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.
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