Friendships change once children come along but how can you stay friends with your old pals and make new ones that fit your family? Ruth Brown explores the tricky terrain.
Charlotte: I promise I won't become one of those mothers who can only talk about diaper genies.
Samantha: What the hell is a diaper genie?
Carrie: I don't know... someone you hire to change a kid's diaper?
There are many things the girls from Sex and the City will be remembered for - Manolo Blanhiks, Cosmopolitans, and a parade of merry men - but above all else is friendship. Admittedly their's was a fictional sisterhood, but how many of us didn't ache a little and wish we too had friends like Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. A gang of girls to call our own, to share our deepest secrets, hopes and fears, who you knew would always have your back, through break-ups, make-ups, and yes, even motherhood.
The reality is your friendships change and grow over time just as your relationship with your partner does. But there are things you can do to stay close to those that really matter.
The sisterhood is strong but there are new parameters when one of you becomes a mother. The high drama when your bestie gets chucked by her boyfriend seems like the distant past. Motherhood is simultaneously much more serious (keeping the kids from running on the road) and much more mundane (forever wiping up spilt milk) than your previous life.
Your new bestie will be the one who:
a. You can ring at 8pm and ask to babysit one child while you make an emergency dash to the hospital with the other.
b. Looks after your children for four hours while you catch up on sleep.
c. Brings over fish pie when you and your children have the flu.
d. Tells you how much she admires you as a parent.
Natalie Cutler-Welsh and her friend and co-author Jacqui Lockington write about friendships in parenthood in their upcoming book, If Only They Told Me - The Real Deal on Parenting and Relationships in the Early Years.
"When you become a parent for the first time you tend to suddenly look at people a bit differently. People that you knew before but couldn't really relate to now become your friends. Neighbours make gestures of support, bring food, or may even offer to fold your washing," says Natalie.
"I was surprised by how 'high school' things feel among mothers. Rather than waiting for pubescent boys to ring you or invite you to something it's other mothers. It's a bit laughable when you're questioning yourself and wondering if you should ring her or wait for her to ring you. Does she like me? Should I text her again or just let it go? Is it just that some people are initiators and others are not or should I casually let those who haven't made an effort or returned my calls simply slip off my radar?
"What you look for in a friend subtly changes when your first child arrives, and even more so with subsequent children. Whereas before you looked for friends who made you laugh, who enjoyed the same books, sports and music, now the need is to find people with similar parenting philosophies. That is, you don't want your stress levels shooting through the roof because your "friend" is always trying to correct your child's behaviour, when you think it's fine if he doesn't say hello when he walks in - he's still only three. And you'll also find yourself cancelling play dates with someone whose child beats up on yours but won't lift a finger to stop it.
You'll also want someone who lives within babysitting distance (no more than 5km away) and whose children are facing the same sleep/toilet-training/tantrumming issues as yours.
Yet it's hard to cross the divide to where your childless friends still enjoy weekend lie-ins and staying out late. You've effectively gone to a foreign land.
Auckland mother of one, Lee Plummer, says many of her friends have slipped away since her son was born last year.
"I'm letting them fly. They'll come back when they're ready.
"I think you just stop communicating with people when they're in a different stage of life. There's nothing malicious about it."
Lee says since becoming a mother she has apologised to all her friends with children, for just "not getting" how much their lives changed with a baby.
But if it's just too hard to cross the divide with her childless friends at the moment, old friends with children, who Lee hasn't seen in years, have suddenly come out of the woodwork. "And they're great sources of information and advice."
In her shoes
So, is it still possible to stay close to childless friends who will inevitably get tired of all your nappy chat and your habit of interrupting phone conversations to reprimand the kids? Or is it kinder just to say, "See you in five years when I get my old life back"?
Read this from Samantha, 43, Childless by choice, from the If Only They Told Me blog (www.ifonlytheytoldme.com):
"The most annoying thing is trying to catch up with 'Mummy Friends' on the phone and constantly being told to 'hang on'... especially when I'm ringing on my mobile. And then, after 'hanging on' for minutes at a time, getting a full run-down on why I had to 'hang on'... I don't care that little Johnny just tipped his bowl of Rice Bubbles all over the cat".
She also has this advice for those who feel the need to judge her for her decision not to have children: "Please don't feel sorry for me - I have chosen not to have children - I don't want any. Really. Please don't look at me with that 'I-know-you're-just-saying-that-but-gosh-your-life-must-be-so-empty-and-what-are-you-going-to-do-when-you-get-old?' sympathetic stare... you know the one, with the head slightly tilted to one side and the concerned little frown/half smile... and then comes the pat on the knee, or the stroke on the arm. Seriously?"
Dr Alice Boyes is a psychologist and relationships expert from Christchurch. She says despite your worlds being far apart, there really is no need to cut off your friendships with childless mates. It's simply a case of being tactful and making sure you stay interested in their lives too.
