Can a friendship survive motherhood? Many women believe that, more than any other, it’s the life event with the power to strain even the strongest bonds.
Here, two writers — a mother and a non-mother — go head-to-head to discuss whether the two can ever truly be friends.
Author Deri Robins, who is in her late 50s, lives near Bath and has three children, aged 20, 27 and 28.
My best friend of ten years’ standing didn’t mince her words when my two-year-old threw a full-blown tantrum in a supermarket aisle. ‘You really should nip that sort of thing in the bud,’ she remarked.
Red-faced, loud, writhing in fury, even I could see he made an unprepossessing sight. It was the first tantrum I’d had to deal with. I was clueless as how to ‘nip it in the bud’, though my instinct told me to ignore and let it play out.
My friend, despite having no children, felt qualified to comment. ‘You need to be stricter,’ she asserted. ‘Show him who’s boss, otherwise he’ll get the upper hand.’
Mother-of-three Deri Robins (pictured with her daughter) says in her experience it is almost impossible to remain friends with a woman who doesn’t have children
I had heard this firm tone from her on countless occasions during our friendship, and welcomed it. She’d always been an empowering beacon of great advice. When I had a baby she was, as usual, bursting with opinions and advice, but now she didn’t really ‘get’ it. Her bossy manner left me feeling insulted and inadequate.
That our deep friendship, forged over years sharing cheap rose wine, bad romances and great Madonna lyrics, should flounder once I became a mother shocked me then. Now, with the benefit of two more children, and having witnessed friends go through the same, it doesn’t surprise me.
When it comes to the complex patchwork of women’s lives, our friends are often the stitches that hold the pieces together. But motherhood, or the absence of it, can break the threads.
There’s no doubt motherhood is an event that has a profound effect on a woman — more than any other — and in my experience, it’s almost impossible to remain friends with a woman who doesn’t have children.
As a much-loved aunt once said to me: ‘You don’t become a woman until you have held your first child in your arms.’
And while I might not put it quite as bluntly, I have to agree you don’t fully inhabit every part of being a woman until you’ve had a child. Women are changed by motherhood. Once you have had a child, nothing ever matters in the same way again.
Deri, pictured with her three children when they were younger, says having children makes you less self-absorbed
As my friend Deborah Jackson, a mother of three and author of books on childcare, puts it: ‘Becoming a mother isn’t just a matter of giving birth; it requires you to shift your primary emotional focus away from yourself.
‘As soon as I had my first baby, I must have become really boring to friends who weren’t interested in parenthood. I was aware of it, but I didn’t care. I had another life depending on my care and attention. It’s inevitable your friendship groups will change.’
Having children makes you less self-absorbed, a process women who are child-free never go through. I have unlimited sympathy for those whose bodies wouldn’t let them become mothers; it’s one of the most unfair curveballs life can bowl a woman.
As for those who choose not to have children, I respect and understand your choice.
Children are expensive, full-on and exhausting. They’re a life-sentence of worry. I understand if you love your life — your career, your partner, your social life, your two-seater car and disposable income — just as it is.
I can’t think of any other female experience that is so divisive as motherhood. Even if, as a new mother, you have nothing in common with 90 per cent of the women you meet at toddler groups, you share a fundamental understanding with them that you can never have with your child-free mates.
The writer (pictured with her daughter Nell) says she can’t think of any other female experience that is so divisive as motherhood
As another mother friend, Sarah, says of a former friend: ‘She bought me some pampering stuff after I’d had my baby, saying: “You must be fed up with people buying things for her, not you” — not realising I had temporarily lost interest in things like make-up.’
What even old friends can fail to pick up on is that while no subject might have been off-limits between you in the past, everyone experiences a sense of humour failure when it comes to their children.
My friend Susie said of one pal: ‘She never had a clue how much her attitude to my children offended me. One time, I called in to visit her with my sleeping baby in a sling. I had never seen her move so fast as she sprinted to get towels to protect her furniture.
To make it even more insulting, her idiotic new boyfriend had spilled red wine over our new cream carpet a few weeks before, and we’d politely pretended that it didn’t matter.’
When your children are grown up, as mine are, the gulf between us mothers and our old friends who’ve never had children narrows again — to a degree.
My friend Debbie, who had children relatively young, says: ‘I’ve reconnected with women who aren’t mothers. We don’t talk much about my children or their pets and we have lots of wonderful things in common like free time, books and travel. However, my childless friends have retained an almost childlike ability to focus on themselves.’
I agree. While I accept having children is one of the most selfish things a woman can do — it’s almost impossible to think of one altruistic reason for having a child — once you become a mother, for the rest of your life you are not the main focus in your life. If you’ve never had children, how can you experience what that feels like?
I can think of only one girlfriend, who would have been an exceptional mother if her life had panned out differently. She is a devoted aunt and godmother, with an almost magical empathy with children and their mothers. But she is special and untypical.
