Do you feel disconnected from your oldest friends – especially the ones without kids? I do. One big life change tends to bring about others. In the space of five or six years I’ve fallen in love, got married, had two children, moved to the countryside and started a new career. How could I possibly expect to go through all those changes without any impact on my existing friendships?
“Only connect,” wrote EM Forster. For some of us that’s what life’s all about. We’re social animals and we find fulfilment through our contact with others. Our most valued relationships – be they with friends, family or lovers – can bring us profound pleasure and indescribable pain.
But – whether it’s through becoming a parent, the pressures of our 21st century way of life or just getting older – good relationships can come at a high price. These days, I’m not just spinning plates, I’m spinning people.
“…the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.” – WH Auden
If you’re a mum of more than one child, do you remember the expression in your firstborn’s eyes as they watched you cuddling the new arrival? I’ll never forget it. My cherished baby – suddenly cast as the big girl at the grand old age of two-and-a-half – was heartbroken, bereft, uncomprehending. I wondered if she felt as if all the devotion I’d shown her up to now was a lie. Anxious to protect her feelings, I found myself snatching those intimate, falling-in-love moments of eye contact and skin-to-skin closeness with my second newborn furtively, when my big girl wasn’t looking. I wanted to explain to her that my love was infinite – that nothing and no-one could ever make me love her any less.
But the truth is that my time is not infinite. Her little sister’s arrival slashed the time I had to listen to her, to hold her, to be what I had always been to her. If someone can’t make time for you it’s hard to believe that they really love you. And, although things have got better since the little sister became more fun, I don’t think the jealousy will ever go away.
And it isn’t just children who hate being excluded. Auden was right: we all want to be loved alone. We know that’s not how it works – particularly with most friendships – but we keep craving it. We want to feel special, not just one of many. We still feel honoured when we’re the first to know something and crushed when we’re the last. And I wonder if this is part of the disconnection that some women feel from their friends when one is a mother and one is not. Does the arrival of a baby make everyone who used to be close to its mother feel just a little bit pushed out?
Psychologists tell us that friendships often flounder when there’s a perceived imbalance in who’s making the effort. None of the child-free women I’ve talked to in researching this article has misunderstood the nature of friendship – or of motherhood. They all know that a parent’s duty to care for a small child trumps pretty much everything else. And they’re not trying to compete with a mother’s awesome, earth-shattering love for her child. They understand that friendship is an entirely different – but no less precious – relationship. But they’re only human. If they’re repeatedly made to feel unimportant, unwelcome and peripheral then there’s only so much they can take.
The disconnection between some mums and their child-free friends seems to link particularly to three recurring themes:
- the failure to find time for each other
- behaviours that make one party feel excluded or undervalued
- a failure to communicate openly, relying instead on preconceptions and assumptions
When a friendship’s in trouble both parties, hurt and defensive, may be convinced that all the fault is on the other side. And sometimes one person is making all the effort while the other isn’t willing or able to continue the friendship. Sadly some friendships aren’t for life.
But others are – and it takes two to make a friendship work. There are stories all over the Internet from new mums who say their child-free friends dropped them like a sicky muslin when they procreated. A whole other article could be written for child-free women helping them to understand the needs of friends with young children and the pressures they face, but this article is for mums: this is to help you reach out to your dearest friends whose lives may suddenly seem a million miles away from yours.
Having small children can be so isolating. Even if you’ve made great new mum-friends (many of whom will eventually earn the simple title ‘friends’), new friendships take a while to feel like family. If you’re missing your old friends – maybe worrying that they didn’t really go for your baby-led-weaning anecdotes or feeling insecure since you saw a whole Facebook album of a night out where nobody looked like they were missing you much – this is for you.
A real soul mate is worth 500 Facebook friends or casual buddies of convenience – those acquaintances whose paths happen to be running alongside your own but really, under the surface, there’s no fellow-feeling, no connection and no real affection. If you love your old mates, then reach out to them. Here are my tips on how.
