I used to think friends were inevitable. Life had shown me that as you passed through each stage you’d collect a few more. I knew that some would only ever be unique to a particular context, but also knew that some would stick. Making friends just happened. Every place I went I’d find someone I engaged with. Who I could hang out with and share confidences. I had no doubt that parenthood would be any different in this respect.
And then I became a mother. And it was different. I didn’t have a baby at the same time as family members or my closest friends. In fact, no one I was close to emotionally or geographically had one. And everyone I met who did was a new person. They were tired and overwrought like me. Suddenly making new friends wasn’t so straightforward.
I had been pregnant overseas, only returning to the UK for the birth, so there was no NCT group for me, no group of new mothers to confide in, no time to build a relationship with other pregnant women due at the same time. My established friends were lovely and supportive and interested, but my day to day existence suddenly felt so small and at odds with theirs. My concerns were not and could not be theirs. It was a lonely time.
And as I started meeting other new mothers, it didn’t get any less lonely. My perspective had shifted unalterably. I was so absorbed by the adjustment I was making, there appeared to be less room to build friendships. My sense of who I was had been shot to pieces and I was floating in a no man’s land between identities. I engaged in conversations about routines, feeds, sleeping patterns, and weaning. This was the only common language I had with these women, and the conversations felt dangerous. It was so easy to be derailed by someone whose baby appeared more content, predictable or slept better than my own. My ability to have more meaningful conversations had all but disappeared with my sense of who I was. And I started to think that maybe, contrary to my expectations, motherhood actually got in the way of building friendships, and was destined to be a bit of a lonely business. It was suggested to me that some mothers simply viewed other mothers like work colleagues, as a necessary accessory to this life stage, and nothing more. This struck me as a fairly depressing prospect, but I started to wonder if this is how it was going to be.
When I went back to work (pretty quickly) I experienced the sweet relief of my professional identity – a job title I understood, and people who were happy to accept me for who I was in that context. My newer messier and unformed identity as a mother could take a very welcome back seat.
Fast forward 7 years, and two more kids, and things couldn’t look much more different. In time, those new friendships did come, and my professional identity took its place on the back seat as it underwent something of a restructure. Friendships happened as I got clearer, and more honest, about my own relationship to motherhood. And I experienced that sweet relief again, this time as it became apparent that there were women out there who were willing to name the struggles they were having with motherhood, who admitted that despite loving their offspring, motherhood was sometimes the most draining and unrewarding of endeavours, who could admit to being unsure, uncertain and occasionally desperate. As a brand new mother, admitting to this had felt inconceivable, and as a result, prevented me from building friendships I could have benefited from.
As my pre and post motherhood friend, Elle Harrison, acknowledges in her book Wild Courage: as we reclaim our vulnerability, we make space for others to do the same. As we drop our masks we invite others to drop theirs.
It’s the willingness to drop our masks that underpins my friendships with those I mother alongside these days. While our similarly aged children have brought us into one another’s lives, it’s through the sharing of our limitations and inadequacies (over a whole heap of cake, caffeine and wine) that we have made space for each other to do the same, moved beyond ‘colleague’ status and become friends.
If we can’t be vulnerable as we parent, we can’t give support to one another and we sure as heck can’t receive it. That’s why the “how-to’s” and parenting ‘experts’ that I revered during the early days of my parenting career trouble me. Because they push uncertainty and doubt out of parenting, and in doing so, push us away from one another when we actually need each other the most.