Growing up, friendships very often come and go, but as we get older, wiser and more settled, we tend to migrate towards those who are like us. We don’t care so much about impressing people or being part of the ‘cool’ gang – friendships become more about spending time with people we genuinely like, those who accept us for who we are, and those who are at the same stage in life. It’s human nature that we feel more connected with those who can relate to what we’re going through – and never is this more apparent than when we enter the world of parenthood.
Friendships, however, don’t always run smoothly. In fact, embarking on the rocky road of parenting alongside a friend can also be really challenging. When different parenting styles, children’s inability to get along with each other, and competing personalities are thrown into the mix, very often even the strongest of friendships can be put to the test.
Jane Downs lost contact with her long-term friend, Jo, when it became apparent that their choices in their children’s schooling were very different.
“Jo’s kids started attending a Steiner school, and it was then that she started to get quite particular about things,” says Downs. “She had this belief that her children could only play with toys that were Steiner approved, and that her children should only be socializing with other Steiner students.”
Downs says that the relationship started to fracture, and eventually she lost all contact with Jo. While she misses what they once had, she says she doesn’t miss the later version of her old friend.
Tina Green had a similar experience when she met a new friend, Julie, at a mothers’ group. Upon meeting, the two women hit it off and quickly forged a friendship. But when Julie had her second baby, Tina realised the extent of their different parenting styles, and how this was going to cause an issue between them.
“Julie’s second baby had colic and she insisted on letting her cry it out and trying to run the baby to a schedule,” she says. “I would ring her and hear the baby crying over the phone, and she would tell me that it had been going on for ages. I’m a very hands-on, baby-led parent so I just wanted to pick up that baby and cuddle him every time I saw him.
“It ended up driving us apart as friends because I couldn’t listen to her struggle anymore, and I just felt like she was being cruel to her baby.”
While Tina admits to feeling sad to have lost the friendship, she also confesses that she had reached a stage where it was better for her not to be a part of Julie’s journey anymore. “I couldn’t add anything of value to her, and as time went on I just felt like we had nothing in common. Today we are polite and courteous in mothers’ group dinners, but we don't talk outside of that,” she says.
But it’s not always about differences in parenting styles that can lead to tensions between friends. Often it can be the children themselves who directly cause a rift, as Vanessa Matthews attests.
“Tracey and I met at mothers group when our babies were newborns. We clicked instantly and it was all great until our babies grew into toddlers. That’s when things started to change,” she says.
“My little girl, Charlotte, was very feisty and confident, and liked to play rough and tumble. But Tracey’s little girl, Jess, was much more timid, hated any rough play and would regularly cry and sulk.”
The situation reached boiling point one day when Charlotte repeatedly pushed Jess over, despite being disciplined and put in ‘time out’ by her mum.
“Tracey got really cross with me about it, even though I was doing all I could,” she says. “I admit that, in hindsight, I probably should have taken Charlotte home, but at the time I was doing it tough. I was on the verge of postnatal depression and so I didn’t want to leave. I needed to have time with other grown ups.”
While Vanessa is sad that her friendship with Tracey was never the same after this incident, she admits to feeling some relief when they stopped meeting up one-on-one.
“Meeting up with her and Jess was just not enjoyable any more, to be honest,” she says. “I started spending more time with a friend who had a little boy the same age as Charlotte, who was just as boisterous as she was. Ironically enough, it was much less stressful.”
According to Louise Shepherd, a clinical psychologist at The Sydney ACT Centre, there are a number of reasons why friendships are put under pressure once children enter the mix.
“Factors such as time limitations, different sleep routines, different ages of children and different parenting styles can all affect friendships,” she says. “There are also things like geography which can play a part as, when families move to another area, travel times may not always be conducive to meeting up regularly, especially when the children are young.
“And of course let’s not forget that emotions such as anxiety and guilt are huge for mums, and may well get in the way of friendships.”
While Shepherd believes it’s possible to maintain friendships despite any parenting differences, she points out that it may mean agreeing to disagree on certain things. She also suggests not broaching parenting topics which you have very different views on.
“Focus on why you are friends, enjoy spending time together and try to take time to understand where the other person is coming from,” she advises. “It’s also really important to be real and share the highs and lows of parenting; we all have challenges, and it can be reassuring to know that the friend who looks like she has the perfect life is also struggling some days too.”
As far as knowing when it’s time to call it quits on a friendship, Shepherd has one piece of advice. “If you feel that you have a lot less in common than you used to, and it’s no longer enjoyable nor meaningful to catch up, it might be time to call it a day.”