Five ways to reconnect with your child-free friends:
1) Make time for your friends. We’re all at different stages. Some mums have family living nearby and kids who will be put down by anyone and then sleep from 7pm to 7am. Others most definitely don’t. If you’re currently in the I can’t even get five minutes to go to the toilet phase then be realistic. You can’t possibly manage a night out (yet) and a good friend won’t demand that you do but you can still take little steps. If you don’t even have time for a phone call you, could still check in with a short email or just a text. Reaching out to an individual friend you’re missing will probably have more effect than just posting a generic status on Facebook saying “sorry I haven’t been in touch everyone”.
2) Be interested in your friend. I regularly feel like I’ve done nothing all week but practical parenting and domestic drudgery. I worry that my cool, urban, high-achieving mates will strike me from their contacts book for having nothing of any interest to talk about. But hey, it doesn’t matter – they do! Just ask them what they’ve been doing. Let them lead the way. If they’re bursting with excitement over a new film/book/festival you’ve never heard of just ask them to tell you all about it. New album you haven’t heard? Don’t feel inadequate; just ask them to play it to you. So long as you’re genuinely interested, a good friend won’t snipe that you’re a bit behind the times on whatever shared interests initially brought you together.
3) Remember that child-free doesn’t necessarily mean carefree. Yes she probably gets more sleep than you and she can go anywhere she likes with just a teeny-weeny bag but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have big, real stresses and problems in life – just as significant as your own. If you’ve followed step 2 properly you should already know what your friend’s current problems are. Make sure you really listen and allow time to talk them through. You’ll be surprised how much more interesting it is than just going on and on about your own mummy-battles which, quite frankly, your friend is unlikely to have a magic solution to. It’s probably helpful for her to understand the practical reasons why you may be a bit absent these days but, no matter what situation you’re in, if you monopolise the conversation you’re not being a great friend. Also, just because it’s a massive struggle to get out of the house, remember that your friend may be juggling a punishing schedule too. She too may be making big sacrifices to make the time to see you, so try to ensure that you don’t establish a pattern where you always meet on your terms and she always does all the travelling. It gets noticed. In a bad way.
4) Communicate openly. It’s so important not to make assumptions about how your friend feels. Some of the women I talked to were hurt that their mummy-buddies didn’t involve them with their children enough or assumed they must hate kids; others were irritated by the presumption that they wanted a kiss and a cuddle from little Harley or that it was ok to bring kids along to an adult party. Just ask how involved they want to be. Above all, do not make assumptions about how your mate feels about parenthood. No-one enjoys the “When are you going to have a baby then?” inquisition. (So many assumptions: that you should; that you want to; that you are able to; that this isn’t a sensitive subject for you…). One woman was told “You can’t understand love until you’ve had a child”; another that until she was a mother she would “never be a true woman”. Whoa there! Just let your friend live the life she’s living – you don’t need her to become a mum, or even want to, in order to connect. As one of my interviewees said: “I completely understand why people feel the need to validate their choices… but don’t think it has no impact on me.”
5) Make your friend feel important. You know that feeling when you’re trying to talk to your friend and your 3-year-old keeps urgently demanding your attention – requesting snacks, asking metaphysical questions, requiring an enraptured audience for an interminable piece of physical theatre…? Don’t you hate it? Well not nearly as much as your child-free friends do. Pretty much every child-free woman I spoke to said that when their friend repeatedly broke off mid-conversation to respond to a brat, it made her feel second class or unwelcome. This one’s tricky. I’ve been that woman – the bad one. The thing is that 3-year-olds mean business. They know what they’re doing. They have an escalation strategy: which builds from sweetly requesting a drink or asking you to listen to their song right up to hurling their baby sister down the stairs. (I won’t mention the other fail-safe this’ll make her stop talking and pay attention to me strategy because, I’ve just learnt, child-free folk tend not to like stories about human excrement.) So the simple solution is to try to see your friends without your kids. Don’t we all want to do that? No-one likes trying to keep a precocious preschooler out of the conversation while your best friend from school is telling you about the Shafta Award she won. (Google it. Actually don’t.) But we don’t all have the luxury of readily available or affordable babysitters. If the catch-up has to be with kids or not at all then think about how much your child gets you compared to your friend. If your child had plenty of one-to-one mummy time all morning, maybe this afternoon it wouldn’t kill him to watch a DVD. Your friend will appreciate being made to feel like your priority. You can smother your little munchkin in kisses when she’s gone.