Where have all my friends gone?

Kylie Orr
Kylie Orr 

Before having children, I prided myself on being a great friend. Loyal, committed, thoughtful, supportive, dramatic (at times), and there for a laugh. I was also available for my friends when they needed me.

In my mind, I was all the things a great friend should be. I still believe I am all of these things. Apart from the available bit. In my former life, I returned phone calls the day I received the message. I replied to emails instantaneously, and was all over text messages like a teenage boy at a Playboy giveaway. I remembered everyone's birthday and sent cards, by snail mail, in time to arrive on the actual day.

Enter children and witness the train wreck. I'm lucky to check the answering machine on the day the message was left. Returning the call happens eventually but often the friend will ring back first, just to ensure I didn't pass away without them knowing. Email is my new best friend. I can reply, even if it's a tad tardy, and if I'm interrupted by small people, I can return later to complete the task. Any friends that are not digitally enhanced, unfortunately fall a little by the wayside. It's not personal, it's logistical. Setting aside an evening for a good old gasbag just doesn't happen any more. Spare time is of the essence and although I love catching up with friends over the phone, I love my sleep equally (or shall I say in my current sleep deprived state - I love my sleep MORE!).

Friendships need time, effort and energy. Strong friendships survive on the bare minimum but these are often the ones that have a history. The friend you've had since Grade Three, who knows you inside out, accepts your faults, looks beyond your irritating personality traits and loves you all the same. They don't mind if you go missing in action for three months and are often a little slack themselves at staying in touch. These friendships, I have learnt, are the gems. The stayers. The ones that last the distance and weather the tsunamis of life. These are the friendships that simply pick up where you left off; the ones to really nurture once you have children.

I hear some parents mourn the change in their social lives since having children. Socialising with their friends who have not yet started a family has become tricky, with changing priorities and conflicting schedules. There is a hidden wish that your friends could appreciate the effort involved in arriving late, muttering incoherent sentences, shovelling down lunch and hiding leaking bosoms under napkins all the while pretending life is blissful and nothing much has changed.

Any friends that are not digitally enhanced, unfortunately fall a little by the wayside. It's not personal, it's logistical.

We were the first in our social circle to brave parenthood. The idea of being the only "parents" in the group completely stressed me out. I was so worried we'd be deemed one of those "couples with children" who couldn't piece together two words and had to be home in bed by 7pm, that I was convinced all our BBQ invitations would come to an abrupt halt. My anxiety was completely unfounded. Instead, our friends embraced our son, who screamed their houses down for the first year of his life. They took it in turns to pat the terror to sleep in port-a-cots around the suburbs and shared our excitement with each milestone he achieved. They endured the proud parent photos over email (I was restrained and would only send one or two every so often) and were kind enough to reply with cheery notes about his adorability.

As they started their own families, the common ground shifted back. Our similar needs made for easier social calendar planning which accommodated our children. The planets had realigned. I'll admit, initially I was a little resentful. For we had gone out of our way not to let our baby upset the social harmony we had established with our friends, dragging the poor tyke out to dinner and loud restaurants, late night get-togethers and baby unfriendly venues just so we didn't seem like a pain in the rectum. Now they all had children, it was "let's do an afternoon thing so bubs can still have his midday nap". Any wonder our kid couldn't sleep - he was wired on social outings. Meanwhile, they all had lovely babies who slept peacefully, responding to their neat and tidy daily routines.

New parents often feel a lost connection with friends from the past. I am convinced a few shards of my brain vanished with the delivery of each child, but I am quite confident holding a conversation that tackles a topic other than my family. As far as fascinating subjects go, pooey nappies, tantrums and sleep deprivation are up there but I recognise listening to someone bang on about something that bears no semblance of interest to your life (anyone ever been cornered at a party by an accountant?) can really damage a friendship.

One-sided conversations that don't show any interest in the other person, as an ongoing habit, are never going to do your friendship any favours. That being said, my children are part of my life and I'm not going to deny that so if I have a funny story to share, then I'll damn well share it. My friends know me well enough to know I can make a story out of anything: the weatherman's hairstyle, the moron who cut me off in traffic this morning, or the possum who nearly committed suicide on our back deck. Like I said, anything. Unless you are constantly talking about your children and the stories are covered in goo and dripping with gush, I don't believe they should be a taboo subject between friends. True friends share their lives, haemorrhoids and all. I am guilty of my eyes glazing over and adopting the Mona Lisa smile as a single friend tells me about her fourteenth bad date for the month, and another friend tells me about her fascinating new job analysing cow dung in country NSW. It all comes out in the wash, I figure.

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Friendships can also be strained when you have differing parenting styles or your friend has a child who you just cannot tolerate. A colleague who I adored had a son around the same time as me. I was stoked. We caught up for the first year and it took me that long to realise she had given birth to Satan. Every time we visited, her child would clock my son over the head with whatever sharp instrument he could find. It reached the point where my son would cry if I told him we were going to visit them. I really had to question how much this friendship meant to be subjecting my child to a wrestling match every time he saw them. I decided to see my friend for dinner, without children.

Making time to see friends is hard but vital for friendships to survive. Some people are more disciplined than others - scheduling weekly catch ups or monthly dinners. When I first had my son, catching up with other friends who had also become mums was easy. We were all home together and could meet for a coffee here and there. However as we each started to return to work, coordinating days off and free time became more challenging. For those working part-time, the days at home became sacred errand-running and catching up on non-work tasks. For the full-timers, there were only weekends and this now seemed to be sacred family time for most. For the stay at home mums, returning calls and emails was a challenge with mini-me's constantly underfoot. As the children grew, clashing activities, kinder schedules and then school life took over the week. New friendships forge with like-scheduled parents, perhaps at school or the local sports club, mainly because there is a common ground and it's easy.

The friendships that endure the changes parenting brings, seem to be the ones that can ride the waves. There is a certain sadness in friendships that fade to the background because new priorities take a front seat. This is not to say those friendships can't be reignited at a later date when life paths cross again or common ground is found. I assume as children get older and less dependent on us, we can commit more time to our friends and find that balance that we all need.

Friendships evolve and at times, disappear. Not every friendship has to be life-long and now I've recognised this, I can appreciate the people in my life, right now. Friends today who may simply be a fond memory tomorrow are still an important part of my life.

The ones who have hung around listening to my bad jokes, proof reading my complaint letters and asking politely how the sleepless children are going, will be in my life forever. Bless their cotton socks.

How have your friendships changed since having children? What do you do to maintain your friendships? Comment on Kylie Orr's blog here.