6 Friendship Challenges All Adults Face
Unless you happen to have kids who suck up all your free time, in which case, good luck. Here, our complete guide to AFAC: Adult Friends After Children.
From preschool through college graduation, you were surrounded by your friends. There were play groups, carpools, and slumber parties. Day in and day out, you saw teammates, lab partners, sorority sisters, and roommates. That perpetual contact made it possible to develop deep friendships, create new memories, and grow together. But as adults, and particularly as parents, both consistency and proximity are much harder to come by. You are tethered to your children—sometimes literally—and understandably make them your first priority. “We fall in love with our babies, but they drain us emotionally and command our time and attention,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. The fallout: declining invitations, staying home more, and connecting less. Maintaining existing relationships, much less forging new ones, is overwhelming and at times unappealing. “Time with friends seems like a luxury, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Levine. “Strong friendships enhance our health and well-being. They make us better mothers, partners, and workers.” In short, they’re worth fighting for. Let our experts help you overcome six common obstacles.
You’re a New Mom and Feel Disconnected From Your Friends Who Don’t Have Kids.
Major challenges: Your vocabulary has expanded to include words like “thrush,” and you’ve become somewhat obsessed with your breasts. It’s hard for your friends to relate to your new role, and it’s hard for you to turn it off.
How to deal: You are naturally going to gravitate toward new friends in the same life stage—all good!—but keep this in mind: “No one in your life has everything in common with you. Your new mom friends aren’t exactly like you either,” says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy and founder of the women’s friendship site GirlFriendCircles.com. Remind yourself that you had a career and hobbies and enviable pop culture knowledge before you had a baby. “My relationships with friends who don’t have kids are refreshing because we talk about something other than diaper blowouts,” says Ashlee Gadd, author of The Magic of Motherhood and founder of the blog Coffee + Crumbs. (Practically, it will help to hire a sitter for a few hours so you can talk without distraction.) “Other times I see myself downplaying my role as a mother and don’t want to admit that my kids have taken over my life,” she adds. Don’t do that. For these friendships to work, both people have to be open to sharing parts of their lives that the other person might not relate to. Says Gadd, “If I downplay motherhood, I am doing that friendship a disservice. We still need to be vulnerable and honest, even if at times it feels like we’re speaking a different language.”
Your Closest Friend Lives in Another City.
Major challenges: Getting together requires travel, time off work, and childcare coverage. Even phone calls are hard. (“Hi! Me again. I’m between work and baseball pickup. Will be in the car for 12 minutes if you get this!”)
How to deal: Both Gadd and Melanie Dale, author of Women Are Scary: The Totally Awkward Adventure of Finding Mom Friends, recommend Voxer, a messaging app with voice functionality—like voicemail but with no dialing or ringing (i.e., no interrupting or awakening if your BFF is in a different time zone). You leave a message in the app—it’s free—and your friend can listen and reply at her convenience. “Voxer is single-handedly keeping a lot of my long-distance friendships intact,” says Gadd. Dale also recommends finding what she calls “friend connection points.” Read the same book at the same time or binge-watch the same show. “Try to make new memories when you can, rather than just reliving the glory days,” she says. It’s easy to stay in touch through social media, “but you can’t rely on it alone,” says Samantha Ettus, author of The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction. “Set a goal to have a quick conversation on your commute every other week. It doesn’t have to be an hour. No one has time for long conversations. But if you don’t talk for six months, that’s when the idea becomes overwhelming.” Of course, the ultimate goal is to spend time together in the flesh, even if it’s just once a year for a weekend. “Getting away provides a totally different way to reconnect,” says psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends. “You get a lot of bang for your buck emotionally. You get the anticipation and the memories.”
You Can’t Find Time to Hang Out Sans Kids.
Major challenges: Unless your friends are coworkers, you aren’t finding large pockets of kid-free time to catch up. Even a coffee date feels overwhelming when you’re this busy, and missing the kids’ bedtime for an evening event can be a heartbreaker. And when you do commit to something far in advance, it seems inevitable that one of your kids will get sick or someone will be stuck at work.
