Anna Whitehouse, 34, has a two-year-old daughter and is the founder of Mother Pukka – a website for ‘people who happen to be parents’. Here she explores why the issue of children can cause a rift between long-term female friends, and what can be done to resolve the tension.
‘Anyone else up?’ That was the Instagram post I threw out into the social media-sphere at 5.43am last Saturday. Within minutes, I had a flurry of likes, hearts, kisses, comments and even follows. There was talk of a ‘pre-6am club’ and weeping emoticons emitting Zzzzs. Plans to meet were made, virtual coffee was administered.
But this gush of understanding wasn’t from my nearest and dearest – the people who saw me through Hyperglow T-shirts and Now 23.
These were mothers, fellow inmates of project procreation and through mundane routine alone we’ve become, quite literally, bosom pals.
I’ve known most of these early birds less than two years, but we unite in our hour of need; usually when our closest friends, who don’t have such burdens, are still under their White Company goose down duvet.
It’s not bitter, it’s simple logistics: I’m in the ‘bed-bath-story’ warzone until 8pm, mainlining wine until 9pm and go to bed at 10pm, waking at 6am. My child-free friends hit the sack anywhere between 11pm and 6am, rising late with only coffee and a commute on their minds. My ‘hilarious’ bathtime What’s App message about an old sponge just isn’t going to wash.
There was a hint of martyrdom in the early days of keeping-the-small-human-alive – ‘meeting for a quick coffee’ with non-mums felt like a Bronze Duke of Edinburgh expedition.
In her feminist tome, The Hite Report on Women Loving Women, American author Shere Hite points out that women “prefer to stick with other women in the same situation”. It’s, perhaps, this pack mentality that’s inherent from the moment you joined forces with your now best mate who happened to like Sylvanian Families.
You’re at your most vulnerable post-partum; your relationship feels like it’s taken a battering, your body is a mess, and your mind has scarpered to some far flung place. And yes – you desperately want to tell your child-free mates the initial horror of it all. But you don’t want to scare them off the locomotion of tears, Teletubbies and tantrums. Equally, you don’t want to dish out the breast pump blather – they’re too sassy, they’re lives are too polished for this social lumber.
I’ll never forget Frank Skinner saying: “David Baddiel has finally found something to be boring about”. Had Frank’s best friend started counting matches for a living? Decided to watch paint dry? No, it was worse, he’d become a father.
There’s the first gummy smile, getting out of the house, taking a shower without interruption – seemingly inconsequential triumphs that feel like Olympic parental wins. How to tart that up? How to equate a smooth boob-to-bottle transition to an epic work promotion? I wouldn’t dump that blather on my worst enemy, let alone my best friend.
“It is best to be honest and verbalise your choices,” says Dr Angela Carter, occupational psychologist at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield. ‘If you can say to friends, ‘I won't have so much time to give to our friendship for a while,’ people know where they stand.”
But how could saying such a thing ever be anything other than utterly self-absorbed?
These days our friends are our family, so it’s no wonder people feel let down when that ‘family’ is suddenly too busy to call or What’s App. In psychology, it’s called ‘equity theory’: essentially if the friendship feels unequal with one party making all the effort, that's when bad feelings can lurk.
It’s no surprise that we’re not up for sharing the loneliness that breast feeding at 3am can bring, when all you have is a mewling infant and the sounds of people falling out of clubs for company.
In maternal realms there’s no room for bluffing, no room for Sellotaping your face together and smiling through the milk duct pain. It’s a world where you can let it all hang out – both physically and emotionally – and mothers realise that getting five hours of interrupted sleep is the equivalent of two weeks in The Maldives.
While many of my closest child-free friends – two are godparents – are firmly ensconced in the nook, there’s no denying a conversational shift has occurred since I’ve become a mother.
It’s a shift that’s ultimately about timing, logistics and losing part of my mind somewhere between 3am breastfeeds and the 147th run of Frozen. It’s a shift, however, that I’m desperate to realign with nostalgic memories of Koh Phi Phi full moon parties and vats of Aperol Spritz (now I’m not breastfeeding).
That’s if they’re up for it, of course.
Golden rules of communication
- Don’t assume your friend has no idea about children. Ask her opinions, share your worries. True friends want to help, regardless of the topic
- Saying ’you’ll never know a love like this’ or ‘I feel so complete’. It’s patronising, isolating and painful if your friend is trying to have kids
- Don’t ask 'Has she got any children?' every time a new name comes up. It says that being a mother is what defines your friendships
- Make sure she realises that while you’re slogging through life, her life is still important to you. If you don’t have the witty chat, ask the questions
- Understand that parents have made a huge effort just to get out of the house – whether for a coffee or a night out. It’s no longer a case of just ‘nipping’ here or ‘popping’ there
- Never criticise their parenting skills, no matter how catastrophic the scene
- Don't wince if a nappy has to be changed or something gets spilt
- Try to engage with your friend’s child. It’s half her, after all