Good friends are over at cocktail hour. You offer your friend her usual drink. “Can I have water with lime?” she replies, grinning. You muster a smile and rummage up an alcohol-free beverage. Congratulations are in order, and you're happy for your friend, of course, but disappointment pricks at your heart. There goes another one, you think.
Though ever more women are choosing not to have children, the number of child-free friends my husband and I have made has dwindled over the years. Most of our friends happen to be, like us, making a life that doesn't include raising children. We've traversed similar paths—doing creative work, traveling, pursuing a wide range of interests—and enjoyed each others' company. So when several shared baby news, we mourned the loss of the friendship as we knew it. I can see the Selfish Police perking up right now; that's typical of a childless woman to begrudge her friends' parenthood, right? Fair point. But I can be both happy for their sake while missing them in our lives. Because, without fail, when babies came, friends moved on. We've managed to hang on to some friendships—just—with promises to “get together soon,” but others are gone from our lives as surely as if they'd left the planet.
“Having a newborn sucks. It really sucks. You look like hell and you smell like baby puke. You can't string words together. You just stop mid-sentence. 'Who wants to hang out with that?' you think.”
The older I get, the more value I place on friendships, and the more time I wish we could spend with all of our friends. Watching people on the Internet seethe about the child-free makes me wonder if we're destined to stick with our own kind; parents with other parents and the kid-free on our own. I turned to two experts—a sociologist who studies the child-free and a new mother who carved time out of her schedule to sit down with me over tea—to find out.
It seems I'm not alone feeling bereft when friends announce they’re having kids. Sociologist and professor Amy Blackstone of the University of Maine has interviewed dozens of people who've opted out of parenthood. She didn't expect to examine the phenomenon I've experienced, “but something that came up frequently was exclusion from friendship groups that include parents,” she says. Over the course of her interviews, at least half of the child-free subjects reported strain between themselves and their parent friends. “In stories I hear, the parent disappears without conversation. I think most often the assumption is the child-free friend is not interested. If they have been very vocal about their choice, it might be uncomfortable to broach the topic, 'Do you want to see me with my kid?'”
While the new parents do usually disappear, it's often out of their control, according to Brigid Caldwell, a musician who didn't want children until later in life. “Having a newborn sucks. It really sucks,” she says. “You look like hell and you smell like baby puke.... You're so tired and out of it and you think you're a drag. You can't string words together. You just stop mid-sentence. 'Who wants to hang out with that?' you think.”
Caldwell gained a new understanding when she and her husband brought their son home. “For a long time I was the child-free one who lost friends,” she says. But “in retrospect I feel like I was the jerk, not them.”
With a baby that wouldn't sleep, “horrible post-partum depression,” and an unemployed husband, Caldwell was not only exhausted, but lacked discretionary funds. “You have to be really careful about your nights out,” she says. After a babysitter and dinner, “you're going to spend 150 bucks.”
“Everything about being a parent is guilt ridden,” Caldwell says, “including your relationships with friends. Your whole life is re-prioritized. It's not that you don't love your friends, it's just that the timing is off.”
Understanding new priorities is key, Blackstone says. “Maintaining the friendship requires patience on both sides. If you take a broader view of new parenthood and think of it as a major life event and recognize that relationships shift as a result of many life events ... a new job, home, relationship ... it might be easier to understand each other.”
“Some responsibility rests on new parents' shoulders as well,” Blackstone says. But relying on a new mom to take the initiative could be fruitless, Caldwell warns.
“Picking up the phone is the most anxiety-ridden thing you can do. If texting weren't a thing I don't think I would talk to anyone, ever. ”
“It's hard enough if you're depressed to make a phone call, let alone to a friend you think doesn’t want to see you,” she says. “Picking up the phone is the most anxiety-ridden thing you can do. If texting weren't a thing I don't think I would talk to anyone, ever.”
With a newborn in your life “you get in a time vortex,” Caldwell says. “You've suddenly not seen your friends in six months and that's a big chasm.”
So how do you re-ignite your friendship? “The pressure is on the child-free friend,” Blackstone says. “It can really hurt to feel rejected, but if the friendship is important to you, move forward. Be the bigger person.”
Caldwell agrees. Your friends aren't “sitting at home going 'I don’t want to hang out with them anymore,'” she says. As a new parent “you have to spend every waking moment taking care of this animal.” If they do get any time away from the baby? “You need to spend time with your partner and work on your relationship because that's your most important friendship.”
And it's only natural that with any extra free time, new parents will flock together. A lot of research supports the idea that people form close bonds with those with whom they have things in common, particularly things that are as central to one's identity and experience as parenthood, Blackstone explains. Among other functions, these “in-groups ... promote conformity and social control,” she says. “This means that the more you hang out with those who share your experience—in this case, the experience of parenthood or lack thereof—the more you will identify with this aspect of your identity and experience. And this has the potential to create rifts between parents and non-parents.” Remembering you have other things in common with your in-group can help combat this possibility, Blackstone adds. Becoming a parent (or not) “doesn't usually mean they abandon all other aspects of their identities over which you may have bonded.”
Besides, “the trenches” of raising an infant eventually end, Caldwell says, and you can re-connect. “It's not gonna be the same, ever. But it can get back to at least a comfort level.” But you must take an interest in their child, she later adds by email after discussing my questions with her husband. “You at least have to try to like the child.”
I wish I'd talked with these women a long time ago. I let hurt feelings and assumptions get in the way of trying to support new-parent friends.
So when you do finally get to hang out with your friend, it can feel like there's a lot riding on the interaction. Do you ask questions about the baby? I feel there’s an expectation, but also fear it comes off as forced as it feels.
“If you recognize that the pressure is cultural, [you can realize] it's not necessarily the friend's expectations,” Blackstone says. “Go back to this being one of many major life events. Think about how you'd handle it if your friend started a master's program; you'd probably ask about their classes. This is just a new person in your friend's life. Ask what they want to talk about; ask what kind of support they need.”
In fact, maybe the new parent welcomes a chance to talk about something else. Or, maybe they need someone to open up to. “As a child-free woman, I feel I'm among the most empathetic to the struggles of motherhood,” Blackstone says, “because it's that cultural pressure to present the perfect vision of motherhood and family that had an impact on my decision not to do it.”
“As a mother it's got to be pretty vulnerable to reveal that you're feeling challenged or not satisfied with this role that you’re told is the be-all end-all,” she says. “As long as friends are keeping lines of communication open they can be sources of support.”
I wish I'd talked with these women a long time ago. I let hurt feelings and assumptions get in the way of trying to support new-parent friends. After my meeting with Caldwell, I immediately emailed a friend I'd given up on a year ago after repeated rejections. I sent my chatty missive with great optimism, buoyed when I saw the speedy response—until I read the message. It was an out-of-office note; she was on maternity leave.
I'll give her some time, and try again. Next time, I'll text.
Lead photo: Baby, chief enemy of friendships. (Photo: bibbit/Flickr)