By Anna Ilona Mussmann
Loneliness is on the rise. Many people find it difficult to build and maintain the kinds of relationships that human beings need. This culture of isolation and increasing polarization is tragically dehumanizing--it not only cuts us off from being loved, but also from the chance to love and serve others.
One of the best ways to resist the tide is to build and nurture friendships. Doing so isn’t always easy. In particular, I’ve heard many young women lament the challenge of actively staying friends with the ladies in their circle who have had children.
When your friend has kids and you don’t, spending time together can begin to feel awkwardly difficult. Maybe your schedules no longer mesh. Maybe you can’t get her to focus on the conversation because she is interrupted every three minutes by her children or starts talking randomly about potty-training. Maybe she doesn’t even invite you over anymore because she doesn’t want to impose the ups and downs of toddlerdom on you.
Yet if you can both let the friendship stretch and grow with her new stage of life, you are striking a blow for what is good. It isn’t just that we all need friends--in a world where narcissism happens to be one of our pet sins, it is especially helpful to nurture relationships that help us see beyond ourselves and our own stage of life. Moms benefit when they are reminded of the wider world beyond the so-intense challenges of babies. Non-moms can learn a great deal about humanity by observing the earthy reality of early childhood. Furthermore, it’s a wonderful thing when children are able to learn from “extra adults” who care about them and when childless folks are able to enjoy intergenerational friendship.
I have little ones, and I am deeply grateful for the childless ladies who are willing to enter the world of kid-land with me. Here are my top tips on nurturing a friendship with someone who has kids when you don’t.
Be Generous About Schedules
Most small children have a double personality, a la Jekyll and Hyde, that is directly correlated with their sleep patterns. Staying on-schedule is key. When all is well with naptime and bedtime, toddlers are lot more likely to be winsome and happy and a lot less likely to turn into irrational puddles of humanity.
Even if your friend seems a little unreasonable about this--even if you think she’s too stressed out about being home by 10 a.m. and should just let the kid nap in his stroller--please be generous. It’s an awesome gift to give her.
Get to Know the Kids
Talk to her kids. Smile at them and listen to their attempts to engage you. Laugh at anecdotes about their latest deeds and sayings. When I see that my friends actually enjoy spending time with my kids, it smooths the relationship all around. I feel less guilty when my kids’ needs distract me from the conversation. I am less likely to feel judged if they ask questions about my parenting or frown when my child misbehaves. Besides, I think my kids are the cutest thing ever, and it’s a lot of fun to share them with my friends.
Sometimes moms feel as if they are drowning in a sea of constant need-need-need. A friend who will take the pressure off for a while--who will enthusiastically hold the baby or spiritedly answer the toddler’s questions--is like manna from heaven. You are awesome if you can be that friend. By chatting with someone else’s kids, you may well be building intergenerational friendships that will thrive for many years. Kids are a hoot, and there’s no reason why you, too, shouldn’t get to enjoy that.
It’s OK if you aren’t naturally “good with” children (or if you are an introvert who has trouble socializing with even the smallest of new people). It takes time to build real relationships. The point is to make a good faith effort.
Be Willing to Occasionally Correct the Kids
It is obviously a presumptuous thing to begin training someone else’s child. Don’t do that. On the other hand, it takes a load off the mom if she doesn’t have to police her kids constantly to make sure you are comfortable. If a toddler pulls your hair or runs off with your handbag, and you don’t like it, use a warm but firm voice to ask him not to. Take action if needed (cheerfully retrieve the handbag and give the child a toy instead, for instance; or put him down if he won’t stop pulling your hair. It’s OK if he cries a little). Side note: If you can develop “The Voice,” the one that says, “I like you but you had better listen to me or I will absolutely do something,” you will find it useful for years to come. It take practice.
It’s OK to Have Some Opinions About Kids
Childless people sometimes get bashed for expressing opinions about parenting. Certainly, as they say, “Any job’s easy to the man who’s never tried it,” and people unused to the realities of childhood may have foolish notions of what it’s like to be in charge of miniature humans.
On the other hand, it is totally valid to learn about parenting from watching parents. See what seems to work. See what doesn’t seem to. Think thoughts, and exercise your intelligence. There is a big difference between quietly resolving that, since you’ve seen the negative results of letting kids do X, you will avoid it in your future family; vs. patting yourself on the back because your kids will never do X.
Help Her Talk About Things Unrelated to Bodily Functions
Motherhood is intense enough to sometimes cause a lack of perspective. When I become stressed because it feels as though my every choice might be the difference between jail and Harvard for my child, I need a glimpse of the wider world. I need to talk to someone about philosophy, literature, or shoes. Or something.
Even if you friend says that she can’t read, write, sew, or think clearly anymore, you can still share those things with her. Tell her about the book you read. Share an interesting new scientific claim you heard. Come over after the kids have gone to bed and bring a boardgame. As she emerges from the whirlwind of new motherhood, she will likely find herself more and more able to enjoy a wider share of interests again.
It’s true, of course, that having kids changes a woman. Your friend is tackling something new and being transformed by the experience (not only is she now responsible for someone else’s life, she is also experiencing a flood of hormones similar to those that arrived during puberty; and puberty isn’t always graceful). Yet friendship is about riding out the mountains and valleys of life. Indeed, it’s about enjoying the ride together.
Friendship is all the more real when it ceases to be about superficial similarities and is, instead, a way to love someone else with whom one has a great deal of history. I realize that this piece focuses on how childless women can help moms, but of course friendship is about mutual giving, and I would love to hear your perspective on how women with kids can include and keep up ties with their friends who are still without children.
Perhaps you, too, will have babies later; and will appreciate the practice you are getting now (or at least the support of a friend who’s been there before). If not, perhaps your friend’s little ones will someday be the people shoveling your driveway when you are in a wheelchair. Living alongside kids--even someone else’s--is an awesome way to fight the modern bubble. Kids are funny. Kids are fun. Kids are part of God’s design.
And by the way, should you ever need a laugh, just borrow your friend’s toddlers and try to teach them “Duck, duck, goose.”
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.