I knew that most friendship groups go through two "culling seasons." The first usually happens after leaving your university or college, when those life-and-death friendships forged in the last of your formative years are subject to the whims of geography and low-paying first jobs. Then, just as you think things are all figured out, the second cull begins in your mid-to-late 20s. People start to settle down and get married, the difference in your paychecks and professions begins to show, and you no longer have the patience to put up with flaky friends.
Both of these experiences are huge and upsetting because we define a lot of ourselves by our friendships. But by the end of it, you’re left with a core group of friends who make you laugh, are there for you, and understand you. I was under the impression that this was the last and final cull — but lo and behold, these things happen in threes.
This time, unlike relationships or a job, it was caused by completely different life experience: having kids. I don’t have kids, and apparently I’m part of a growing number of child-free women. A new book by Rachel Pashley, New Female Tribes: Shattering Female Stereotypes and Redefining Women Today, reveals that over 12 percent of women around the world won’t have kids. In places like Italy, it’s as high as 25 percent.
Acknowledge Each Other’s Differences
Now that I’m in my late 30s, not in a relationship, and have realized I probably won’t have kids, there is an understanding that there will always be a difference between me and my friends who are parents. For me, it started slowly. First there was the realization that I’d have to take control of organizing any gatherings. Then I had to start chasing my parent friends down for dates, scheduling meet-ups around nap times, and never knowing if we’d have some alone time, or would their kid be there? Plus fielding location suggestions that no one without kids would want to go to: playgrounds and paddling pools. At 9 a.m. on a Sunday.
The thing is, unlike other life experiences, if you don’t have kids, you can’t fake it. You can’t nod along in sympathy because you have no clue what it’s like to juggle work, home, and a toddler constantly demanding your attention. I still have a lot of respect for parent friends who can occasionally stay out late at night while knowing they have to get up early the next day to do take kids to school and put in a full day of work. I can barely do it with a decent amount of sleep. But on the other side, that reservoir of empathy eventually runs dry.
Sometimes you see it with a poor return on friendship, like last minute cancellations. Or if you’re child-free, you may end up travelling miles only to have your rare catch-up hijacked by their kids. For others, it may be because the "kids thing" is more emotionally complicated than any other life choice. Some may choose to be child-free, some may not get that choice. Unlike the other two culls – where the friendships naturally fizzled out or became so toxic they couldn’t continue – I didn’t want to actually lose any of my friends.
Shift Your Perspective
However, I didn’t feel comfortable telling my friends what I needed because they already had enough on their plates. They didn’t need an adult-sized baby tugging on their sleeves for attention, too. But then I read a brilliant piece by parenting columnist Robyn Wilder, who was talking about navigating friendships when one of you doesn’t have kids. Wilder has two very small children – one is under 12 months while the other is three. She wrote:
"If you can save space in your heart for the friend who’s become consumed by a new relationship – because you know they’ll resurface in the future – do the same for a friend who’s submerged in parenting."
I had never looked at it that way before, mainly because I saw my parent friends making lots of other parent friends. Because we saw each other so rarely, I naturally concluded that they just didn’t want to make time for me because I don’t have kids. I emailed Robyn about it, who wrote back: "Before I had kids I knew it was busy and hard, I just didn't appreciate that even your smallest moments can involve stress and multitasking (currently writing this while feeding everyone breakfast), and everyone deals with multitasking differently. So often it's not a case of a friend with kids not putting you first, or not wanting to, it's just that your friendship has been put into a box with a whole mess of other stuff." I’ve read plenty of pieces where child-free women have ditched friendships because they couldn’t make it work, or saw firsthand how people have moved further apart.
Don't Give Up on Good Friends
But I’ve worked really hard on my friendships – they’ve been there for me in some of the darkest times, and I wasn’t ready to let them go. I’ve started using a three-pronged approach.
First, I acknowledge that friends with small kids may just be MIA for a while, and that’s okay. Robyn said: "Many moms have a biological need to be close to their small children, and get a bit antsy otherwise. So when they're babies and toddlers, it can be a bit tricky. Once they reach school age, people are generally more up for long nights out/weekends away/holidays etc." It makes sense considering kids grow up and become more self-sufficient, so child-free friends just have to bide their time and be patient.
Second, if your friend has stopped breastfeeding yet keeps bringing their kid along, making it difficult for you to really catch up, say something. It doesn’t mean you’re saying you don’t like their kid, you’re just saying that you really like your friend and would like some uninterrupted time. Most people will get it and, to be honest, prefer a catch-up where they can rant, swear, and be themselves. Robyn agrees: "I would have zero problem (if a friend said) this. When the baby is small, it can be tricky, as I've mentioned, but once there's a bit of independence and your friend is more comfortable without them, it's as appropriate as asking to have time with a friend without their partner constantly tagging along."
And lastly, I had to admit I was being a huge baby about all of the new friends they were making. Friendships are a mirror to a certain extent, and you seek like-minded people to talk with about your experiences. Of course they’d need friends to talk about breastfeeding and what happened to their vagina after birth, so who better than someone who had been through that same experience? In the same way, I want friends who I can talk to about being single, or spending money on silly stuff, and for me not to feel guilty or paranoid about that.
So I decided I had to make some new friends and have been very gung-ho about it. If I come across someone like-minded – whether that’s through work or a friend of a friend – I’ll take the initiative to ask them out for a coffee or a drink. So far I’ve made about six new friends in the last two years, which has breathed some oxygen back into my friendship circles. I’m not naïve enough to think that every friendship is going to make it – if that was the case, I’d have more than four friends from my early school days and three from my university.
But I am glad that I’m trying to actively do something to nurture and save the ones that are there, because they are absolutely worth saving.
This post was written by Poorna Bell. For more, check out our sister site, Grazia.