On a recent Saturday morning, I took my 14-month-old son to the park. Two other mothers, sans partners, were already in the middle of a conversation when I walked up to the swings. “August is such a pretty name,” one said, facing the other with a smile. “Thank you. We didn’t want to be too different, you know? But we didn’t want him to be like everyone else, either.” They gave each other a nod, their sons sailing through the air with the same rhythmic squeak. Part of me was envious that they seemed to actually want to participate in such small talk — and part of me was relieved that they had each other, so that I didn’t have to.
By the time I gave my son his fourth push on the swing, however, August’s mom looked over at me. “How old is he? Walking yet? Such an interesting age, right?” Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I answered her questions and returned similar ones, all while smiling politely in between. By the time my son and I returned home, I was drained. More than that, I felt lonelier than I had before I had left my apartment.
It’s safe to say that I’m not the target audience for mommy groups, mommy meetups, mommy blogs, mommy conversation. Don’t get me wrong. I understand their function. Especially in the first six months of first-time parenthood, there’s a need to consult, commiserate, do anything to ease the near-mental breakdown after having no sleep and attending to the 24/7 care and feeding of a helpless human. A person cannot prepare for the exhaustion and stress and no one else really understands other than a fellow parent.
But for me, a lot of this mom-confabbing became more about feeding new-parent anxiety than quelling it. If I ever wanted to have some sense of normalcy or free time again, I had to stop searching blogs about whether my son was taking in enough breast milk or checking in with a mom friend whose kid was developmentally leaps and bounds ahead of mine. For all practical purposes, my life needed to move away from neurosis and fear and toward finding a space to incorporate my other identities that I had long adored and missed — as partner, writer, editor and friend.
I have learned to juggle these roles somewhat so that every once in awhile I get a waft of fulfillment and no one gets totally pissed at me. But there are other days when I have an urge to say, “Fuck all this” and run.
Not to the bar like I did in my 20s (my hangovers are too atrocious these days). Not to my parents’ house like I did even through my 30s (though their fridge is still better stocked than mine) but to my best girlfriend’s apartment, the way I would when I was 22 or 31, before I owed anything to anyone outside myself and my friends. When I could text, “I’m outside your door,” stumble in, land in her lap and dissect the actions of some flakey dude I was dating in one breath and Lindsay Lohan’s sex list in another, and then watch “Six Feet Under” in silence over a pint of chocolate chocolate chip.
See, I’m not looking for any new friends now that I’m a mom. I just need my old ones more than ever.
If I could describe motherhood in one word, it would be overwhelming. In two, I’d say lonely. Or rather a consuming, intense love and ferocity to protect not just my child, but abstractly, all children, which is kinda cool.
But back to the lonely part. When someone goes through a major life-altering event, their friends will often adhere to accepted social mores, however unintuitive they may be. Like sending condolence texts when someone loses a loved one, or bringing food after the arrival of a first baby. But as time passes, the gestures taper off. People forget. I may have been relieved that my kid was crying less and sleeping more at 5 months, but every month that followed turned into a pile of evidence that I was never going to live in the same breathable, choice-directed space that I had spent most of my 38 years. Even though I was not the first person ever to raise a baby, and even though I’m very fortunate to have a supportive partner, and even though I do have friends who happen to be moms whom I can talk to about mom stuff, adding defending a defenseless being to an already crowded plate of duties left me with a sensation of drowning. Not gasping-for-air drowning but feeling like I’m a tiny dot in an ocean of nothingness and if I think too hard about how solitary I am out here, I will panic and sink.
“Motherhood is a deeply personal and isolating thing, and people don’t talk about the most difficult parts about it,” said Stephanie Sprenger, co-author of the book “The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship” and the blog Mommy, for Real. “Even if you have someone you’re going to stroller exercise class with, you may not be talking about the really difficult emotional components. So even if you’re not socially isolated, motherhood can be a very emotionally isolating experience.”
Which is why it’s kind of strange that contemporary American parenting culture places so much emphasis on moms’ finding mom friends — incorporating equally tired strangers into an already hectic life to then make polite chitchat with during a time when a woman can barely remember how to communicate her basic needs. But hey, maybe that pal from the Golly Gee Gator singalong will want to talk about the sinking abyss in her anxiety-riddled gut too? Maybe?
In the mommy blog canon, there are endless posts about “speed dating for mom friends,” “the Tinder for mom friends,” “Facebook groups for mom friends in your area,” and numerous, numerous how-tos about ways to hunting down mom friends. (Hint: Go the nearest park.) But few to none discuss the upside of longtime friends or childless friends or plain ol’ friends. Again, I get it: For stay-at-home parents especially, there is a legitimate need for companionship and adult conversation, even if it has to be about a baby — plus it’s nice to have someone who understands what a mother’s daily life is like.
But these new acquaintances who talk about latching and teething aren’t meeting the same needs that an old friend who deeply cares would. This is a surface relationship (which is great because there is a purpose for those, too). But when blogs talk about making connections by chatting up another pregnant women in the OB waiting room, this is surface stuff. Society needs to acknowledge that new parents still desire emotional support from people who already love them, from people who have the energy to give it.
Sprenger said mom friends fulfill “a need for validation, a need to feel less alone in your circumstances,” but new parents still have a “craving for that deeper connection for the people that make you feel like yourself.” Of the mom friends she made after her children were born, maybe only one of them stuck, she said.
“Motherhood devoured so much of my identity that I needed my close friends to remind me who I was, because I was exhausted and making food to feed another person with my body,” Sprenger said. “When you’re reduced to a string of minutia, you need to remember that you’re a human being who existed before your children’s birth, that you used to do things. I feel like that my closest friendships are crucial ties that keep me grounded as who I am as a person.”
