Considering the aisles of books that exist to prepare parents for parenting, one could argue that there should be few major surprises. Yet one of the issues that parents face has to do with their friendships, and the surprise that many male and female parents experience in this realm is an emotionally painful one. Of course, people who have children expect life to change in countless ways. Men and women who become parents understand that their social life will change in a major way once they children. When you have kids, you do so knowing that you will lose many of the social freedoms that you had pre-kids. What I hear from clients in my clinical work – and what I have also experienced firsthand as a parent of two young kids – is surprise about how some existing friendships change or even dissolve altogether.
With parenting, two things happen in terms of friendships: You lose some existing friends and you gain some new ones. Exploring each change further illustrates how the changes are not as simple as they sound.
Losing existing friends
As a parent myself, I can share that I wasn’t prepared to lose certain friends. I expected to lose particular friendships, including friendships with adults who didn’t necessarily love children or who wouldn’t be interested in hanging out with my kids. The difficulty and surprise comes when you end up losing friends you could have sworn would be your soul mate for life. In close and emotionally intimate friendships, you feel loved and you have faith that this friend values and needs you. You tell yourself that your having children doesn’t change the essence of who you are, and that essence is what your friend loved and valued so much. When a really important friendship ends after you’ve had children, the hurt is profound because the change causes you to reflect on a disturbing possibility: Did my friend truly love me? Or was it actually a friendship of convenience?
When considering how existing friendships change, it’s worth considering whether having kids is actually the surface scapegoat in explaining why a friendship goes away. In reality, regardless of whether they have children, scores of men and women have had friendships they’d swear would last forever, and yet many of those friendships ultimately faded away or ended. Is it possible that one friend having kids simply forces the end of the friendship sooner? In other words, even if you’d never had kids, is it possible that friendship would have died or sooner later anyhow?
The mixed blessing of new friends
While having children changes some existing friendships, the parenting experience also brings new ones. When you have children, much of your daily life is devoted to the young kids’ and their activities. Parents often make friends with other parents, of course, which leads to its own unique set of challenges. Specifically, many parents find that they develop friendships with the parents of their children’s friends. The situation is ideal, at first, as all the parties involved get their social needs met. The kids have each other, and you and the other children’s parents have each other, too. But what happens to the adult friendships when the kids’ friendships dissipate or end altogether? In other words, how much should you trust that these adult friendships you have will last?
One factor that makes adult friendships challenging with a parent group is the way that parents also act as agents or supreme protectors with their children. If, for example, your child does something hurtful or inappropriate with your child’s friend, their parent – your friend, too! – may respond in a way that makes you feel as if your child is bad or wrong, or that the conflict was somehow your fault. This added layer of complexity underscores how these types of adult friendships require delicate navigation and realistic expectations for the adults involved.
In my own parenting experience, I have watched as several sets of parents have come and gone over the years as a result of shifting friendships among my children. I have learned that it can be hurtful to trust such friendships too much, and that it makes more sense to cultivate functional and pleasant friendships with the parents of my children’s friends but to not treat these friendships with the same expectations I might have for friendships I create independent of my children.
The takeaway message
Adult friendships are important for all grownups, but friendship and peer support is especially crucial for parents who need their own nourishment as they spend the vast majority of their time and energy tending to the tangible and emotional needs of their children. While cultivating friendships with your children’s friends’ parents is valuable, use caution as you determine how much to emotionally invest in such friendships. In terms of the previously existing friendships that have changed or ended, remember that sometimes a friendship goes away but comes back later. If two people truly have a bond, one that is based on real intimacy and love, that bond may be able to be repaired as life circumstances change.