When a friend tells you she's pregnant, 'overwhelmed with joy' is the correct response, bar mitigating factors like being sixteen. Bursting into tears is bad, and yet that's been my response - twice! - when close friends told me they were pregnant. My first thought? 'I've lost them!' My first words? 'So happy for you!'
They saw through my 'happy tears' and assured me nothing would change. But of course things change (they should!) so in my mind I'd already granted them 'friend-leave' for the next 2-4 years.
Six months later I was amazed - amazed! - to get an angry email re. my callous indifference. Turns out what I called 'being understanding' they called 'abandonment'.
It felt like a great divide had opened up, not only in life stages, but also in understanding. So, in the interests of bridging that gap, I surveyed new mothers to determine what's really needed, and 'abandoning friends' to find out why we really do it. Here are the scientific results:
We don't speak 'Baby':
"When friends get pregnant, it's like they suddenly have a ticket to a faraway place called 'Babyland' whose language and customs I can't understand. There, they bond with others who also speak Baby. It won't matter that they're bogans whose kids have weird names, or rich vegans with Baby Mozart - Babyland veterans bond in the trenches of long nights and runny poo. While I stay home, thumbing the brochures."
And yet sometimes our friends need not to speak Baby.
"I love catching up with child-free friends because they don't give you expert lectures on breastfeeding, sleep patterns, immunisations, and controlled crying. I'm so sick of saying 'I'll try that, thanks!'"
We feel inconvenient:
"My friends with babies are stuck at home, desperate for adult company, but catching up is always on their terms; 'Day works best for me' 'Can you come over here? Pram, etc.' When we do see each other, they're all 'TELL ME ABOUT THE OUTSIDE WORLD!' but then they're so distracted I feel like I'm just one more thing taking their attention. I totally understand, but I'd rather just leave them to it, then pick things up further down the track."
We might be a little bit jealous:
"When my friends had babies it introduced a power imbalance. I was envious, but that was tempered by relief when they complained about how hard it was. Then I felt a little bit superior because I could say 'yes, that sounds difficult, now I'm off overseas,' while privately thinking 'you should have known what you were getting into."
And guess what? They know we're jealous, and want us to get over it.
"My fears were that the friends who really wanted kids wouldn't want to see me anymore. However our friendships were never founded on children, so you just accept that when we catch up with our kids in tow, sentences will be interrupted by spew or poo or demands for babycinos, but the content of our discussions shouldn't change."
We feel guilty talking about frivolous stuff:
"I feel petty talking about current affairs or my job to friends with babies because they're now responsible for a whole human being. My stuff feels unimportant by comparison."
And yet new mothers often spoke of the challenge in identity that came with having children.
"Since I had my kid, I feel shy about seeing people," said one. "I want to say witty, breezy things, but what comes out of our mouth is 'xyzblah' because I'm tired and out of practice. I feel like I'm meant to offer something socially, but I can't."
And this: "I have to initiate social engagements because I think my childless friends believe I'll always have a child attached to me, and that my identity is now 'mother'. Our identity isn't through our children. I can still talk about other stuff."
Babies can be boring:
"We're get that you don't want to be defined by being a mother. So by the same token, please understand that we're your friend - not your child's. Don't take it personally."
Yes, you'll get the odd glutton for punishment who loves kids' birthdays, for the most part if we choose to shower your child with attention, it's only because they tell great jokes and their head smells nice.
And we were right! Abandonment is ok ...
"Early on, don't invite us to anything in the evening because it'll make us sad when we can't go."
"For the first six months, your pituitary gland doubles in size and floods the body with oxytocin. It makes everything other than the baby seem very far away. Looking back I wish I hadn't had so many visitors."
... but only for the first six months:
"I've been hurt by friends who now dismiss us as only daytime friends. People assume we can no longer go out in the evenings or breach the 3km radius boundary of our homes."
Should we treat our friendships like a marriage?
Some marriages and friendships are conditional; 'this is how we do things'. Someone once said that in the best marriages there are always several smaller marriages. For that, you need room to move - even if that means the occasional time-out. But in my experience the great relationships are not based on shared circumstances say, but on a deep appreciation and enjoyment of the other's point of view. And that doesn't change when they get a 'Plus One.'
Alice Williams is the author of Would it Kill You to Say Please, A Guide to Modern Manners. Alice-williams.com
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