A few weeks ago I had a rare childless night out at a friend's cocktail party. I didn't know anyone but the hostess and my husband, so, drink in hand, I spent the evening introducing myself to a slew of new people. I soon discovered that every guest I met was a parent of one of the hostess's children's friends. Preschool, Gymboree, elementary school or soccer camp connected everyone in that room.
I didn't find a single person whose connection to my friend wasn't based on her children. I was no exception -- our sons go to preschool together. If I threw a party, you'd say the same thing about me.
How, exactly, did it happen that the only way I meet new friends is because they're tied directly or indirectly to my kids?
I remember making friends before I had children. I met people in class, at the office, volunteering, drinking at a bar, or working out at the gym. (In my pre-child life, I went out, stayed up after nine p.m. and exercised. There may even be pictures to prove it.) Unfortunately, now that we all have kids, I rarely see these stalwart companions who saw me through career changes, hangovers, a revolving door of bad boyfriends, and endless discussions about where our lives were headed.
I didn't appreciate the freedom of introducing myself to people by my first name and not as someone's mom or stepmom. I had no idea how things would change.
In my new life, I find additions to my roster of confidantes during hours at the library, the park, school drop-offs and pick-ups, music class, birthday parties, sporting events, or by shuttling teenagers around town. Without these activities, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have any friends at all.
Frankly, I need the support of people who can commiserate about sleep deprivation, tantrums or potty training and who understand the intense joy that comes with seeing your child meet a milestone. I like the companionship of people on the same eighteen-year roller coaster. I've been surprised at how much I rely on them and how much more laughter and understanding they bring to my life. I don't need to explain why I'm wearing mismatched socks or why my hair looks like it hasn't been washed in a week. Parents get it.
Becoming a mom helped me settle into my skin, become more generous and leave some of my judgments behind. I'm probably a better (albeit more exhausted) friend now than I was 10 or 15 years ago. That's all good.
Meeting new friends as a parent, however, requires some adjustments.
Apart from the occasional night off to enjoy the company of grown-ups, life now largely revolves around preschool parties, playdates and trips to the park. There's no lack of opportunity to meet people, but getting to know someone while stopping your kid from taking a third helping of birthday cake or pushing other kids off the swingset requires a level of multi-tasking that I don't think non-parents fully appreciate.
Deciding who to get to know at these events also demands new friend-finding skills, like the ability to size up a room quickly -- there's no time for random chit-chat unless you want to get caught in an hour-long conversation with the parent who has already written their preschooler's college applications. After some epic failures, it takes me about two minutes to identify the overachievers and find the one or two moms at any event who, like me, are just happy if their children are alive at the end of the day.
For instance, I met a stellar parent-friend during a prenatal yoga class. I thought a trip to the studio would be a great place to meet other moms-to-be. Instead, this was my first brush with the reality that not all parents are alike. The other students seemed content to walk barefoot in a circle chanting the "mommy song" to unite their consciousness with that of their unborn children. I was just praying for the class to end. When my soon-to-be-pal muttered something similar under her breath, I knew she was a keeper. We met for pancakes after class and never went back.
Maintaining friendships is also different in kidland. Let's be honest, these new relationships rarely involve adults doing adult things. At least, not at first. Parent friendships aren't forged during leisurely walks through a park, trying the hot new restaurant or catching the latest movie. Playdates are the name of the game and time with my new friends usually involves corralling at least two children, encouraging them to share and pretending that the noise level doesn't make me want to bang my head against the wall. It takes a particularly laid-back new comrade, with a high tolerance for interruptions and familiarity with the corkscrew, to carve out some grown-up conversation in the midst of the chaos.
My hostess friend possesses these qualities. Our sons' first playdate involved a couple of glasses of wine and sending the boys to the basement where we let them work out their squabbles without hovering. She and I agree that kids' tussles over toys are much easier to bear when you're properly hydrated. Our laissez-faire approach to childrearing also gives us the chance to talk. You know, like people without kids.
I'm shocked at how hard it is have an adult conversation once you become a parent. With all the trouble I take to find new friends, you'd think I'd want to get to know them as individuals, and not direct each discussion to stories about our darling sons and daughters. But I spent the majority of a dinner party last week describing my son's sleeping habits while a fellow guest filled me in on her daughter's allergies. (My husband claims not to have this problem - when he spends time with other dads they discuss the upcoming election. I have no idea how that's possible.)
Even when I do manage to identify, latch on to and cultivate a new friend, and regardless of the effort I put into this new relationship, I feel like I have to be careful not to get too attached. Connections built on children's lives seem like precarious things. No matter how much I like my new grown-up friend, I could lose her if her child changes schools, picks a new sport, or just drifts to a group on the playground.
How do you maintain a friendship that was built on your kids' mutual affection or proximity if those things disappear?
I want to believe it is possible to become just plain old friends, unencumbered by the bonds of our children. This probably requires a little luck, but I'm guessing the odds are better if you put a little work into it. Find parents who share interests outside of your children's common ages or classes. Carve out time to do something, anything, without kids in tow. Make an effort to talk about something other than your child's latest adorable moment next time you find yourself at a dinner party.
I'm going to try to take my own advice here, because I've grown fond of my handful of comrades in parenting and I'd like to keep them around. They are my anchors in the sometimes choppy sea of childrearing. Just to hedge my bets, until both of my boys leave the nest (fourteen years and counting), I'm always looking for new recruits for pancakes and cocktail-hour playdates. Don't be shy.