Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Friendships in Different Seasons

In hindsight, friendships seemed much easier at high school. Generally everyone is in the same stage of life – having crushes on boys, getting braces, getting periods, cursing pimples, thinking about what you’re going to do when you graduate. The biggest thing that threatens friendships is boyfriends. Generally the single friend knows that they just need to wait patiently and their good friend’s relationship will soon be over and they will have girl time again.

But after high school, everything changes. People go their separate ways. Busyness and different life paths take a strangle hold on relationships and threaten to tear them apart. You go from seeing your best friends every day to battling to see them every few months. Then there’s the financial gap. Some will quickly secure well-paying jobs and struggle to relate to their friends who chose full-time study. Then there’s the relationship gap. Some will marry and get swept up in the ‘couples crowd’, while their single friends either live it up solo or mourn their lack of attachment. Then babies come along and the chasm widens.

Yes, I think it’s babies – not boys – that prove the test of a friendship.

That’s not to say I resent my friends for having kids. Nor do I resent their offspring for being there. But it does make friendships rather tricky.

Why Babies Come Between Best Friends is a really good article which attempts to explain both sides – the friend with no kids and the parent. So much misunderstanding can occur when your good friend has children.
I guess the parent is the one who has experienced both sides. They know the feeling of being childless and also the trials and responsibilities that come with having kids so therefore they can probably relate more than the childless person.

We are often unsure what to do with friends who are in different stages of life. Rather than simply seeing life’s changes as a challenge, we see them as an insurmountable barrier to friendship. I don’t need to have kids to want to maintain a friendship with friend who has kids. Sure, it might be EASIER if I had kids too (more understanding, sharing problems, kids could play together while we talked), but I see having friends in different stages of life as a GOOD thing. It helps us step out of our little clone world of only socialising with people like us, and attempt to understand others. If you’re a parent, then having childless friends is a good reminder that there are other topics worth discussing besides kids. If you’re childless, then it can be very interesting and helpful watching your friends in their role as parents and seeing how they interact as a family.

Here are what I think are the perspectives of both camps. I can’t relate to the parent camp because I’m not in that stage of life yet, but I can go on what many of my friends who have kids tell me.

Single/Married With No Kids
When you’re single, your friends are a huge part of your life and provide the social interaction and emotional support that we all need. When their good friends marry off, it can be really hard for single people. They’re watching their friends gain more while they’re left behind with less.

Also, parents need to realise that not every single or DINK (Double Income, No Kids) is unhappy in their stage of life. While I was unhappy in my single days, I resented the constant question, “So when are you getting married?” Now I’m married, the constant, “When are you having kids?” annoys me even more! When I meet up with my friends who are parents, I don’t want them asking when I’m going to be like them; I just want them to accept the stage of life I’m in and that I’m content with my lot at the moment.

Unfortunately I’ve found forming relationships with some mums hard going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I don’t want to be friends with mums, or that all the mums in my life are cliquey and exclusive. Some of my really good friends are mums and our friendships survive and thrive because we don’t see the kids thing as a barrier. But not all mums are like my good friends. Some only appear to want to hang out with other mums and discuss poo and nappies and labour stories all day. Some seem to resent the ‘freedom’ my childlessness brings and make snide remarks such as, “Wait ‘til you have kids.” etc, making it sound like parenthood is an absolute nightmare, but then they can’t not see me without asking if I’m pregnant yet. I’ve also heard one of my friends (who is in a relationship) say that she is sick of mums implying that they are the only ones who know what hard work is. I don’t doubt motherhood is hard work, but my friend is a carer at a nursing home, she works long shifts, but loves her job and the dignity she helps bring to old people at the end of their life. Motherhood may be 24/7 but that doesn’t mean other work is not difficult or valuable too – just in different ways.