"Sometimes people get into that situation where they might say their lives are so full now that they have this baby and everything is more meaningful. The friend might then think, 'So does that mean my life is not meaningful?'
"Parents also often think their childless friends have loads of free time and can easily fit around them and their kids' routines.
And if you have friends who tried and failed to have children, you must tread very carefully. She doesn't feel like joining a family barbecue with a host of kids? Well who could blame her? But if your friendship means anything to you, try to make time for her away from the children on a regular basis.
We still need those friends who knew us before we became mums - they know all our other identities and roles, says Dr Alice. It reminds us we're people too.
Even if you and your friend are embarking on the journey to motherhood together, you may find added and surprising tensions arise over your parenting styles and philosophies.
Natalie Cutler-Welsh says sometimes it's just about social norms. When children fail to say hello or goodbye, for example, they're not really being rude, they're just not following social norms, she says. But problems crop up around parents' own value systems and expectations.
"Most parents have probably experienced some awkwardness or funny vibe with a friend and parent," she says.
It's great if you can laugh over it together but otherwise it's a choice between starting a discussion over it or letting it go.
"You can blow it into a bigger deal than it is and sometimes you've got to let things go," says Natalie. "But if it's bothering you you've got to raise it.
"A lot of parents spend a lot of time treading water in the middle," she says.
"My bottom line is go with your gut feeling on it."
Dr Boyes says the benefits of being friends with other mums far outweigh the negative aspect but it's important to remember that these "critics" are simply voicing an opinion.
"You don't have to pay any attention. You are the one that's determining how you want to parent your child."
The other important thing to remember is that while mums may feel personally attacked as a "bad mother", that message may not be intended.
"It's quite easy for people on the other end of it to interpret it as a global criticism."
A criticism of one aspect of your parenting quite likely doesn't mean the critic believes you are a bad mother.
Have you noticed that friends become more important the more stressed we are?
As writer and teacher Gale Berkowitz writes, friendships between women "shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage and help us remember who we really are."
She points to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, which turned what we previously knew about stress on its head. Researchers until then believed stress caused a fight or flight response but in fact this applies mainly to men. In women it's a "tend and befriend" response, which means that under stress, women look after their children and look to other women for support.
The difference is to do with the release of the hormone oxytocin, which tends to have a calming effect. (Men usually turn on the testosterone when under stress.)
Another study, the Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School, found women with lots of friends tended to live longer and enjoyed better health as they aged.
A friend indeed
We all need friends - good friends - and the best way to get one is to be one yourself.
So, perhaps at the end of this little dedicated me-time you could find the time to pick up the phone and call your girlfriend to see how her day is going. Do it at a time when baby is having a nap, or the kids are happily ensconsed in play to avoid the "hang on" interruptions.
If she's a friend without kids, make the effort to listen, really listen to what's happening in her world. Remember, you were living that life not too long ago, and it can be fun to throw yourself back to that life stage momentarily.
If she is a mum - then tell her she's doing a grand job. Because we all know how a little positive reinforcement can work wonders.
The fabulous Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey wrote "There's nothing I wouldn't do for those who are really friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature." Well said, that woman.
What is a frenemy?
Psychologist and relationship expert Dr Alice Boyes offers these tips for resolving personal differences between pals:
When I think of the concept of a frenemy, I think of:
- Someone who betrays confidences or who says things to other friends that paint you in a negative or struggling light.
- Someone who is intensely competitive with you, either in terms of their life being much more difficult than yours or they see themselves as more successful and virtuous than you, and like to bask in that.
- They may also be prone to one-upping everything that you say, such as, "You've got a headache? well, I might have a brain tumour."
Fight or flight
Some ideas for turning around a friendship you value, but which has become antagonistic, are:
- Learn to become aware when you are experiencing your friend's behaviour as an attack or as a threat to you. Be open to the possibility that it isn't.
- If you feel competitive with your friend, make a point of expressing admiration for her successes.
- When you're feeling angry, a good approach to diffusing that anger is to use a technique called opposite action. In the case of anger using opposite action means:
- Expressing empathy or sympathy or kindness, instead of attacking back or cowering. Opposite action is intended to be for your own benefit rather than your friend's benefit (by diffusing an unpleasant feeling).
- You might've got to the point of wishing your friend failures rather than successes. Instead, try to cultivate good wishes for your friend's success, happiness and ease of well-being.
- There is a type of meditation called Loving Kindness that can help with learning to balance caring for yourself versus caring for others.
Visit www.aliceboyes.com/blog for more tips on negotiating life's hurdles.
Ruth Brown is a mother of two girls. She loves all her friends wholeheartedly, even the ones who would prefer it if she visited them without the kids in tow.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 18 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW