The cover of this week’s New York Magazine features an adorable toddler in a plaid dress taking a swing at a tower of blocks taller than she is.
The child is labelled “Your kid,” and the block tower, “Our friendship.” In the accompanying cover story titled “Adorable Little Detonators,” writer Alison P. Davis details in clear, frank language the way that the addition of a baby can reduce a rock-solid friendship to a pile of rubble.
“More than marriage, more than a new job, more than moving across the country, I think there is nothing that represents more of a threat to adult friendships than parenthood,” one of Davis’ sources told her.
That the article has been shared so widely by folks with and without kids suggests that many of us have strong feelings about this – feelings we haven’t necessarily shared with our friends.
The topic is treacherous territory, with potential value judgments on both sides. Some parents may believe their child-free friends are missing out on a formative human experience, while the child-free may feel like they’re watching their friends’ lives reduced to a tired, heteronormative script.
But if we’re serious about our friendships, instead of offering one another criticism or pat platitudes (“Best friends forever!” “Nothing’s going to change!”), we need to be honest about the enormity of the shift that occurs when a person becomes a parent, grieve openly for the things our relationship will no longer be (at least for a season), and get creative in coming up with ways we can connect that won’t leave one party feeling unfairly shortchanged.
Becoming a parent actually changes the brain
Chelsea Conaboy is a journalist and the author of the book “Mother Brain,” which explores what neuroscience has discovered about the way our brains change when we become parents. Studies using MRIs have found structural changes in women’s brains after pregnancy that persist for years.
Conaboy compares the magnitude of what happens to us neurologically in parenthood to another period of great uncertainty and upheaval: adolescence.
Imagine your 10-year-old self attempting to befriend your 15-year-old self. You’re not even on the same continent, cognitively speaking. This is the depth of the divide between a new parent and a child-free friend. While it isn’t completely impassable, pretending that the crevasse isn’t there is rarely a winning strategy.
Reading Davis’ piece on friendship, Conaboy found herself thinking: “She’s not wrong.”
Parents-to-be can’t comprehend what caring for a child will be like before it happens, in part because “it’s so dramatic,” Conaboy told HuffPost, and in part because “it doesn’t depend just on you and your desires or plans for who you’re going to be as a parent. It also is about who your baby is, and how your birth goes, and how your partner responds to that, if you have a partner, or your social support system, and how your own biology responds to this change. All of those things shape your experience of new parenthood. And you can’t plan for those.”
When a new parent and their child-free friend have unrealistic expectations for what’s to come, it’s a perfect recipe for the relationship to succumb to a slow fizzle.
“I find myself being more flexible ... Sometimes you have to schedule catch-up time or wait longer for a response back to your text. That doesn’t mean they don’t care or don’t love you. It means they are doing their best.”
Morgan R., a Canadian mother of three in her early thirties, explained to HuffPost that making time for child-free friends wasn’t so hard right after her first was born. Friends came to the house “for baby snuggles,” she easily brought her infant to coffee dates in a stroller. However, things changed when she had a second kid and was accompanied by two toddlers. Coffee dates were no longer feasible.
“I could go to a friend’s house that didn’t have a kid-friendly setup, but I found it quite stressful for me because I’m constantly like, ‘What are they touching? Are they going to break something?’” she said.
Seeing her friends go out and do kid-free things without her was hard, but Morgan R. came to see it as “not a personal thing ... It means they’re at a different stage in life.” Turning down invitations or missing events with her friends was simply a consequence of the stage of life she was in — although knowing that doesn’t always make it easier.
“It is letting go of something,” she said.
Tiffany Dyba, a 41-year-old child-free New Yorker who runs a recruitment consultancy, has noted the shift in the way she can connect with her friends who have children. “I think for me it has been about the ease of making plans. In the past, there was an ability to grab drinks on the fly, or plan a girls’ trip or get together easier. Now it is definitely more juggling and more work to get things on the calendar,” Dyba told HuffPost.
She has worked hard to get to “a place of honesty and acceptance around not becoming a mom” and is able to extend grace to her parent friends and their struggles.
“I find myself being more flexible,” she said. “Sometimes you have to schedule catch-up time or wait longer for a response back to your text. That doesn’t mean they don’t care or don’t love you. It means they are doing their best.”
Society isn’t set up to support new parents – and that includes their friendships
Another thought Conaboy had while reading Davis’ story was, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
It’s hard to make plans once kids are in the picture, but structural issues in our society compound the problem. When parents are expected to provide for their children’s needs without the help of extended family or government benefits (paid leave, subsidized childcare), they likely don’t have time or resources left at the end of the day to nurture friendships, even cherished ones.
Because our culture has isolated children from the rest of society, “the assumption is that you can’t interact at all when kids are around,” Conaboy said.
“We have these norms of how kids are supposed to behave, and how parents are supposed to be minding them all the time,” while in other cultures, “kids are part of the society in a completely different way. It’s expected that they’re going to be there, and it’s also expected that parents are not going to be giving their full attention to them all the time. And so everyone’s able to interact at different levels,” Conaboy continued.