It’s sad but I’ve started to stop hanging out with groups of women who are all mums and I’m the odd one out. I love hanging out with women who are in different stages of life and celebrate the fact that we’re all WOMEN, or we’re all CHRISTIANS or we all like the same books. But some women only want to talk about what divides rather than what unites. I had the experience a couple of months ago of being with a group of young mums who did nothing but talk about their kids the whole time. It’s not that I’m not interested in their kids or grossed out by labour stories, but it meant that I was sitting there feeling like I might as well have been a hat rack in the corner because I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. When they noticed I hadn’t said anything for quite a while, they said, “Oh sorry, Sarah.” I explained (gently…yes I can do gentle) that I wasn’t grossed out by labour experiences, but I would appreciate the topic being changed to something that all of us could relate to. Two seconds later, they were back to the labour stories and this was after a day of asking me, “Do you like kids, Sarah?” or “Have we put you off kids yet?” I mean, how am I supposed to respond to those questions?

Being childless, I think you’re more aware of ‘women’s groups’ whether it be Bible study or just a catch up being hijacked and turned into mothers’ group or a place to whinge about husbands (DINK women are just as guilty of this). If any good has come out of this, it is making me more aware of how single girls must feel and I do try to steer the topic away from husbands and kids when there are a minority of single women present. I’ve been in their shoes and I know how alienating it can feel. I think many married women are just so happy to be married they don’t realise they’re doing it. And many single and childless people don’t NOT want to hear about families, they just want to feel valued and included. I think this is more of an issue in country towns. Duncan and I were asked when we were going to have kids the second we got back to Dally after our honeymoon. This would not have happened in Perth where most people accept that married couples will generally wait for a few years before starting a family. I just want to be valued as a person and not for my breeding capacity. Let me just say here that I admire single female teachers and nurses in country towns tremendously! They are my heroes.

In relation to kids, the B word is also what can drive a massive wedge between friends in different life stages. Yes – babysitting!

The reality is that many childless people feel used by their parent friends and feel like they are only good for minding other people’s kids. Years ago, a single friend of mine wanted to befriend the married women in her church so she offered to babysit the kids during the Women’s Bible Study (who were all mums). My friend LOVES kids so this brought her great joy, but she was not only seeking to serve, she wanted friendships too. She considered these women to be her good friends, but when she changed churches, only two of them kept in touch with her. She then realised that the only times she had been invited for meals was when there was babysitting attached. She felt these women had unwittingly used her.

Now I’m not telling you this story to paint all mums as evil people who just want free babysitting. Like I said before, I have fantastic mum friends who have never ‘used’ me, rather our friendship is one of give-take, and they don’t resent me for not babysitting their kids. But unfortunately there are parents who are on the lookout for potential babysitters rather than potential friends. Duncan and I feel that if we were to have a family one day, we would not ask our friends to babysit unless they offered or had lots of kids and didn’t mind a few more coming over. It’s not that we don’t want to help our friends; it’s just that we feel completely ill-equipped and awkward to deal with other people’s kids (and no, I don’t think any amount of babysitting can prepare you to have a child of your own). I’ve had well-meaning people suggest to me that if I want to befriend mums, I should offer to do some babysitting or ironing for them, and that has immediately got my back up. First of all, I’m not on a mission to befriend mums in particular – I want to befriend women and I don’t care what stage of life they’re in. Nor do I want to be ‘used’. I think Ali from Something My Foggy Day is right in her post On Friendship when she spots the difference between friendship and service. Like I was told to just ‘go out and serve’ in order to make friends, she picks up that this doesn’t equate to friendship. Certainly friendship does involve serving one another, but the service is reciprocated according to the abilities of the friends.  If it's one way, then it isn't friendship.

I’ve also realised it is harder for childless women and mums to become friends than it is for childless men and dads. For a long time, I’ve had difficulty convincing Duncan just how alienated I feel being the only ‘non mum’ on the farm. There are five other blokes on the farm besides Duncan and four of them are dads. When they get together they talk about farming or shooting or something they have in common. Duncan does ask them how little Johnny is going and they give a brief update, but don’t go into much more than that. It was only recently at a friend’s daughter’s birthday party did Duncan come away saying, “Gee those mums talk about their kids a lot.”

I told you so, Duncan!

In aiming to share the parents’ perspective, I’m drawing on statements my mum friends have made over the years. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how my life would change should I become a parent, and where I would want my childless friends to show understanding.

