Common Bonds: The challenge of nurturing friendships in the early days of motherhood

When I was first trying to get pregnant, I suffered a few early miscarriages. Going through that particular kind of hell actually had a silver lining: it led me to join an online “support” message board on a popular baby site, something I probably never would’ve done otherwise. But I didn’t have any close friends who’d gone through pregnancy loss, and there was something intensely comforting about turning on the computer at any time of day and finding at least one virtual “friend” at the ready, available to commiserate and connect.

This group of ours became inseparable, and over the course of a year, we bonded through fertility treatments, pregnancy scares, and subsequent, unfair, heartbreaking multiple losses.

And then, we started having babies.

And this group, which had been so strong despite our geographical, religious, political, ethnic and socioeconomic differences, did begin to splinter, but just a tiny bit. Comments tinged in tentative judgment about birthing choices, small digs about things someone would “never” do or questions met with not-so-hidden sanctimony. Things were changing, and it was hard to watch, but  overall, we were still miles above the typical mommy-chatroom behavior norm.

When I started having trouble breastfeeding, I immediately turned to this crew for help. I expected some judgment, especially as I’d started seeing so much friction in the group. But oddly, magically, there was NONE. There was only support. These friends of mine – women whose voices I’d never even heard, or whose eyes I’d only seen in photographs – reassured me, counseled me, implored me to do what was best not only for my child, but also for myself.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t find the same degree of support in real life. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Wasn’t the World Wild Web supposed to be the cesspool, teeming with anonymous, heartless trolls, whereas the “IRL” people were grounded in the humanity forced on us by feeling someone’s breath on our skin, having their eyes meet ours?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years… why our group was immune to the usual mommy war bullshit. I don’t think it was because we were better or kinder or more highly evolved – I’ve seen the same group disintegrate over political arguments and anti-vaccination threads on Facebook, 6 years after our merry band of miscarrying misfits had formed. No, I think our immunity had more to do with us starting out so different from one another. Unlike most friendships, we didn’t have a lot of common ground. For the most part, we only had one thing in common: grief. The rest of it never mattered. We had perspective.

Perspective, in my opinion, is what destroys friendships. Or rather, the lack of perspective is what destroys friendships. Especially when your friendship faces the hurdle of parenthood. As new mothers, we are all floundering, trying to find our way through thickets of thorny branches. Go to far to the right, you get pricked. Lean too far to the left, you get pricked. Either way, you’re going to bleed. Our friends should be there, but often they aren’t in the woods with us at all, and from their vantage point, the forest looks picturesque and cheery. If there’s someone by your side, swaying in the same direction into the same thorns, you can hold each other steady. But someone who leans in a different direction might pull you too far, topple you over. It’s easier to let go of her hand and find your way through the woods alone.

When I was struggling with breastfeeding, my friends who didn’t have kids yet couldn’t understand why I was so obsessed with what did (or didn’t) go into my baby’s mouth. Others, child-free friends who thought they “knew” how important breastfeeding was, understood why I was thinking about these things, but acted confused when I grew sensitive at their intellectual discussions about human milk. (For them, it wasn’t visceral, it wasn’t personal, it was just what they’d read in Time magazine. For me, it was my nipples, my body, my baby.) My breastfeeding friends couldn’t understand what I was going through, assuming my struggles paralleled theirs, and if they could push through, why couldn’t I?

They couldn’t understand.

But here’s the secret: they didn’t have to.

Friendship isn’t about commiseration. It’s about empathy. You don’t have to have walked through the same thorny thicket, you just have to show up with band-aids and beer.

There are many friendship theories about how like-attracts-like, and I worry that this is never more true than during the mothering period of a woman’s life. Not only do we find it hard to connect with friends who don’t have kids, but we find it hard to connect with women who have kids but parent them differently. That’s normal, I suppose; there’s a human tendency to want to validate ourselves through other people’s choices, and an innate desire to see ourselves reflected in our friends’ eyes. When we seek out new mom-friends, of course we will gravitate towards women who can relate to our everyday experience, and whose discipline, feeding, and parenting styles are close to our own.

It’s so easy to forget, in those poop-stained, exhausting, dizzy days of baby and toddlerhood, that we are more than mothers. We are sisters, aunts, daughters, employees, poets, musicians, writers, readers, dancers, athletes. We are multifaceted. Yet the part of ourselves that takes utmost priority when it comes to nurturing and developing friendships is the part that gave birth. Why can’t we connect with a woman who feeds and diapers her child differently, when three years ago we would’ve bonded quickly and powerfully over a mutual love of Ani DiFranco? Maybe it’s hard to feel close with a former friend who is formula feeding, when you’re struggling so hard to breastfeed because you feel it’s the most important thing you can do for your child – but why can’t you step back and celebrate what you do have in common?

This potent mix of hormones, hopes, fear and ambivalence – this thing we call motherhood – can create amazing friendships. It can also destroy amazing friendships.

I’m pondering all of this, because I am honored to have an essay in a new collection of stories about female friendships, which is available for purchase now. It’s called “My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Loving and Losing Friends”, and it’s part of the phenomenal HerStories Project, spearheaded by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger. Not all the stories in it are about motherhood, but many are, and nearly all focus on times of transition. Each and every story is heartbreaking in its own way, but for me, the ones about motherhood provoked a powerful sense of frustration and sadness. Because it doesn’t have to be this way. These things that divide us don’t need to do so, but they do. They almost always do. Fear, judgment, resentment, pain – emotions that should be mitigated by friendship, but are instead exacerbated by it.

 

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So tell me, FFFs – did you lose friends during your transition to motherhood? Did you patch them up later? Do you have “another ex”?

 

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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