Last week I wrote an essay about the effect having a baby has had on my friendships. This week, guest columnist, Sara, writes from the other perspective — that of the childless friend/ family member — about the way babies have changed her friendships.
Some very important babies have entered my life in the last six months: my sister-in-law had a son; my sister had identical twin daughters; and my best friend had a son. I am a researcher, and I prepared for changes in my relationships with these women the only way I know how: with a literature review. Most of the information I found was written by new moms, and most of the literature focused on how new mothers’ friends just don’t understand the awesome responsibility (and time-suck) it is to be a parent. Fair enough. As a childless woman, I don’t understand what it means to be a mom. I wonder, though, do my friends with newborns know what it’s like to be “the childless friend”? I’d like to share what that experience has been like and how new moms can make it easier — and enjoyable — for their childless friends to stay connected to them.
My relationship with my sister-in-law has actually not changed much. In addition to them enjoying the luxury of abnormally long maternity and paternity leaves, they have made a huge effort to maintain their lifestyle. For example, they take their son to (smoke-free!) establishments for happy hour meet-ups with friends and family, and they even took their two-month old on a multi-day road trip to visit out-of-state loved ones. When we get together, we talk about the baby and how the transition has been for them as new parents, but we also talk about work and upcoming trips. It’s important to keep conversation moving and not completely stuck on baby and parenting updates.
My relationship with my sister has improved as a result of her becoming a mother. She’s younger than I am, both literally and figuratively. Since she has become the primary caregiver to two demanding little girls, she has become more mature, putting the needs of others before hers. She may always be younger at heart than I am, but now I see her as more of an adult since her actions are more adult-like, and I appreciate that.
My relationship with my (long-distance) best friend has taken a big hit since she become a mom. Jean was unrealistic about what having a baby would mean for her life and our friendship, especially since she has faced a number of unique challenges. First of all, she had a rough pregnancy and was on bed rest for a significant chunk of it. Meet-ups were cancelled or cut short because she had to be supine for long periods of time. She was certain, though, that once the baby was born, she would go back to her normal, active lifestyle. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
My husband and I were planning to meet up with Jean and her family around Christmas, 1.5 hours from their house, when the baby would be a month old. Three days before getting together, her husband called my husband to cancel. Having a newborn was more difficult and tiring than they had expected, and they couldn’t make the trip. My husband and I scrambled to find a way to visit our friends despite not having access to a car. We called a friend from a city three hours away and convinced her to go up with us to visit our mutual friends — and to give us a ride! The three of us stayed at Jean’s place for eight wonderful hours, talking, laughing, and playing games. Still, I was making a big effort to maintain our friendship after a baby, and I was a little put-out that I was doing most of the work. I figured that the early years are the hardest, though, and cut her some slack.
Then recently, we were planning to meet up with Jean and her husband to celebrate my 30th birthday in Chicago (a three-hour trip for them and a six-hour trip for us). On our way to Chicago, we learned that Jean had been admitted the night before to a research hospital in Madison, WI. It turns out, she has a rare and aggressive form of cancer that needed to be treated with 24-hour chemo and radiation. She got cancer from having a baby — placental blood was growing in her body. That afternoon that we were to meet in Chicago, my husband and I drove the extra 2.5 hours to Madison, WI instead to be with her. I cancelled my Monday classes in Ohio to stay with her until we knew the prognosis (50/50).
I had thought that the biggest hurdle in our friendship would be vying for her time after the birth of her baby. In reality, being really sick from having a baby is the true hurdle of our friendship. I’m glad now that I made the extra effort to do more than “my share” for our friendship. I know that in the coming months, she will have more than a baby taking her time and energy away from our friendship; she’ll also be fighting cancer.
My experiences with each of the three women in my life who have had babies recently is as different as the women themselves. Some of these differences come from choices the new parent is making, and some of these differences come from outside circumstances. I originally thought that the same skills I used to maintain a friendship with my sister and sister-in-law could be transferred to my relationship with my best friend. However, since each situation is unique, I know I need to approach each relationship in a unique way, and I plan to be there for my friends as much as I can as they navigate the challenges and joys of their new lives. I also hope that they will, in turn, be as present in our friendship as I plan to be.
When I was researching ways a childless friend can maintain her relationship with a new mom, I found some great advice, but as Wendy wrote, friendship is a two-way street. With that sentiment in mind, here are a few things that new moms can do to help maintain friendships with their childless friends:
1. Cut your friend some slack if she doesn’t call as much. She doesn’t know when to call. Will she accidently wake the baby — or you — up from a much-needed nap? Will she accidently call at bedtime or feeding time? Help your friend know when to call you.
2. Be sensitive that you have the privilege of being a mom, but your friend, who may want very much to be a mother, does not. Please know that being happy for you and being envious of you can go hand in hand. Your friend may not want children, but she may also be childless for reasons outside of her control: infertility; no long-term, loving relationship; not enough resources to raise a child.
3. Share the joys of parenthood along with the frustrations. Let your friend read a book to your child, play peek-a-boo, and teach your baby a new skill. We childless friends are here to listen to you vent about, and even participate in, some of the “bad” parts of having a kid: early nights, limited mobility, and stinky diapers; but we want to share in some of the joy, too.
4. Let your friend know that she’s still important to you. Your friend understands that she’s taken a backseat to your baby. But let her know that you still want her in your life — and that sometimes you kind of need a “wine-soaked evening with pals” to go back to being a mom in a refreshed way.
I’m sure you readers of Dear Wendy have lots of advice for me and others navigating friendships with new moms, and I hope you will share it.
[Thanks to Katy — who is not the author of this essay, so these are not necessarily her opinions — for letting me post this photo of her with Jackson and me, taken when she came to visit us in January. Katy — who, yes, is childless — has been a close friend for 18 years. She lives in Chicago, but we see each other a few times a year. Jackson was smitten as soon as he met her (doesn't hurt that she's beautiful, and great with children to boot). — wendy]