The dilemma I’m 34 and have been in a close friendship group with four other women since university. Our relationship has been a constant comfort, but during the past year I’ve found it incredibly difficult to connect with them as all four have had babies. Suddenly our WhatsApp group looks more like Mumsnet – and I just can’t relate. I don’t know if I want kids or not. My husband puts no pressure on me, but this is bringing out the worst in me. I feel left behind, confused and judgmental as these friends enter motherhood. I feel isolated and incapable of contributing, and when I do I feel disingenuous. I try to widen the conversation, but it always reverts back to babies. I don’t want to lose these people, but I feel marginalised, as if I’m fundamentally missing out on some intensely female purpose. How do I step back without being overly dramatic?
Mariella replies It’s definitely a problem. I am sympathetic. But stick with me first, because I have to draw attention to how emotionally over-sensitised we’ve become as a species. Growing up, friends shacking up before we do, marriages and divorce, babies born and infidelities committed – they’re all part of life’s rich pageant. Some are profoundly upsetting, some manageably so, and others so natural a part of life’s flow that they should barely bother us at all. Some of these emotional traumas are dumped on us, some committed by us and some are not directed at us at all. In the latter case, it’s generally our own unresolved issues that make us vulnerable to being wounded.
Moving in unison with our peer group through formative experiences is something we generally leave behind in late adolescence or, at latest, post-college when we diverge on to more individual paths. In childhood, many of our compulsions are the result of instinct rather than individual choice. The reason Harry Enfield’s sketch about taciturn Kevin entering his teens is so hilarious is that it’s universal. Each and every child will experience similar antisocial and easy-to-caricature hormonal impulses as they segue from childhood to adulthood.
Later, when we “mature”, what we choose, rather than societal expectations, shapes our life as we branch off from friends and family in myriad directions. At a certain point we all have to diversify, embark on independent lives and try to make a good life for ourselves.
Having teens, as I do, is a reminder of that early impulse to move as one through the world with our peer group. Everyone is trying to look the same, act the same, they listen to the same music, wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. As we become individuals, with our own ideas and beliefs, insecurities and intolerances, we are released from the bondage of fitting in. You’ve reached just such a stage when adult friends are moving into the next phase of their lives, whether that’s defined by career choices, political beliefs, relationship commitments or, indeed, becoming parents.
What you’re entirely right about is that the latter, parenting, initially makes bores of us all. To be in their proximity in the early days requires remarkable tolerance and discipline not to scream out: “Yes it’s a blinking baby… so what!”
Becoming a parent is such an all-consuming activity, certainly initially, that most of us do become baby bores – and that’s hard to be around if you haven’t succumbed to procreational impulses. You say you’re not sure whether or not you want children and that’s a choice for you and your husband alone. It may be that you’re just not ready to go down that path, or that parenting simply isn’t for you – so to remain vulnerable to damage from the choices of those around you is unsustainable.
My sneaking suspicion is that it’s not your friends’ choices to have babies that’s bothering you but your own lack of clarity on the issue. Bruce Springsteen’s promise in love is equally apt in enduring friendship: “I’ll wait for you, And should I fall behind, Wait for me.” Those we rely on and love will all drift from our immediate grasp at some point and the ebb and flow of friendships and relationships is as natural a cycle as waves on the shore. To fully realise our own lives, we need to branch out and step back, surge forward and move sideways – and for all of us that’s an individual path complete with distractions and decisions.
While your friends are immersed in parenthood and you are trying to decide, don’t be afraid to set your boundaries. Be the occasional voice of reason bringing the wider world into your WhatsApp group, even if you keep yourself at arm’s length. It won’t be long before life leads you back into step, or the road you choose takes you far away into different more stimulating territory.
Occupy at least some of the time while your friends are preoccupied by thinking hard about what you want out of your life (and less about what they are doing with theirs). Friends are friends, even when our experiences are at odds, so it’s an imperative life skill to develop resilience and patience for the moments when you slip apart.