Many of my friends who are mums say they battle with the isolation that parenthood can bring. A fifteen minute task now takes forty-five. Getting out of the house is a struggle no matter how much they might WANT to go out so it just easier to stay at home (particularly if they have more than one child). Their old spontaneous life is gone and they need to plan their day around feeds, naptimes and school pickups.  In my naivety, I thought it would be easier for mums to make friends because they can meet other mums at playgroup or school.  But a few mums have told me they found other mums would form cliques and exclude them, leaving them feeling more lonely than ever.

Many of my friends with kids use Facebook for some adult conversation and a window to the outside world so they feel hurt when being accused of being Facebook addicts. To them, Facebook is their way of keeping up with friends they may not be able to see in person.

Many childless women are guilty of just letting their friendships lapse when their friends become parents, as if they assume their friend is only going to want to hang out with mums now. Many mums say they find this hurtful. They DO want to keep up their friendships – they just find it hard. I’m just as guilty of this. Sometimes it’s nice just to invite people even if you know they can’t come. It shows that you are still thinking of them.

If the mum has given up a lucrative career to have a child, then it’s good to encourage them and tell them their new role is valued and worthwhile. The world often looks down on women for leaving the workforce for motherhood. Nobody values the love and care they are bestowing on a new human being. Instead they are just criticised for swapping suits for trackies. All I’ve heard some mums say they want is to be considered valuable and appreciated by society for the sacrificial role they are fulfilling.

Another thing mums have said they want is for their friends to help them in the way they want help. For example, I’m not even a mum, yet people coming to my house and putting dishes away where I can’t find them is NOT helpful. Ask your friends who are mums how they want to be helped. They may want you to mop floors rather than hold the baby for them. Of course, not all friends will be comfortable with or have the ability to do everything the mum wants (i.e. babysitting). But you can try and help in practical ways.

Keep coming over to see them even if their house is messy or they haven’t had time to have a shower. Don’t make them feel bad; they’re doing their best.

Take an interest in their husband and kids. Often it’s easy for a single person to feel threatened by these other people in your friend’s life who have taken YOUR place. But not all husbands are idiots and not all kids are badly behaved brats. Talk to them and get to know them. You may find that you haven’t ‘lost’ your friend after all – you’ve gained extra ones.

If I have kids, I could imagine I would find it quite hard. I don’t like busy, stressful times where my life feels like it has been turned on its head. I would find it quite difficult to get out and about. I don’t cope well with little sleep. I want practical help (like cooking and cleaning) not ‘advice’. I hope that if that day comes, my friends without kids would understand and know that I still want to be their friend.

It Takes Two
When one friend has children and one doesn’t, it can really rattle the friendship. But it need not end it. The friendship will only fall apart if one friend chooses to let it. Sure you will probably have to say goodbye to spontaneous trips to the cinema or the pub. Things won’t be the same, but they can still be good.

I used to wonder which was harder – watching a friend you have grown up with become a mum, or trying to become friends with women who have always been mums as long as you’ve known them. I think both can be hard. Both require effort from both parties.

There will be times when one friend may feel they are putting more into the relationship than the other. These times may include getting married, having a baby, starting a new demanding job, and moving house. But while these seasons of change can be demanding and stressful, wisdom is needed to know when that season of busyness has ended. For example, you may not see much of a friend who has just got back from their honeymoon, but things should have settled down after a few months. A friend may not have much time with a newborn, but things are different when all of their children are at school. This requires BOTH friends to stop making excuses and realise they both need to put the effort in.

See a new season as a new chapter - not the end of the book.

1 comment:

Iris Flavia said...

Very good post!

Weird thing is, though... girl-friends and -colleagues around me all have no kids.
None of them!
Even the male colleagues (who all also are in relationships) have no kids.

Only one is Bro.

And hence, I find it very refreshing with Bro/little family.
Certainly a/the Bro won´t ever let you down or make you feel less-valued for having no kids (he tried to convince me to have one, too, forgetting how "old" I already am (and for that, I am too old)).

You make good points - I wonder why over here there are so many women/couples without kids.
Having kids is the exception, it seems...
And this goes for my generation as well as for Bro´s.