When Babies and Friends Don't Mix
Becoming a parent can be lonely and isolating and push friends away. It doesn’t have to.
My wife and I lived in Portland, Oregon, in our thirties. There, we engaged in a youth extension program consisting of dive-bars and rock clubs, sleeping in late, going to brunch, and spending weekdays in jobs to which we were not particularly committed. Our friends were the same. Most were single. None had children.
Then, after a couple years of marriage, my wife and I decided to have a kid. And for 9-months we imagined our lives as hip Portland parents: taking our baby to art galleries and all-ages rock shows; hanging out at the Fresh Pot on Hawthrone with the kid cozied up in a baby-wrap as we sipped a latte and read a book; curating an eclectic band of stand-in aunties and uncles from our group of pals, who would love our children every bit as much as we did.
None of that happened.
When our son arrived (a month early), we brought him back to our little Northeast Portland bungalow and immediately locked ourselves inside for a couple of months. My wife was hit with postpartum depression. I was hit with a profound sense of isolation. We desperately wanted company, but our home now felt too small and reflected the messiness of our emotional states. We felt wholly unprepared for guests. On the occasional friend visit, they were less lured into a supportive family role and more repelled by the shitshow of our family life. Within two years, sensing that capturing our Portland parenting dream was beyond our ability and will, we’d packed up and moved to Colorado where a newly-minted grandmother waited with open arms.
In 1957, University of Wisconsin sociologist E.E. LeMasters called birth a “crisis” for marriage. And since that dour characterization, contemporary research has failed to put any silver linings on LeMasters’ cloud of doom. Consider a 2009 Texas A & M study that followed 216 couples over the first eight years of marriage to measure how the birth of a child changed the functional quality of their relationships. What researchers found was that the birth of a child was linked to a distinct and sudden drop in relationship satisfaction compared to couples who remained childless.
Why? Because having a baby is a distinct life change with the power to disrupt relationships. And that is as true for friendships as it is for marriages.
My wife and I experienced one of the biggest contributors to this disruption: unrealistic expectations. In hindsight, we had no real idea what we were getting into. We had assumed our friends would be as invested in our child as we were. And we’d assumed that our day to day reality would remain stable. None of those assumptions were correct but we weren’t doomed to make them from the start. If we’d done the work to interrogate those assumptions, things would have likely turned out differently.
As it was, we were out of balance. Our life with our infant son swallowed us up completely. And as much we desired to coalesce around him as if he were the chubby, cooing core of existence, we didn’t realize how important it was to step away, if only for a moment to remember parts of our identities that we’d buried under burp clothes and bottles.
Maintaining friendships after a baby arrives is a process best begun around the time you put that first ultrasound on Social media. And it’s best begun by having an open and honest conversation about how things are going to change.
This is a particularly difficult prospect for men. We, the traditionally emotionally-muted sex, are lonely creatures. When the going gets rough we tend to close ranks and trudge silently on, internalizing the anger and dismay until its mass produces a gravity inside of us that can feel inescapable. And we can’t assume that anyone is going to see the struggle and help us get free.
That’s not bullshit. A 2012 study out of Britain asked over 1,000 participants to recognize depression in women and men after reading a short behavioral vignette about those men and women’s lives. Researchers found that depression in men was far more difficult to recognize because it was often obscured by masculine norms like toughness and strength. When study participants read of men having a hard time, they rarely considered the stories distressing or worthy of help.
But the truth is new parents do need help — in the form of a friendly ear, someone to join in an occasional round of golf or online gaming, a workout buddy, or someone to grab a beer with. Sure, these may not sound like crucial activities, but they are necessary for a king of adult realignment and an opportunity to vent and get support.
So, new parents have got to be vocal and proactive. If it’s friendships you want, then you can’t expect compatriots to view your internalized struggle as anything other than a desire to be left alone. You have to speak up and get uncomfortably needy.
But what does the conversation look like? It looks like a couple of friends having beers and talking about how to keep from losing touch with each other. That said, there are some important points to hit:
How Involved Does Your Friend Want to Be?
It’s a weird question, sure, but it’s also necessary for helping you manage expectations. After all, a lot about your relationship will likely be changing and one of the best ways a friend can stay connected is to essentially become an extended member of the family. But some people just aren’t cut out for that kind of commitment. Maybe they don’t like kids? Maybe they don’t have the emotional bandwidth for hanging out with a new family? It happens. But it’s best to know your friend’s feelings before you assume they’re going to want to take on a friend/uncle role.
Are They Worried About the Inevitable Change?
It might help to ask your friend, straight up, if they have any questions or concerns about how your relationship might change. This is particularly true for friends who are single or childless themselves. They might have some burning questions for you about your friendship moving forward. Now is the time to help put them at ease — as much as possible.
Can They be a Mentor?
Friends who already have children may be willing to take on a mentorship role. A good way to stay connected is to ask for advice and perspective. Most father will be happy to offer advice and support when asked directly and bonding over raising kids during playdates or barbecues is pretty much one of the core dad traditions.
Can You Schedule a Regular Get Together?
Habits are hard to break. You can use that to your advantage by setting up a regular get together on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. A regular meet-up for a Thursday afternoon beer, or a Tuesday afternoon hike will give you and your friend time to get caught up and reconnect. Building a specific activity into regular get together set a time boundary around it — a distinct start and stop time are helpful to make sure that your time with friends doesn’t eat into time you should be spending with your new family.
It’s important that whatever comes of these conversations, particularly where friends are shared with a partner, that everyone is on the same page. Scheduling a regular hang will get much harder if conflicts with a partner's schedule for instance. And calling a buddy “uncle” so-and-so could get dicey if a partner is particularly fond of them in the first place.
In other words, there are a lot of considerations when it comes to maintaining a friendship after parenthood. But new parents should take on the additional challenge. Having someone outside the relationship who can act as a sounding board and support can have outsized effects on your ability to cope in the first year. So, while you look for ways to maintain your own friendships, you should be encouraging and facilitating your partner’s ability to do the same.
There’s a huge upside to supporting your partner’s friendships too in that it contributes to a culture of balance, openness, and reciprocity in your home. When you both have a social outlet with friends outside of the home, there is less chance that either of you will become resentful of the other for venturing out for some adult time.
Because as much as maintaining friendships is about a single relationship between people who care about each other, in the aggregate it’s about building a community around your family. Because the more people are on your team, the easier it will be to raise a kid.