At the multigenerational family gatherings that are a staple in other countries, for example, it’s common to see aunties or cousins caring for a child while parents connect with their peers.
Because this kind of socializing isn’t the norm for many North American families, connecting with child-free friends, particularly during those early years of parenthood, can take extra effort, creativity and a healthy dose of honest communication.
“I found the best way for me in the toddler stage to keep my friendships with friends without kids was to have them over to my house ... That was just the best way to sit down actually have a focused conversation with somebody and not feel stressed out,” Morgan R. said.
Chris Choy Bush, a mother of one in Minneapolis, feels that for her and her partner, having a child later in their lives was an advantage, as they got to experience this challenge from both sides of the fence: first as the child-free couple and then as the new parents.
Some friendships strengthened, and others felt the strain, Choy Bush told HuffPost. She also noted that the infant years, featuring a more “portable” child, lead into the more challenging toddler phase.
There was also an element of trial and error. Regularly planned dates, Choy Bush found, were “absolutely disastrous. It was just too rigid.” She and her husband would make plans to see friends but not force calendars to align on the third Thursday of every month, for example.
“Once we loosen that up and then just let it flow, I think that made a big difference,” she said.
If you have a co-parent, there’s also the possibility of seeing friends one-on-one while the co-parent cares for the child.
Even with friends they used to see as a couple, “There’s no reason why he can’t come, and I can’t stay behind,” Choy Bush said. It’s a change for everyone involved, but it can make room for interactions that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
Hindsight makes it possible to see the seasons of a friendship
It can be hard to see the long view when you’re in an emotionally charged situation.
“As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I have also realized that some friendships are for a season,” Conaboy said. “Your needs change over time, and your connections with people change over time.”
It brings to mind the circle of local, new mom friends I clung to like a life raft during my first months of parenthood. I needed to tell them my birth story again (and again.) I needed to see the understanding in their eyes when I explained that I didn’t eat dinner last night because it took so long to get the baby to sleep. Now that our children are bigger, I see these women rarely, if at all. Many have moved away from the city. But the time-bound nature of our connection doesn’t make it any less real or meaningful.
“As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I have also realized that some friendships are for a season ... Your needs change over time, and your connections with people change over time.”
In the case of a long-term friendship, a period of distance may be followed by one of connection.
Mathina Calliope is a 51-year-old writer and editor in Virginia. She has written about the sometimes lonely journey of being child-free in a circle of friends who are parents.
“One friend of mine and I both started trying at the same time, and she got pregnant, and I didn’t,” Calliope told HuffPost.
“I wouldn’t say we drifted apart — we kept in good touch. But obviously, things changed a lot. But her son is 7 now, and I feel like already there’s a way that we’re coming back into each other’s lives.”
There is a sense now that she has “made it to the other side” of that period in her life when many people were having babies. “Most of the people I socialize with now are either child-free, or their kids are in college or out already,” Calliope said.
Sustaining a friendship requires some tough conversations
It wasn’t as simple, however, as waiting for her friend to return to her once the flurry of new parenthood had settled. Calliope and her friend had to reckon on some level with the distance between them and the pain it had caused.
“We’ve had some good, hard conversations and about how painful it was for me to watch her. I had wanted [a child], but then also I had all this ambivalence,” she said.
Around the time Calliope’s friend’s son was born, Calliope set off to hike the Appalachian Trail. “I quit my job and went into the woods. And I think it was it was a similarly intense experience,” she said.
The journey, she said, “broke me open in a way that made it possible for me to be really honest and talk about the hard things with her and have a hard conversation.” This conversation didn’t happen all at once but was one they returned to at various points throughout the following years.
Calliope and her friend spoke about the impact of having traveled these divergent paths. Before Calliope published her essay about being child-free in her 40s, she shared it with her friend.
After some more time had passed, “I could talk to her about how hard it had been for me, and she was really able to empathize with me, and I think I was able to empathize with her about how lonely she had felt when her son was young, and how hard that was for her,” Calliope said.
Conaboy was similarly able to reconnect with a good friend through her writing. A friend whom she had felt separate from read some early chapters of her book.
“I actually think she initiated that conversation to be like, ‘I didn’t know that this is what you were going through,’” in terms of the struggle of new parenthood. At the same time, Conaboy said, “It opened the door for me to say, ‘Yes, but I also wish I had done these things differently.’”
These women found the kind of clarity that can emerge over the passing of years.
“Your life as a parent changes over time. As I came out of the fog of those early years of parenthood, I was able to sort of turn back to her and say, ‘I’m sorry that I was like that, and I love you, and I want to prioritise our friendship,’ and we had this really important exchange,” Conaboy said.
She believes that a period of distance doesn’t preclude a future reconnection.
“I think you need to leave room for that, and that’s true of any long-term friendship. Things will ebb and flow ― people’s needs will change. I guess I feel like my most important friendships are not measured by how often I’m able to go to a concert with them. It’s measured by something much deeper.”