The good aunt and sticky friendships

Please forgive the later-than-usual post today. I was spending time with a dear friend and her family earlier today and then came home to find sugar ants all over my kitchen counter. A war ensued, and though I’ve left the kitchen and moved to my home office, ants keep crawling down my arms (so please also forgive any typos – crawling critters make me spastic).

Anyway, what I really want to share with you today is a call to take up arms in a different sort of battle: a battle for stronger friendships.

Yesterday’s New York Times published an intriguing article about why it’s so difficult to form friendships after the age of 30 (Thanks to Enuma Okoro for calling this article to my attention – she’s one of those amazing “people magnets” that I’ll speak of in a moment). The article points out that college is one of the last times most of us have an easy time creating deep friendships.

Now I know there are some of you out there well past college age who have absolutely no trouble making friends. Some of you have the sort of personality that draws people to you with little effort on your part. I’m friends with a few of you, and you “people magnets” can go read some other blog if you like.

But for those of you who have drifted away from more friends than you care to admit, I challenge you: decide which ones mean enough to you to make a true effort at rekindling the friendship. For those of you who have met someone you think could be a friend but haven’t quite connected with, follow the article’s implicit advice: ask that person to meet you for coffee, even if you have to schedule the date for several weeks from now.

You may be wondering what this has to do with good aunts. Many of us without children long to be not only good aunts to the children in our lives, but also good friends with women who have children. You might be surprised by how difficult this can be, especially for women in their thirties and forties, during prime child-rearing years.

Good aunt, good friend?
When I was interviewing good aunts for this series, I didn’t specifically ask how their friendships had changed as their friends had children, but the topic came up with several of the women.

One of the women, Lily*, a newlywed in her late forties, spoke of trying to figure out where she fits socially now that she’s married. She’s a people magnet, and so you would think this wouldn’t be a tough issue for her, but she feels as though she doesn’t quite fit where she used to when she was single. And she doesn’t quite fit with her married friends who have children, either.

I often feel the same way as Lily, and this sort of awkwardness can become a barrier within friendships. Where we fit most perfectly and easily – married couples without children – is a very small circle indeed, and much as we love others who have such a similar life situation, we don’t want to limit our options or lose friendships simply because dear friends have married and had children.

My friend Akila, a single woman in her thirties, spoke of feeling inadequate as a friend. She says she felt a degree of separation after one of her closest friends from childhood got engaged and then another degree of separation after she married. The next degree of separation came with the friend’s first pregnancy.

Akila says, “I didn’t do a good job of learning how to insert myself after that. My feeling of inadequacy about not being a mom made me not trust myself about how to be a good aunt to my friend’s children.” She started to believe that her friend found it easier to be around other moms in her life, those women who already know what her children like because their families spend so much time together.

A world I can’t play in
Bette, who’s married and in her thirties, spoke of a similar feeling about her altered relationship with her own best friend from childhood: “We’re still best friends and usually talk at least once a week, but she needs other friends. She needs friends who have kids, because she needs play dates, and she needs people who understand what she’s going through. That was a really tough realization. I felt like there was a lot that I couldn’t be for her. She needed to talk to somebody else who was getting up three times a night and who was exhausted and who didn’t know which diapers to buy, and I didn’t know how to participate in that conversation. I think my experience has been more about realizing that I’m going to lose some part of my friends during some chunk of time while they have different needs. They need me, too, because I’m the one they don’t have to talk about their kids with, but I also feel like there’s a world I can’t play in.”

I have felt this, too. The world of child-rearing that’s such an integral part of my friends’ lives when they become mothers is a world I can’t really play in. Some of the moms have been wonderful about inviting me into that world – like my trip earlier today to the science museum with my friend and her children, or a picnic at the park, or a dance recital, or even help with rides to after-school activities. Those are the friendships that have stayed the strongest because they have transitioned the most naturally and comfortably.

Give permission
As Akila and I talked, she hit on a great way to break down the barrier into this world: “I would love to have a friend give permission for how they would most like for me to show my love for their children. It’s different for each friend, but what if a friend could say to me, for example, ‘I would love for you to send my child a gift every year. That would be a really special way to show that you love them.’? Or I could become braver about asking my friends, ‘What would be the ideal way for me to interact with your children to show that I love them and you?’ ”

With some of our friends, this comes naturally, this understanding of the best way to show our love for them and their children. But for others, it’s less intuitive.

So back to that friendship challenge. If this post has made you think of a friend you may not see as often as you’d like, pick up the phone now and call them. (Unless it’s in the middle of the night, in which case send an email now and call them tomorrow.) Don’t just post something on that person’s Facebook wall. Make an effort to hear each other’s voices and laugh together and hug each other.

If you’re a mother who has drifted away from a friend without children, invite that friend to participate in your life in ways that would be meaningful to you. If you’re a woman who doesn’t have children, ask your friends how they most need you to “play” in their world.

Does any of this seem scary to you? This bravery and honesty and vulnerability between two friends? Are you willing to take the risk with those you consider your closest friends or with those you’d like to know better?

Finally, a question for those of you beyond the child-rearing years: does friendship get any easier after the children are older, after they’ve flown the nest? Do these strategies help you, too, think of ways to create stronger friendships?

* To protect the privacy of the women I interviewed, I have changed all names.

8 thoughts on “The good aunt and sticky friendships

  1. Pingback: The good aunt and sticky friendships, revisited | The Flourishing Tree

  2. Pingback: The rejuvenating power of play | The Flourishing Tree

  3. Hope, I read this soon after you wrote it, but I am still pondering. Love that it is making me take stock of friendships and realize how compartmentalized some of them have become. Thank you for the challenges. Maybe we can have lunch this fall….

    • Tricia — I love to hear when anyone keeps thinking about a message in one of my posts! I think it’s natural to compartmentalize friends. The NY Times article even mentions that tendency. The damage happens when the compartment becomes a rigid excuse (even if an unconscious one) for not seeing that friend. I’d love to hear back from you to know if this idea shapes any of your interactions with friends. And yes, I’d love to have lunch this fall. Having lunch with friends is one of my very favorite activities in the whole world. One of my friends even teased me about it one time and said I should write a book about my lunch dates.

    • Bev — thanks for the lovely tribute to your friend who found your friendship worth the battle. There are so many great moms out there who also manage to maintain strong friendships. I’m astonished and grateful to all of my “mom” friends who have managed this enormous balancing act, too!

  4. Hope, these are such wonderful things to think about. As a friend with kids, I just always assume my children are annoying people who don’t have kids. So I think it’s grand for them to sit at another table when we have lunch. 🙂 I think I have to make time with friends who do not have kids be a kid free-zone because my kids are loud, eventhough my kids are marvelous people. Thank you for all this to think about – it will challenge me to rethink my assumptions!

    • Wendy — thanks so much for sharing this! I think there’s a balance for each set of friends to navigate. Sometimes, even you as a mom need time away from your kids (as marvelous as they are), but that doesn’t mean *always* having them eat at a separate table or *always* having to create a kid-free zone. I love that this post has challenged you to rethink your assumptions. If more of us (moms and non-moms) would challenge our assumptions openly and honestly, we’d forge stronger, more genuine friendships. Don’t you think?

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