Parenthood tests relationships quite like nothing else can.
I’ll never forget the day my girlfriend became pregnant.
Not just because of the excitement that came with her announcement, but because of the unique vow she made, not to let motherhood turn her into one of ‘those’ parents whose entire identities are wrapped up in their children, and not to let it affect our friendship.
A year later she was walking and talking to a different tune. Try as she did to veer the conversation back onto our usual topics of sex, gossip and plans for our next night out, it eventually made the inevitable journey back to her bouncing new baby. And I didn’t blame her. After all, her life had dramatically and irreversibly changed and she was, like most new mothers, spending every waking moment (which was a lot, considering the few snatched hours of sleep open to her between three-hourly breastfeeds) with her baby. Understandably her baby had become her main source of conversational fodder.
Over the years I’ve watched friends who’ve made being sociable look like a religion take the journey down the parenting path never to be seen again. Not for lack of trying, but because ultimately, their priorities changed once there was a little human relying on them for every second of its life and the ability to simply drop everything and meet up for cocktails was, quite laughably, impossible.
On the odd occasion we did catch up, always on their terms, usually at a park or their homes during breastfeeding and bathing the bub – because, after all they had a child to care for, what was my excuse? – the conversation inevitably became dominated with talk of motherhood or they fawned over their child so relentlessly that I wondered why I’d even been invited.
When another of my few remaining childfree friends recently announced she was expecting, it was a bittersweet moment. Knowing how long she’d been trying and how much effort she’d gone to to get her life and her husband’s life to a place where they were both fully equipped to welcome a baby into the world with no regrets, my heart welled up with happiness for her. I knew, unquestionably, she’d make an incredible mother and had the life experience behind her to take it on with open arms.
But I also experienced a deep and profound feeling of loss, because in that moment I knew our friendship was over. Not because either of us would intentionally or immediately cut one another off, but because I knew, like she would soon know, that eventually her baby would override the activities we’d built our friendship on, like spontaneous nights out, going for weekends away together, meeting up to compare notes from our sex lives over wine after work and sporadic long conversations on the phone about our respective relationship woes.
Despite every good intention you may have as an expecting mother, once your child comes into the world and you are its only source of food, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, friendships are going to take a backseat. And however badly you may think you’re going to be different and keep your pre-baby lifestyle, it’s simply not feasible. Mommy blogger Christine Skoutelas wrote of this very challenge in her popular Huffington Post article last year, Once We Become Parents We Don’t Want to Hang Out With You Anymore.
“No parent wants to deal with a kid who is dehydrated, has low blood sugar, is exhausted or has sh*t his or her pants…This means that the noon lunch dates, 4pm coffee dates or dinners out at any time are really, really hard to swing…Even if it works out okay, it leaves us exhausted because it gives us a heart attack worrying whether our selfish choice will result in having to calm our child who is screaming bloody murder and/or having to clean urine or faeces off of a public bench.”
An older friend of mine whose children are now fully grown explained it best when she said, “It was three years before I got to go to the bathroom on my own. You don’t realize how much you take for granted till those privileges are gone. Imagine bearing down to take a dump while holding another person on your lap and you have some understanding of how completely and utterly all-consuming being a mother is.”
I have upmost respect for mothers, I can’t begin to imagine what it takes to make the sacrifices they do every day for their kids, or what it must be like to shed your freedom in exchange for fostering another life. That takes great selflessness. And I’m happy to admit I don’t have the maturity or want that kind of time away from my husband, our sex life and my social life to do it.
But for that very reason, while I’ve stayed in some vague form of touch with most of my friends who’ve become mothers, I can’t maintain those friendships. Not because I’m uncomfortable around children (I am) or because I care for those friends any less (I don’t), but because motherhood changes your life in ways you can’t even begin to imagine until it’s happened.
Sociologist and mother of three, Susan Maushart’s bestseller, The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t ultimately confirms this notion, candidly revealing the ways in which motherhood affects a woman’s marriage, friendships, sex life and self-esteem.
“The mask of motherhood stops us hearing truths too threatening to face…becoming a mother does change you in significant and irreversible ways…admitting as much publicly means breaking one of our society’s most enduring taboos. Forget the cheery advice of the baby books and postnatal aerobics instructors. After you’ve had a baby, your body will never, ever be the same again. Nor will your mind. Or your heart. Having kids changes women in different ways, but it changes all of us. One woman may be shocked at how selfish she’s suddenly become; how it seems that nothing outside the nursery door really matters any more.”
While I’ll never be able to describe the experience of being a parent firsthand, I have watched family members and close friends do it and many have confided in me while they love their children immeasurably and wouldn’t give them up for the world, if they were to be made to go back and do it all over, they’re not sure they’d want to make the sacrifices it requires again. Because while I still have friends who aren’t ready to hear it yet, being a mother does change you, profoundly and permanently, and of the many challenges it thrusts upon you, letting friendships wither while you devote your time to your child is one of them.
The friends who’ve already done this with our relationships did it for good reason. As a good friend once aptly put it, motherhood requires “survival skills”, so unless you have a large enough income to foot the bill for an on-call nanny and opt to formula feed over breastfeeding, you are going to need to conserve as much of your energy as humanly possible to be with your baby for every minute of the first few years of its life. That is no small feat. I only have admiration for the friends who’ve been able to do it and somehow make it look easy.
And while I’ll always be filled with pride for friends who announce they’re expecting, it will never be without a heavy heart as I come to terms with the fact that our friendship will soon come to its inevitable end. I’m a realist, and I know that while well-meaning girlfriends may tell me, ‘This won’t have to change our friendship, we’ll still see each other all the time’, the reality is it will, and we won’t.