids, I realise they just make noise. I don’t mean this in a permissive, let-Fenella-kick-you-in-the-shin-she-likes-it way, but a human one. Tiny children make noise, and the entire process of teaching them appropriate volume starts with them having an inappropriate volume, and you not buying them a drum.
Similarly, newborn babies may yell lustily through the night thanks to reflux, colic or any other quirk of their immature systems, and there’s really nothing to be done but wait it out. When the letter-writers complain their neighbours have done nothing to “mitigate the noise for our sake, by moving [the baby] to another room, say”, I want to point out that the NHS advises keeping young babies in the parents’ rooms to protect against Sudden Infant Death syndrome (SIDS) – with the proviso that child-free people aren’t to know this.
But then the letter-writers added snippy little phrases, like “the world doesn’t stop just because you’ve had a child”, and “you never apologised”, and called the parents “deeply selfish”. Which I found rather rum, given that, by the letter-writer’s own admission, they:
Moved in knowing their neighbours, who already lived there, were days away from having a baby
Never once told the neighbours they could hear the baby
Never mentioned that the noise was an issue.
The letter may have sparked an ‘us-vs-them’ parents-vs-non-parents debate, but its main problem was plain rudeness. There was a sneery, peering-over-one’s-glasses, “ugh-parents” vibe to it all and the sneering was at an innocent family who didn’t have the first clue they were pissing someone else off.
Why not just be nice? Why not just assume that parents don’t have kids to annoy the childfree – and vice versa? Why not assume we’re all human?
“Tiny children make noise, and the process of teaching them appropriate volume starts with them having an inappropriate volume.”
What (other than fear of committing an “egregious social blunder”) would have stopped the childfree couple from popping a bottle of wine round to offer congratulations when the baby was born or any other time in that first tricky year? That way, they could have slyly pointed out the thinness of the walls and offered to work together to find a soundproofing solution.
Had my neighbours done this when I was a new mum, I’d have been happy to put down some carpeting, or improve the insulation because I would have been mortified to learn that my baby was keeping everyone else up at night, too.
“Why should I have to take a bottle of wine round?” came the response to this suggestion when I shared it. “I don’t have kids and I shouldn’t have to put up with their noise. Why should I spend my hard-earned money to pander to someone just because they’ve bought into the parenting lifestyle?”
Taking a bottle of wine round to a neighbour who’s just had a baby isn’t pandering, any more than taking a bunch of flowers round to a recently bereaved neighbour is pandering. A newborn life is just as life-altering as a recent death (sometimes more so, at least logistically – and I speak from repeated experience), and recognising that is just human social decency.
You may not want children. You may even disapprove of those who do. But if you choose to live in society and not, say, in the wilderness, it’s a fact of life that people will have children, sometimes you may hear them, and that these two facts combined do not come from a place of “entitlement” or “selfishness”.
Maybe if we could take a step back from the “them-and-us” culture of parents vs non-parents, we could assume that for the most part we are decent people just trying to get by in life, and if we see another member of society struggling (or we ourselves are struggling) perhaps we can reach out, particularly to a neighbour, to try and find a common solution.
“Yeah but have you ever tried to ask a neighbour to stop making noise?” Someone else challenged. “What if they’re abusive or they refuse?”
I mean, I sympathise. We’ve all had crappy awful neighbours, especially the sort that play one Cher song on a full-volume loop at 2am. And if they don’t co-operate despite your most compassionate, empathetic efforts? Really, there’s only one thing for it. That’s when you write a letter to the Guardian.