Every woman knows how much her friendships can affect her wellbeing. One Harvard Medical School study suggested the more friends a woman has, the more likely she is to have a contented, active and healthy life.
As fewer women become mothers, it seems likely more women will find their friendship groups shrinking. It’s something that makes me sad for all of us.
Writer Claudia Connell, 51, lives in London and has no children.
The nail in the coffin of my friendship with Patricia came eight years ago when, half an hour after I was due to meet her for lunch, she sent a text: ‘Kids driving me crazy, au pair useless, just can’t get out of house. Gah. Sorry. Let’s reschedule.’
If she’d sent that message three hours earlier I’d have been annoyed, but I wouldn’t have left home, and I wouldn’t be sitting on my own in a smart restaurant getting pitying looks from the waiting staff and other diners.
I never replied and I never saw Patricia again. Friends since the age of 18, motherhood had turned her from my closest confidante to the world’s most self-absorbed and unreliable woman. Time after time she’d let me down and I realised I no longer liked or respected her.
Claudia Connell, 51, who has no children, says that friendships between mothers and non-mothers rarely work out
I’d had to juggle my work around meeting her during the day — God forbid she go out at night — and yet she hadn’t considered the impact on me. Such selfishness is not a one-off. Anyone who’s ever watched the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally will remember the running theme of whether a man and a woman can ever just be friends.
In today’s modern world, where increasing numbers of women don’t have children by choice or circumstance, there’s another question to be posed: can mothers and childless women ever be friends? The obvious answer should be: ‘Yes, why ever not?’ The reality is that — just like those platonic male and female friendships — it rarely works out.
I’m 51 and have no children. It’s no coincidence that most of my closest friends, the ones I see all the time, who I know would have my back in a crisis, are all childless.
It’s not that a few of the women I know with children wouldn’t want to help out. It’s just that by the time they’ve arranged childcare, the chances are my crisis will be over. There are many reasons why I prefer to make plans with my childless friends over parents. Women with children are — like Patricia — flaky and prone to dropping out of plans at the 11th hour with their clearly made-up excuses.
Strange how so many of their little treasures seem to contract last-minute illnesses when the child looked in robust health in the dozen Facebook pictures posted earlier in the day. When they do bother to show up, they spend the evening anxiously glancing at their phones and popping out to make calls, checking on the situation back home.
Deri suggests the reason the breeders and non-breeders can never be friends is because us childless women can never empathise with how it feels to carry the burden of motherhood.
She says one reason is that those without children find mothers ‘excruciatingly boring’
But there’s another, more pertinent reason: those of us without children find mothers excruciatingly boring. Gather one or more mother in a room and it’s only a matter of minutes before the only topics of permitted discussion relate to: sleep routines, school or screen time.
And then there’s the competitive tiredness game; the only rules are you’re not allowed to enter if you don’t have children. Mothers are the most tired people on earth. Of course a mother is going to be proud of her offspring and boast about their achievements. What they shouldn’t expect is for everyone else to be as enraptured by their children as they are.
Contrary to how some perceive childless women, we’re not all a bunch of hard-as-nails harridans who hate children. We’re likely to be devoted aunties and indulgent godmothers, it’s just we don’t live and breathe little people.
The irony is despite the fact there are increasing numbers of women who don’t become mothers, ‘motherhood’ is worshipped more than ever. Just take Boden’s current, nauseating campaign ‘to reclaim the word “mum” as a moniker of style’, launched in association with — whatever else? — Mumsnet.
Deri quotes the tired old cliche of ‘you don’t become a woman until you’ve held your first child in your arms’, which is as insulting as it is laughably untrue. So what does that make the 25 per cent of females who don’t have children? Fake women?
It’s right up there with the claim that ‘being a mother is the hardest job in the world’. Really? I imagine Theresa May or Angela Merkel might argue convincingly against that.
But nothing gets my back up like being told that human tragedy cuts deeper once you become a mother. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard mothers claim that the suffering of others hits them so much harder now they have a family.
My response is always the same: ‘Maybe you weren’t a very nice person before.’
When I was hospitalised three years ago with a ruptured appendix, my single girlfriends rallied to look after me. The mothers always ‘meant’ to come and see me or send me a card but never got round to it. I suspect the reason mothers and non-mothers struggle to be friends is we’ve had their lifestyle choices impact on us in so many ways. We’ve had too many meals out ruined by mothers who refuse to take a crying baby outside.
We’ve had the back of our seat kicked for three hours on a flight to Spain. Or we’ve had to stay late at the office yet again to cover for the mother who has to leave for a parents’ evening.
There is a brief period when friendship can be resumed. When the children have fled the nest, the smug mummy bragging does diminish. But the clock is ticking before they become a granny and we’re right back to square one.