A few weeks ago, I read a post on Offbeat Mama entitled “What to expect when you’re the first of your friends to have kids.” About friends’ reactions, the author writes: “Many people will be helpful and understanding, other people just aren’t interested in hanging out with your kids and that’s okay…although it does mean that you’ll probably see less of them.” Numerous commenters lamented losing most of their friends after becoming parents. Others claimed their lives didn’t change much at all when they had babies and they “managed to keep most of [their] friends by not being dicks about being parents.”
We were in the former group. We were total dicks about being parents.
Just kidding. But we did lose a lot of friends.
After three days of labor, when my midwife finally sluiced my first son up onto my chest, I burst into tears. I was so happy to see him and hold him and nuzzle his head fuzz but I was overwhelmed by the unforeseen realization that it was my new 24 hour job to keep him safe in this big, old, angry world. Two days later, the hospital nurses made sure we watched the “Don’t shake your baby” video, tossed me a few extra ice pads, and sent us home. I remember being wheeled out to the car, tiny pink baby snuggled in my arms, thinking, “You’re just going to let us leave? With this needy, fragile, newborn child? ALONE? With a “Good luck!” and a “Don’t shake him!”? What about all the people who are totally incapable of caring for newborns? What if we’re those people?”
That night, we tried four different outfits before we settled on the right sleeping clothes for our baby. Dressing and undressing a newborn is not easy. They don’t like it, especially if you won’t stop. When we decided on a long-sleeved sleep sack, I noticed our baby’s breathing was ragged. He paused a lot between breaths and then gulped for air. Something was wrong. What had we done? I ran to get our baby manual which informed us that uneven, loud, raspy breath is normal in newborns. Oh. This didn’t stop me from listening in the dark for his inhales and exhales, and often putting a hand on his chest to feel it rise and fall for added security all that night long, and any time he slept for the next six or ten months.
I spent most of my time as a new parent struggling to distinguish mother’s intuition from mother’s anxiety disorder. Everywhere I turned lurked a new, previously unconsidered danger. Is there such a thing as a freak wind that whips up suddenly and rips babies out of arms? (Perhaps.) Could my tea tree oil body cream seep into my bloodstream and poison him through my milk? (It’s still unclear.) Even when I left him home with my partner and went out alone, I checked and rechecked my son’s car seat to confirm that I hadn’t forgotten that he was with me, petrified that I would accidentally leave him to die, screaming, in a boiling car.
Friends were excited with us when the baby was an idea, a distant future reality symbolized by an absurd hump on my front, his wants and needs and bodily fluids managed quietly by my trusty uterus. I think we imagined that hazy future reality to include plenty of hanging out at friends’ houses, festival-going, and lazy afternoons at the park, throughout which the baby would giggle and stumble around happily while we caught up on our social lives. My partner and I were grateful to have such awesome friends, each one embodying a unique combination of our favorite qualities. These people were the role models of our dreams. Our kid was going to be so lucky to grow up around them!
But when our son arrived and new parenthood was nothing like the dopey feel-good fantasy we imagined, when he didn’t sleep longer than two to three hour stretches for his entire first year which meant that I was persistently sleep-deprived or as good as drunk that whole time, when that sleep deprivation and anxiety led me to dread taking the baby anywhere unnecessary, when my partner’s dissertation work faltered, when our marriage cracked under the stress of all of this and we were too ashamed to reach out, my partner and I unconsciously shrank inside of our house, vaguely assuming we would emerge one day when things were easier, when we felt more in control and better rested, to find our friendships intact and waiting.
There were a few friends who broke down our door to get to us, long after the initial flurry of newborn visitors dissipated. They were pushy and insistent about bringing over meals, holding the baby, and regaling us with their life news. I was worried at first about how their intrusions would affect our tenuous baby schedule, and I was embarrassed to be unshowered and haggard almost always, but these concerns gave way to 100% intense gratitude. It was such a relief to hear about life outside the baby vacuum, and to be a friend again, however anemic it was compared to my pre-baby version.
I’ll always be grateful to those mighty few that forced our friendships in our son’s first year. But, in a way, they caused me to feel conflicted about everyone else. When someone who used to be one of my best friends accused me of ignoring her and being self-obsessed six months post-baby, I was shocked and angry and heartsick. She hadn’t come over once since the baby was born. She had no idea what I was dealing with. At the same time, I felt guilt and shame. I worried that maybe she was right. Maybe parenthood was only an excuse and I had always been a selfish and inconsiderate person. Maybe that explained why I was such a mess of a mother, and failing as a partner too. My friend and I talked it out over email and seemed to reconcile briefly only for our friendship to explode permanently in an ugly, public Facebook altercation. I imagined that other friends shared her assessment of me, and I began to feel a bitterness toward all of those who’d claimed they’d be there and then were not.
But that wasn’t fair. While we were holed up with our baby and hanging on for dear life, our friends’ lives were going on. They were busy with their own relationships, their work, and their life events. We missed celebrations and memorial services and break-ups, and generally failed to provide the kind of regular support and attention our friends deserved. It was too much to expect our child-free friends to understand the total life reconfiguration that comes with being new parents, even if a select few did intuitively get it, or pretended to, especially when there are other kinds of new parents out there who don’t seem to change much at all. The Offbeat Mama commenters who gloated about how they take there babies any and everywhere? They have easy babies. Lucky them. I know those exist because our second one turned out that way.
I’m sad that we moved away from Atlanta before we had time enough to attempt salvaging the postpartum wreckage of friendships past. But now that I’ve made it out of the vortex of new parenthood, I have a calmer and clearer perspective on those first years and their casualties. If I had that time to do over again, I would google less and invite people over more. I would get out of the house with my partner and friends when family members were available to babysit. But mostly I would remind myself what Offbeat Mama’s fearless leader, Ariel, mentioned in the aforementioned post’s comments:
It doesn’t have to be a tragedy when people find themselves heading on paths that diverge. Send postcards back and forth — how are things going down that path I didn’t take with you? These communiques can be dispatches from a you who might have been.
Your life and the lives of your friends will shift in unpredictable ways. It’s natural, it’s awesome, and it means everything’s proceeding along exactly as it should. That’s called personal development, and it’s not something to be afraid of — it’s something to expect, embrace, and enjoy.
Release yourself and your friends from the bondage of naive expectations, defunct plans, and the starry-eyed fantasies of yore. None of you knew what to expect pre-baby, maybe least of all your friends. Change is hard and can be painful for everyone. But in this case, for you at least, it is infinitely worth it.