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The nature of new parenthood can lead to loneliness, but the weakening of new parents’ social circles is also a result of the nature of friendship. “Across adulthood, one of the most important determinants of friendship is how our lives are organized,” says William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University. When your life undergoes a major change, such as the arrival of a new baby, the structure of your friendships can’t help but change, too. “Friendship is always a matter of choice—we choose to spend time together. The role crunch that happens in young adulthood when you’ve become committed to a partner, [or] you have children, perhaps both of you have full-time jobs—all of these things leave very little time and freedom for friendship.”
For new parents, then, the key issue is the extent to which their old friendships can both accommodate, and be accommodated within, their newly organized lives. “With friends who don’t have children, it can be a bit of a litmus test. Are they able to accept and understand that, in some ways, a child changes the center of gravity of our entire lives?” Rawlins asks. Viewed in this way, change may be inevitable, but the loss of our friends may not be, if we and they are both willing to adapt.
This makes sense in theory, but in practice, it can be tricky to recalibrate one’s expectations of friendship after becoming a parent. On whom does the onus of compromise rest? I came across this tension recently on MumsNet, the U.K.’s largest parenting website and discussion board. A mother with a six-week-old breastfed baby was disappointed that her baby wasn’t wanted at her friend’s birthday lunch. She wrote that she was asked to either attend on her own, or not go at all. In the ensuing melee of responses, both parties were described as selfish: One for wanting her newborn to gate-crash an adult occasion, and the other for wanting to wrench such a vulnerable creature from its mother.
This particular scenario—in which the child is so young and the occasion is a social one—does seem to call for the child-free friend to be understanding, in Rawlins’s opinion. An all-or-nothing mind-set can lead to the erosion of a friendship. But he also sees how a request to leave kids at home could actually be a (potentially misguided) sign of investment in the friendship. “There’s a bit of a compliment to someone saying, ‘When I’m with you, I want to experience just you—I don’t want to dilute it, I don’t want you distracted.’”
Read: Why friendship is like art
Perhaps it is because I used to relish such uninterrupted time with friends that I now find our meetups frustrating. At one recent lunch with a friend, I found myself endeavoring to sympathize with her family struggles while simultaneously thwarting my daughter’s attempts to escape from her high chair. My perennially divided attention is, for the most part, a reality that I both bewail and accept.