How to deal: Adjust your expectations. A boozy brunch with your college roomie isn’t going to happen every Saturday, but a monthly dinner might, especially if you commit to getting a sitter. “The more consistent it is, the easier it is to schedule,” says Nelson, who has dinner with the same girlfriends every six weeks at the same restaurant. “It’s easier if people know what to expect and don’t have to research new places. Plus, our higher value is seeing each other, not becoming foodies.” Put the next date on the calendar while you’re paying the bill; don’t waste time with a group email the next day. Dates need not be glamorous, says Bonior: “No time for a leisurely dinner? Well, do you both shop at Costco?” Catch up while you’re pushing shopping carts. When her kids were in preschool for only a few hours a day, Bonior found a way to hang out with other moms and be productive at the same time—by sitting side by side, folding laundry (yes, one person brought her clean laundry over) or clearing out their email inboxes. “It worked so beautifully,” she says.
Trying to Befriend Parents at Your Kid’s School Feels Like Dating.
Major challenges: Just because you all have a first grader and a diorama project in progress doesn’t mean you have anything else in common. Initiating conversations—much less invitations—is daunting.
How to deal: “One of the biggest obstacles is the mistaken perception that everyone already has their friends,” says Levine. “We become self-conscious about approaching new people. We worry that we won’t be liked, that we’ll be rejected, or that we’ll seem needy.” But if you long for friends in the same life stage, school is a jackpot—you will likely be with this crew for many years—so put your insecurities aside. Also, it’s extremely helpful to have a few parents in each of your children’s classes whom you can count on, for everything from logistical needs (“Running late for pickup!”) to social quandaries in your kid’s class. “In the beginning of the year, you need to be deliberate about finding two or three friends,” says Ettus. “Look around and say, ‘Who here has similar values as me and my family?’” To figure that out, Bonior encourages a little reconnaissance: “Go beyond small talk. If you’re talking about sitters, maybe say, ‘It would be so nice to have family in town to help. Do you have family close by?’” In Frientimacy, Nelson explains that the three requirements of friendship are positivity, consistency, and vulnerability—in that order. “Smile at each other. Compliment her jacket. Offer to give her child a ride home,” says Nelson. The more positive interactions that take place, the easier it is for a friendship to blossom. Nelson believes people need to get together six to eight times before they consider themselves friends. “If I was dating romantically and had a great date with someone, I would be shocked if the other person said, ‘That was great; let’s do it again in six months,’” says Nelson. “We give increased momentum to new dating relationships but not friendships. Many friendships never happen because we don’t schedule an event, and you can’t get to the vulnerability and intimacy without putting in the time.”
The Kids Don’t Get Along—or Your Husbands Can’t Connect.
Major challenges: Just you and your friend? Bliss. Everyone else? Bummer. Maybe you have a bossy kid and she has a supersensitive one. Maybe age or gender differences are the problem. Or the kids are fine, but the husbands sit there like bored teens. Either way, family friction causes your friendship to suffer.
How to deal: Certain families will never be the ones you rent a vacation house with. That doesn’t mean you have to give up on group gatherings entirely. “Choose an activity where the kids don’t have to be their best selves,” says Dale. “Go to a big park where they can do their own thing or to a movie where they don’t have to talk.” Use the situation as a way to teach life lessons. Nelson’s family rule: “Anyone who has developed a really good relationship with someone in our family must be valued,” she says. Kids need to learn to be nice to people they don’t necessarily love. And if your friend’s child is mean to yours, speak up, says Levine. Don’t forfeit the friendship because of conflict with the kids. If the husbands are oil and water, don’t force it. Stick to all-family activities rather than double dates and try to alternate them with girls’ nights out. Everyone will be happier.
You’ve Simply Grown Apart Since Having Kids.
Major challenges: Someone you considered a close friend before you had children is now merely an acquaintance. It may be because your kids aren’t the same age or don’t attend the same school, or perhaps it’s because your parenting styles are vastly different and you don’t always agree with (or understand) her methods.
How to deal: “A good measure of whether someone is a lifelong friend is: Do you want to spend one-on-one time with her?” says Dale. You might realize you were friends because you were in the same running club, but you didn’t actually invest a ton of emotional effort. It’s pretty easy to let that friendship go, along with whatever shared activity or interest you don’t have time for anymore. If you feel like you’re growing apart because you’re raising your children differently, try to work through it. Dale likes the “Wow, that’s so awesome” approach. “If another person tells me about her way of doing things, instead of getting defensive, I say, ‘Wow, that’s so awesome. Tell me more,’” she says. Talk through differences when it comes to hot-button issues—screen time, sugar intake, language. Explain the limits at your house and ask how it will play out when the kids are at her place. “Be flexible and open,” says Bonior. If a friendship is toxic or burdensome—and fails the one-on-one test—it’s OK to phase it out. “Half of creating good friendships is getting rid of bad ones,” says Bonior.