Science backs up this physical and psychological need that women have for intimate friendships: In a UCLA study, researchers found that reaching out to others is a biological response and a natural stress reliever for women, as they release the calm-inducing hormone oxytocin when they seek out and engage with fellow ladyfolk. And a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer found that women with close friends were four times as likely to outlive those without a social circle. Friendships can even alleviate the chances of someone catching the common cold — because, again, less stress.
Many would guess that during intense life transitions like new parenthood, a person’s biggest emotional support should be a romantic partner. But what no one will admit is that this is inherently impossible in those fraught new-parent years. My husband is a wonderful man, full of patience and compassion, but he and I are deep in this same war together, trying to get through the endless responsibilities of the day without driving each other crazy. We can be each other’s best practical support, but not each other’s best refuge. Not now, not yet.
Friends provide a healthy escape that child-rearing partners cannot. When I meet a friend for dinner, we talk about the latest Netflix show, dumb celebrity bullshit, the summer stench of New York City and our futile attempts to stamp out the patriarchy. I remember that I’m funny sometimes, that I have opinions about things other than what my son should eat for lunch. It is with my closest friends that I feel like the self I most enjoy.
But while I’m gabbing and swigging, sometimes I’m forgetting about the flip side to this need to be filled back up: I also need to unload the sadness and grief that is burrowing in my same-but-different person. It is essential for my health, for my survival, that I fall apart.
The unfortunate paradox of wanting to turn to friends during times of stress is that stress is one of the biggest tests of friendships. I may yearn for them, but it doesn’t always mean my old friends are super into me, Jessica, preoccupied mother and sometimes a downer. Most understand I’m going to be MIA, that there’s an undercurrent of zombie about me; others probably wish I was more present even when I am physically in front of them. But if I’m being really honest, in the few friendships that have taken a hit, the holes were already there.
One of my closest friends started to noticeably pull away when I was pregnant — to the point where our interactions resembled the forced kind you have with an acquaintance whose feelings you don’t want to hurt by turning down an invitation for coffee. When I approached her about the awkwardness, she told me that she had been through some stuff, too, and I felt guilty and awful that I hadn’t been there for her. And when I said I wanted to make it up to her, she told me that it was cool. “We’re just on different paths now.”
My path to motherhood and hers to not-yet motherhood wasn’t the direct cause of our rift, though. Instead it was instead likely the nail in our friendship coffin that was already covered in smaller nails that I’d failed to notice. The little nail when she ghosted a long-planned date, the little nail when I was five days late returning a voicemail message. Add to that, one party suddenly being devoured by a screaming baby, and the work needing to be put into a friendship, from both ends, might not seem worth it.
But this is #notallchildlessfriends. Being a mom or not being a mom is not the best signifier when it comes to which friends are all-weather, which friends can hear each other and which friends will put in the effort to stick things out. If anything, becoming a mom is like all major life transitions that require some major inventory-taking: When people are in the depths of undergoing great change and feeling self-conscious about falling into such depths, they’re forced to figure out which friends they can still really connect with.
I asked the friend I see the most, my BFF whom I often turn to for those nights of goofy, stimulating conversation (who also happens to be kid-free) if I’ve become a shittier pal and how I could be better. I expected her to say that I wasn’t around as much, but I didn’t expect her to say this: She was hurt that I hadn’t taken her up on her multiple offers to watch my kid. She knew how stressed out I was and thought, because of my rejection, I didn’t trust her.
Oh boy, was that ironic. There was nothing I wanted more than to have someone unload my burden, but I’d assumed her offers came from politeness. During our nights out, I barely touched upon my feelings of drowning, how desperate I was to break down. I didn’t want to be the boring mom friend who complained too much. I wanted to be the adult who got herself into this mess and would handle it alone. But the one thing I needed, the one thing I was afraid to show — that I needed a space to fall apart because I could not do it all — had put a silent wedge in our friendship, and it was the thing she was willing to give.
“To survive friendships, you’re gonna have to have these difficult conversations,” Sprenger said. “‘I’m self-conscious about what motherhood has done to me, or you’re not calling me because you’re assuming I’m too busy.’ Women, in our romantic relationships, many of us will belabor all the insignificant tiny points with our significant others, but we don’t do that with our friends because it’s uncomfortable.”
It seems that what I wanted and what my BFF wanted were basically the same thing: the unwavering, gushy, messy part of friendship that exposes all of our greens and grays — not just the catching-up over drinks or random texts.
Women can forget that our friends can be a safe haven for our vulnerability. We just have to be willing to go there. In those younger years of perusing sex lists over HÃ¤agen Daaz, we were a little less concerned with boundaries and looking like we had everything under control. We could say, “Girl, you hurt the shit out my feelings,” or rub each other’s backs in comfort without uttering a word. As unwillingly responsible adults, though, we’ve become so busy with life. We try to coast where we think we can. But all relationships take work, even friendships.
I told my friend that I had no idea that she felt that way. I had taken for granted that her feelings mattered, too. She responded immediately: “Let the village help you raise your child. Fall apart. Nap. Drink. Dance. Love your life, because it’s great, even it’s stressful.”
And with that, my face was flooded. A big messy skin pool of relief, joy, perspective — and disappointment that I still can’t be all the things to all my people. Friendship was another garden, among my many gardens, that I would have to keep tending to. But only a friend who really “gets” you could evoke a release of that strength and necessity. It’s a gushing that vastly surmounts going to the mom park and talking baby names.