By Ruby Roberts
Every parent knows that your post-kids world is utterly different to the one you had before, but what about friendships? Did your network of friends expand or shrink? Did your friends procreate around the time you did? How did your friendships with childless friends fare? Did they survive the dramatic change in lifestyle and schedule? For me, no single event has transformed my experience of friendship as much as motherhood. I think I’m more selective, but hopefully I’m also a much better friend as well.
As a young adult, I had a bit of a golden age socially. I was a slow bloomer, through high school I felt awkward, and like I could not understand the complex dynamics and undercurrents of power that existed in my group of friends. I guess plenty of people experience their teens like that. But I hit my twenties, and suddenly it felt like half the world was my best friend. Everyone fascinated me, I was open to anyone and anything. I had all kinds of shady characters crashing on my couch in my 90s share houses, and some of them became friends too. I have never felt so social or so strongly attracted the constant stream of people in my life. I also had poor filters and probably got close to a few people I should have kept at arms’ length… but that’s part of being young, right?
I was also fiercely independent and considered it a virtue. I didn’t want to burden anyone, nor did I particularly want anyone to burden me. I took that freedom to be independent and not lean on others as a given. I was strong, and proud of that strength. My whole ethos was of being autonomous, and most of my friends were the same. Our relationships were passionate, and we had a great time, but we didn’t lean on one another. Dependency was considered undesirable and weak, ‘needy’ even. A turn-off. I was dimly aware, perhaps, that some people might not be capable of living as independently as I did. I stood up on buses for elderly folk and pregnant women. But I don’t think I realised just how flawed my thinking was until I became a mother.
I remember being pregnant and playing on the beach with my friend. She had a camera with a fish eye lens, and I was running about on a beach in Byron Bay, stark naked. I had no idea what was about to happen to my life.
Soon after that, the midwives at hospital asking me whether I had plenty of support for after the baby was born. I thought it was sweet of her to ask, and offered back a breezy ‘yes’ – I’d be fine. Honestly, in hindsight, I know that I didn’t have a clue what the bleep she was talking about.
Motherhood. What a trip, huh? And for many of us, what a shock. Unless you get angels for children from day one until the end, you need to lean on others, and hard, too. In return, you need to be able to let others lean on you. The whole dynamic of friendship changes. At least, that was how it was for me.
I had one close friend, who was at my birth. She was a breastfeeding counsellor and she was amazing, staying around for the first week or so and cleaning the house, gently supporting me through those agonising first few days of cracked nipples and the shock of broken sleep. She was wonderful. A true and rare friend. I will always be grateful for you, Jenny.
For many new mothers, they leaned on their husbands for support, and this alone was enough to stretch even the strongest of couples sometimes.
I didn’t have a husband to lean on. For all intents and purposes, I was pretty much a single parent from day one. Suddenly, all my dearly held beliefs about independence got a swift boot out the window. I needed to face that I needed help from other people. Trouble was, I had no idea how to do that. Lean on others. None of my friendships were based upon that, and I had no idea how that was supposed to happen.
Making life even more interesting, my son was the type of baby that wanted to be cuddled 24 hours a day, and he was like it from birth. I made a few feeble attempts to get him to lie in a pram, but he wouldn’t have it. He hated it. He wanted to be held. In many ways, that suited me. I strapped him into a sling, breastfed him whenever he wanted it, slept with him and devoted myself to him. I even lay on my back all night for several months, so he could lie in his favourite position, on top of me, on his tummy. No doubt the SIDS folks would have a few things to say about that, but it seemed to ensure the soundest sleep. A nervous first time parent, I think I was aware of his every erratic little baby breath. I felt safer. I read William Sears’ books about attachment parenting. I read the Continuum concept. Given my son’s temperament, it seemed like the most logical way to have him.
Trouble was, I could never figure out how to cook or have a shower. I tried showering and holding him, and he screamed. I tried putting him in a pram and talking to him. He screamed. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone for help, so I took to sponging myself down with a bucket of water, babe strapped to me the whole time.
