I’m struggling to maintain friendships with people who have kids. How do I connect?

Staying connected through diverging experiences is difficult, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but doing so may future-proof your friendships

I’m in my mid-30s and childfree by choice. I’m struggling to maintain friendships with people who have kids. Understandably they need to prioritise their children but more and more I find myself unable to have conversations with them. I like my friends’ kids, but often end up caring for them alongside the parents when I don’t feel comfortable doing this in case I get it wrong. I’ve had friends thank me for helping them with childcare when I thought we were meant to be socialising.

It’s hard to see incredible women lose their confidence and doubt themselves when they become parents. I don’t know how to support them, other than telling them they’re good parents and not to give themselves a hard time. I don’t want to add to their stress by saying I’m feeling distance from them.

I understand friendships change and I’m happy for my friends who are pursuing these life stages. I just fear that I won’t be able to connect with them any more, especially when they have limited time to socialise and understandably have limited headspace to connect with me.

Eleanor says: The longer you spend in a friendship the more likely it is that your life experiences will cleave apart. That’s just how the time stacks up: as the list of things we’ve experienced gets longer, it becomes less likely that we’ll share those experiences with most of our friends. We all encounter things like illness, death, success, marriage, divorce, depression, self-discovery, fortune and downturns at radically different rates.

Having kids is a particularly visible shift in a friendship: as you’ve noticed, it instantly rearranges a person’s time and attention. But as time goes on, you’ll likely encounter even more changes: over time our closest relationships will have to span all kinds of experiential divides.

The task you’re pointing to – of staying connected anyway – is both difficult and poignant. But the good news is if you can figure it out now, you might be able to future-proof your friendships for those changes still to come.

So, how to figure it out now? The first thing I’d like to say is it’s natural to grieve the period where your life did closely resemble your friends’. There’s a magic to being understood in that way; being able to bank on the fact that your pals were living the same things as you. So even though you don’t want to trouble your friends with this feeling, it might be worth taking a moment to grieve for yourself. There is an ease of understanding that you miss, and that you might not quite have again.

Past that, I wonder whether you could pursue kinds of connection that aren’t based on shared experience. We don’t need to have lived something in order to understand it– sometimes the fact that we haven’t makes us better at listening. If we’ve had our own version of a monumental experience like having kids, we can be inclined to project, or assume other people feel the same.

When you haven’t had the experience at all, you might be in a better position to learn what it’s like to be your friend because you don’t presume to already know. I wonder if you could try to connect precisely over the experiences you don’t share. What is it like to be you, now? What is it like to be them?

Another kind of connection might be to make a routine space for friends to be something other than a parent. Caring for a child is extraordinarily taxing, riddled with self-doubt, and a lot of the time it’s boring: toys and kids books are not indefinitely entertaining for an adult. If you could make a regular activity without the kids, like a movie, an exercise class, a book group – anything other than facing each other and asking “what’s new?” – you might find they’re as grateful for that as you are.

There’s no way around the fact that as we age we wind up with less in common. And it’s hard to let go of the automatic enmeshment we used to have. But in its place you might be able to stoke new sorts of kindness and connection that your friends will thank you for in the years to come.

This question has been edited for length.


Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.

  • If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here


Eleanor Gordon-Smith

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I’m experiencing family burn-out. I love my wife and kids, but I feel like I’m being used
You say your attempts to talk about this don’t get far, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but the situation won’t change unless you change it

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

24, Nov, 2022 @10:45 PM

Article image
I’m proud of my career but my mum simply cannot take my work seriously | Leading questions
Training yourself not to want approval is really difficult, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but sometimes it is the only option you have

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

09, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
How do I get my husband to accept basic child safety measures, before someone gets hurt?
You shouldn’t treat this like an ordinary parenting dispute, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. This one involves lives and laws

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
I miscarried, while my best friend had a healthy baby. Is it time to move on from the friendship?
It’s hard to connect if you’re not really seeing each other, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and there are only two ways of resolving it

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

16, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
'My sister ruffles people up the wrong way. In keeping this from her, am I being overly protective?'
When it comes to dealing with other people, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, we all get it a little bit wrong – and a little right

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

04, Aug, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
I have suppressed hatred for my stepmother. How do I have a relationship with my dad? | Leading Questions
You say this woman set out to hurt your parents’ marriage, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but perhaps some of your anger is for your father too

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

09, Sep, 2022 @1:32 AM

Article image
My in-laws feel we are too rich to need presents. I don’t know how to handle Christmas | Leading questions
Perhaps your relatives are not just responding to perceived levels of wealth but to perceived social class, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

22, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Leading questions: 'Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met?'
Ask yourself whether this is a person you want in your life, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, and be prepared for the possibility of disappointment

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

02, Jul, 2020 @1:32 AM

Article image
For richer or poorer: surviving a bumper wedding season (without going broke)
For wedding guests, mixing love and money is precarious but mandatory. Here’s how to finesse your way through with finances, and friendships, intact

Katie Cunningham

08, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
I have terminal cancer. I fear dying and leaving my daughter with my husband. What can I do? | Leading questions
Tell your husband the truth, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but start planning for a future in which he is unable to step up

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

25, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM