I thought I wouldn’t connect with anyone—until I did.
When my first baby was born, everyone—the postpartum nurses, the pediatrician, the lactation consultant—kept reminding me to join the new parents’ group. I understood why the group might be a good idea in theory, but a central part of my identity, for as long as I can remember, has been that I’ve never really been a group person.
Still, close, intimate friendships have always been part of how I’ve felt understood and connected. I was single for so much of my adolescence and early adulthood that my friends and I did a lot of what couples often do. We stayed up all night talking. We drove aimlessly around Connecticut’s back roads. We took long road trips and visited one another’s childhood homes over college breaks.
One of my cross country teammates, Emily, and I once went to a prix-fixe dessert tasting at one of the fanciest restaurants in Chicago. This was the kind of place that people went on dates, and when I’d called and made a reservation for two, the host must have assumed we would be a well-dressed couple celebrating a special occasion—not two 20-year-olds carrying their wallets and transit cards in free college tote bags. The hostess seated us and rushed to get a second purse stool for our table. We laughed until our cheeks hurt seeing our limp, dirty tote bags elevated on matching upholstery.
But, when I was pregnant with my daughter, Emily was across the country in California. Most of my other friends didn’t have kids... and many of them didn’t plan to.
A lot of women become mothers. Women I never would have considered potential friends: women who’d never use a free tote bag, let alone bring it to a five-star restaurant, women who don’t care about books, or women whose husbands are nothing like my own. This was precisely why the idea of joining a group whose only common trait was motherhood seemed so superficial to me.
But, I soon found that the ways I was changed by becoming a mother were not superficial. This started in labor. I read the pregnancy books, but there was no way anyone could have prepared me for how aware I’d be of my daughter’s—and my own—mortality during labor. Once I’d lived those hours, I wanted to talk to someone about it. I also wanted to talk to someone about bloody nipples and how scared I was of SIDS. I wanted to look someone in the eye who had also come to understand the unimaginable fatigue of those first few weeks with a newborn. And I didn’t really care if this person carried a designer purse or a promotional tote bag. I felt so isolated from everything I’d known and been.
I decided to go to the moms group.
In the meeting, I felt overwhelmed by the impossibility of having an intimate conversation with a group of 20 women. We sat in a circle of chairs in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office, our babies on our laps or sleeping in car seats. Women asked questions about breastfeeding latches and baby sleeping garments and sometimes a question another woman asked was so similar to what I’d been wondering that I’d feel my eyes sting with tears. But, at the same time, I was wondering when it would be time to nurse my baby, if she’d sleep in the car on the way home, if I was doing anything right at all. I was exhausted. I loved my daughter in a way that made any other kind of love or connection seem secondary. I rarely went back to the group, though I often felt the absence of the supportive network I’d imagined it might have given me.
When my daughter was 15 months old, one of the women from the group started a book club. If there was ever a way I’d feel comfortable making new friends, this would be it. As I got ready to leave, I had second thoughts and tried desperately to think of an excuse not to go. I attended only because it seemed too rude to cancel last-minute.
That night, a woman I’d met only once or twice before was talking about struggling to find childcare when she had to travel for a funeral. She didn’t have any family nearby and found it difficult to trust a stranger with her infant daughter. “I know we don’t know each other well,” I heard myself saying—somewhat dramatically. ”But if you ever need help you can ask me.” I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t sure why.
My son was born just after my daughter turned two. I was again home, exhausted, bleeding, and sleep-deprived, with a newborn in New England’s bleak mid-winter. I had neither the physical nor mental energy to think about grocery shopping and cooking. But this time, women from the moms group—some of whose phone numbers I didn’t even know—brought hot, home-cooked meals and left them on our doorstep. I nursed the baby while my husband dished out two adult and one toddler-sized servings of pasta or lentil soup or chicken pot pie. I went to sleep early, and Nick packed up the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Eating meatballs homemade by a woman who I know has been just as tired, moved, afraid, and awed as I am is different, certainly, than enjoying the rush of a long, uninterrupted conversation in early friendship or laughing until our cheeks hurt. But it is no less sustaining.
I’m still in the moms group book club, and we’re meeting next week. We do a lot of the things I imagined—and rolled my eyes at—a moms group might do. We talk about our kids and our husbands, and we drink rosé in the summertime. Some people don’t finish the books. But I’ve come to see this a little differently.
I made friends on my cross country team, my study abroad program, my job teaching high school English. We were runners logging miles, Americans in South Africa, adults in a building of 2,000 teenagers. The hours we spent cementing these friendships on the team bus, around a campfire at Kruger National Park, at happy hour, were also defined by limited or superficial commonalities. When it came to making friends after having kids, though, I thought that concerns of motherhood exist in superficial opposition to the depth of other friendships. I feared quirkiness, curiosity, independence—qualities I’d long thought of as essential in a friend—were incompatible with motherhood.
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Making friends is hard. Harder as an adult, and I’ve found, harder still as a mom. No venture I’ve undertaken, no transformation I’ve ever gone through has separated me from who I used to be. Two women being mothers is not a surefire start of a friendship, just like studying abroad together is not a surefire start of a friendship. But motherhood is a commonality that opens the door to meaningful understanding just like being two American college kids in a city halfway across the world once did. Maybe it’s even bigger. After all, I returned from South Africa and became simply someone who had once traveled there.