It was almost comical, how dreadful I was at reaching out. His dad began taking him for an hour a day, but then when he went overseas, I was back to the original logistical nightmare of cooking and showering. I joined a gym that had a creche and that enabled me to shower every day and get some exercise. I think then, I realised that perhaps despite enjoying an active social life, my friendships were missing a certain substance that I craved; a solidness and maturity. I needed to feel that there were people in my life wanting more from friendship. And I was rubbish at it.
I did not see this coming when I was pregnant and frolicking in the waves. I have no idea if my experience is common, but for me, motherhood forced me to re-calibrate my whole concept of friendship; what it means to have and to be a good friend. I realised that while there would be many people who I could enjoy as people, but only a handful of these were people I could rely on to be there for me in any practical sense when I needed a hand. Similarly, as an overwhelmed single mum of a youngster, I felt that I could not give this kind of support to more than a handful of people. In fact, for a while there, I felt so maxed out that I felt like I had nothing left for anyone else. This in turn made it difficult for me to reach out for support, as I felt I had little to offer and this made me feel guilty as hell.
Quite frankly, I feel like I went through an absolute crisis. I did not know how to make the give-and-take style of friendship I desperately craved. I realised how little I’d known as a young woman who prided herself on her autonomy and independence. I began to notice all the people in the world for whom independence was neither possible nor desirable. People with disabilities. Elderly folk. Teen mums. People with mental illness. So many people who really needed a more interdependent community in order to thrive. And, of course, us mothers. We need each other, mums. We do!
I wonder, how many mums have this experience? Am I alone in finding that it totally changed my whole way of interacting with the world at large?
I remember this one time I got together with two old friends of mine from my activist days. By this stage, my boy was a very active toddler, wanting to stuff everything in his mouth, poke dogs in the eye, touch lightbulbs. You know the drill. That period when you put gates everywhere and put your CD collection up very high. We lay blankets down on the beach, and while my friends whiled away the hours sunning their legs and napping, I tried to maintain a conversation in between chasing him and stopping shells and sand from going in that ever-curious mouth. We were there for a good few hours, and bless them, my friends seemed completely oblivious to my running around – or they noticed, but only inasmuch as they noticed that their friend no longer gave them the full and undivided attention they were accustomed to.
By the end of the day, I was feeling frustrated and hyper-aware of the huge chasm that had opened between my old social scene and my current situation. Looking back, I can see that they were just unaware, and honestly, I might well have done the same thing before I became a mother. I realised our needs were completely different. They wanted a friend to have fun and conversation with, and I couldn’t fulfil that role, and I needed understanding that they couldn’t possibly give me either.
They remain my friends, and I like them as much as ever. There are no hard feelings, and when their time comes, I hope I will be there with a casserole. When I’m not mummy, I still love those discussions we had together. I still very much enjoy their company. But our friendship has limits on both sides now, due to our changing lives.g
Fast forward a few years and I’m slowly getting the hang of things. I have an older child, a supportive partner and I feel in a much better space for the kind of friendships I want to create. MamaBake has been a really helpful support to me – big batch cooking and meeting other mums has helped me see a new style of interaction, one that benefits us now, and will continue to benefit us in old age. I’ve joined a community garden, and I’ve really enjoyed the simple joys of helping each other out, chatting over the weeding and swapping seedlings and produce.
Recently I’ve met a friend who is a natural at this reciprocal, practical kind of friendship. We help each other out with school runs and taking each other’s kids when one of us has to work. I’m learning to receive help and support and not feel guilty, knowing that I can offer it freely as well. We also enjoy lots of wonderful discussions while our boys play together. Oh, I still feel guilty, but I’m getting better. She’s teaching me a lot.
I still have many of my old friends, but I accept also that the friendships I share with them are a very different kind of friendship and that’s okay. We will always share a history and fun times, but at this stage in my life, they are best as people to have fun with on Facebook and things like that. Finally, I am also at a stage in my life where I tend to go for quality over quantity. I enjoy the company of many people, but I select and nurture a few friendships. I’ve realised that there is only really a handful of people who would be there for me no matter what, and I really try to let them know that I will be there for them, too. Maybe it’s working in a care industry, but I realise how important it is to really cherish these friendships – put the effort in now. One day we will be old and frail, and we will need one another more than ever.