They remind me of who I was before I became a mother.
The first time I went away for a writers’ retreat, which was also my first solo weekend away after becoming a mom, my then three-year-old daughter, distraught at my absence, told her preschool class, “My mommy left us!” The news spread like wildfire around the school—my marriage had obviously collapsed and I’d left my husband and kids. When I dropped the kids off at school on Monday morning, multiple teachers and parents rushed up to ask, “How are you?” or “Is everything okay?” Their sympathetic expressions couldn’t quite mask their eagerness to hear about my supposed juicy domestic disaster.
Ahh, the joys of parenting.
Before I had children, I would race through the grocery store, impatiently ducking around the slow carts being pushed by harried moms with chattering kids and privately declare that this would never be me. My children would know how to sit still, and I’d never open a bag of chips in the store to feed them. They’d never, ever howl like tiny, high-pitched banshees. Before I had children, I imagined my future self as an incredibly patient parent, playing for hours with two perpetually cheery children, before cooking homemade, healthy dinners that they’d eagerly and uncomplainingly eat. In these fantasies I was always slender and casually chic, smiling and stain-free.
Fast forward a few years to actual motherhood, and I am that dazed woman crawling through the supermarket trying to remember what I came for, bribing my kids to stop crying with food taken straight off the shelf, moving through life in a fog of exhaustion.
Sometimes I joke that the purpose of having children is to strip away every illusion you have about yourself before you die. There is nothing quite so humbling as arguing with a toddler, or catching a glimpse of your disheveled self in a window and realizing you’ve been walking about all day with an enormous spit-up stain on the front of your shirt. This is when you really need the company of other parents. Who is better equipped to understand what you’re going through than another mom who’s going through the same thing? Who else besides another mother will understand why you felt compelled to stay up late planning a party for your child’s first birthday?
Your child-free friends might be the most understanding people in the world, but they don’t know what it’s like to be awake all night with a teething baby, and they can get frustrated with phone conversations routinely truncated by kids’ needs. I’ll never forget struggling through the flu while caring for two kids in diapers, and getting a call from a child-free friend, also sick, who moaned, “It’s terrible—I’ve been in bed all week.” A week alone in bed sounded like heaven to me!
But like the song we sang years ago in Girl Scouts, make new friends, but keep the old. Don’t let go of your child-free friends because while they may not be able to understand, much less care, about why you’re trekking to every toy store in the tri-state area to find that special toy your child wants for the holidays, they are the ones who remember who you were before you became this frenzied person. And one of the challenges of being a mom is not losing you in the process.
Child-free friends will remind you that you used to care about fashion and stop you from wearing mom jeans. They’ll recall the days you liked meeting for drinks as much as getting sticky-fingered hugs and will urge you to take time to read more than board books. They’ll remember that you have a birthday, too, and celebrating with them won’t have to include piñatas or a bouncy castle. While they couldn’t care less about dump trucks and Sesame Street, they’re up-to-date on world news, and they’ll know the best restaurant to try or the latest Netflix series to binge.
My friend Shelly, who’s child-free by choice, is great with my children, but her primary focus is on our friendship—not the kids. It’s refreshing to meet her for lunch or dinner and discuss everything except parenting and children.
Once, at a conference when an old friend inquired about my son and daughter, a new friend said with surprise, “I didn’t know you have kids!” I felt guilty at first—I adore my children and being a mom is a big part of who I am. But then I realized that not talking about the kids when I was away wasn’t about not acknowledging them and their importance to me, it was about recharging and remembering who I was besides a mother.
Child-free friends offer a break from the all too real stresses of parenting, and help you also focus on a world beyond growth curves, potty-training, and test scores. Child-free friends help you recapture the pleasures of being a woman, too.
As new moms, we need the support of other mothers to know that we’re not alone on the wild and wonderful whitewater rafting trip that is child rearing. But we also need the support of child-free friends to remind us that we can have lives separate from our children if we want to, because before you know it, that rafting trip ends and we’re left watching our kids sail solo into adulthood, while waving after them from the shore.
Rebecca Drake's latest novel is Just Between Us ($16; amazon.com). Rebecca is also the author of four other thrillers, Only Ever You, The Dead Place, The Next Killing, and Don’t Be Afraid. Rebecca lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter.