Making friends as a young person is easy. In school, you collect them as casually and effortlessly as Panini stickers.
In college, you often find your real, lasting tribe. From there on out, hail-fellow-well-met friendships can be made in the queue of nightclubs, on the J1 summer, through mutual pals. Yet by the time middle age is the next town over, social circles take a curious turn. They contract. People ebb away, gently and not-so-gently.
If you become a parent, you end up spending a lot of time with people who happened to eat maternity hospital food in the same year as you. It can sometimes be the single thing you have in common; not nearly enough glue for a decent friendship in the usual run of things, but ‘parent friends’, I’ve realised, are a law unto themselves. And when you’re the parent of an only child, as I am, you become strangely beholden to them. It’s just that I’ve recently been forced to ask myself why I hang out with some of them in the first place.
To be fair, I’ve been very lucky with most of my mum friends. They can be the most low-maintenance relationships, often requiring you to simply stand next to each other in playgrounds, shouting “be careful” at your kid. You commiserate gently over tummy bugs and toilet training, and swap the odd crumb of wisdom. These are people who know that if you’re the parent of young kids, you don’t have much bandwidth for deep and meaningfuls. They know it’s nice for your kids to share the circus or the magic show or a picnic together, and you muddle along in benign, amiable companionship.
Yet there’s always one who is never not at it, right? And by ‘it’, I mean disrupting the gentle equilibrium of the parent friendship.
I’ve known This One Parent since my daughter was very young. It’s not at all likely that we’d be friends were it not for the fact that our children have become little pals. They will ask the questions that no other civil adult will, and it’s not just to make conversation. “Who did you vote for in the last election?” “What did your parents do?” “How much rent do you pay?” “How much was your car?” My husband and I, blindsided by the bluntness, answer the questions nonetheless, because what have we got to hide, I guess? And yet they persist, seemingly building this dossier of gossip.
I’ve always taken it with good humour, even finding the constant sizing up, the insufferable need to have our little family ‘all figured out’, a little entertaining. We’d arrive home from an encounter, exhausted from it all, but once our daughter was happy to see her friend, so were we, in a way.
And then things moved up a notch.
For the first time, both of our families found ourselves in a café together recently. This One Parent took it upon themselves to abuse the restaurant staff for having a ‘no tap water’ policy. Know this one thing about me: even if you cure cancer and save kids from burning orphanages in your spare time, I will never not loathe you if you are rude to hospitality staff.
On another occasion, the kids started to get antsy, and I pulled out a couple of cereal bars, and offered one to both children. This One Parent grabbed the bar, checking for nasties, and I’d never wished harder that I was carrying Wham bars. “Do you give her lots of sugar?” As conversational gambits go, the ‘what are you thinking, feeding your child that’ one is one with which you proceed with caution. Next up: sneering over the birthday presents I’ve bought her, the screen time we may or may not allow, the schools we might plan to send her to.
Here I was, having to constantly engage with this person for no reason other than, ‘my kid likes their kid’. I realised that I’d rather nail my neck to a fire than spend another second having to put up with the Spanish inquisition, and for a split second, I felt bad for our kids. I was probably going to have to step on the neck of their cute little friendship, although they’d done nothing wrong. But really, life is too short to spend it with people you don’t like or have nothing in common with. This goes doubly for people who make you feel bad about your own parenting decisions, simply for their own amusement.
Most of the new friends I’ve made through motherhood are aware of the unspoken social contract. Standing toe-to-toe in a perennial willy-waving competition is absolutely beyond my pay grade as a parent. I’m too old and too tired for this crap.
Most of us know that parenting can be stressful and uncertain. We all have a big enough job on our hands second-guessing and standing over our own decisions, without having to be answerable to the local gossiper. We’re all just doing our best, or trying to. We try to offer solidarity, lightness and companionship to each other.
If your parent friends aren’t at least doing that, it’s time to cut the cord. And if they’re people you wouldn’t normally consider having as friends were it not for the pesky kids, don’t even bother with a backward glance.