Becoming a parent alters the landscape of a person’s life — friendships included. Often, our bonds with friends are based on similarity, like shared passions, lifestyles or temperaments. But what happens when the circumstances of one person’s life diverges from those of their circle? We asked two women — one who was the first of her friends to have kids, and the other who remains child-free while most of her pals are parents — to share their experiences. Here are their stories.
Dominique Clayton, California
I never really thought about motherhood as a teen or college student. In my world growing up, motherhood was never the glamorous, holistic lifestyle marketed through social media groups and ad campaigns. Instead, it was the product of a mistake followed by years of struggle because of an absentee father and little to no income. That was my mother’s reality, and while she always looked like a well put-together mom, the reality was that she wasn’t. She had my sister when she was 21 and me 12 years later. She didn’t go to college or have a career or a marriage to invest in. Rather, she had “mistakes,” stress and drama. So I faithfully took birth control and enjoyed my carefree life and independence. Years ago, as a college graduate living in New York City, the world was my oyster; I could do whatever I pleased and go wherever I wanted. Even with a full-time job in the arts, I still socialized almost every day of the week. Perhaps I enjoyed it too much, because I began feeling the burnout. By age 25, I had literally done what most people don’t do in their entire lifetime. I lived in a major city; I had also lived abroad. I had about 10 different jobs across multiple creative industries. I dated many different types of people. There wasn’t much else I desired. The idea of finding a life partner and settling down had crossed my mind a few times, but there were slim pickings in my network.
Then, in 2009, I met my husband. Within three months, we had agreed to get married and about three months after that, we eloped. I had always been the wild and fearless one in my friend group, but something about my new relationship felt so sacred and personal. I didn’t want to open up. Then I found out I was pregnant. I waited until I was in the clear to tell people, which was a two-part announcement since I was also sharing that I had recently eloped. Nonetheless, my friends were supportive, and after I lost that first baby to miscarriage, I was pregnant just a few months later and my friends were thrilled once again that I had overcome something and bounced right back.
The reality of my “otherness” as a new parent set in just after my baby shower. As the first of my friends to have a baby, there was no precedent for how to show support. I thought pregnancy would reveal some magical knowledge to my friends and me. It didn’t. The baby was born and while a few friends reached out to me, most did not. Life in New York City has a funny way of keeping you either young and selfish or older and angry, so my expectations were little to none. My husband and I kept to ourselves as new parents and newlyweds, which left no time to try to sustain those friendships. Then I moved out of state in 2013 and we had another baby. And then another, who I didn’t even mention to many of my friends until after she was born. One of my college friends had a child and there seemed to be a lot of excitement around that, but instead of feeling jealous over the attention she was getting, I leaned into my own wisdom and shared it with her. I’ve always been somewhat of a trendsetter by way of resistance to the status quo, so being the pioneering mother in my group is no mistake, it’s a badge of honor.
Caroline Donofrio, New York
The first time it happened, I was on a bad first date. I glanced at my phone to check the time and there it was: an ultrasound photo, from my childhood best friend. Since then, I have learned to expect it. A texted photo of a burgeoning bump. A sonogram pressed into my hand at dinner. A phone call starting with “I have news …”
One by one, my friends have migrated to a different land. No matter how often I visit, I do not speak the language there, I cannot navigate the terrain. As best as I can tell, it is an unmappable place where a piece of your heart exists outside of your body.
There are many life milestones — graduations, moves, marriages, promotions — but perhaps none has the power to shift us as much as welcoming a child. Suddenly, friendships that were born of similarity (shared interests, schools, beliefs) encounter a fork in the road.
When friends become parents, it can feel like they’ve graduated to a different category of adulthood. Seemingly overnight, they act more like the “grown-ups” we encountered in childhood — parents, teachers, people who look after kids. Though I love the shape of my life, there are times where I can’t help but feel left behind.
Many of us do not have children, whether by choice or by circumstance. (As my mom would say when asked why she had only one child, “Sometimes, God has other plans.”) It can be tiring, not to mention emotionally complicated, to field questions about what I do with “all” my money or “all” my time. Or to explain where my children are. To wit, my friend’s well-meaning 6-year-old refers to all women as “mommies” and recently asked me, “Where are your kids?” as though I’d left my wallet at home.
It bears mentioning, these questions are never asked of men.
My friends have taught me there is no one-size-fits-all experience of parenthood. There are some who insist things really haven’t changed. (“You can bring them pretty much everywhere!”) Others who declare that parenthood has imbued their lives with purpose and meaning. (They often try to “convert” me to motherhood with an almost evangelical fervor.) Then there are those who, though it is never explicitly stated, question how they arrived at this moment. (“Wait as long as you possibly can!”)
More than anything, my parent friends have held a magnifying glass up to my life. I see all too clearly what I have, and also what I have not.
As I’ve gotten older, I have come to regard friendships as oceanic in nature. There is a natural ebb and flow. Sometimes we are close, sometimes not so close, and other times we may be downright distant. Adding children to the mix can certainly shift the winds in one direction or another. But just as with oceans, we weather tides.
For those of us who consider our friends to be like family, the news of a baby can be especially fraught. When they form nuclear families of their own, what will become of us? More than ever, I have learned that family arrives by many roads and goes by many names. In the best of cases, your family expands, in all its rich and complicated glory. And that is something to celebrate.