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Can Friendships Survive Parenthood?

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Image by Jayne Wexler

Jayne Wexler

Once you become a parent, you need your friends more than ever. Just ask Vicki Iovine, author of the Girlfriends series: "In the most challenging times of our lives, it's essential to our well-being that we bring our Girlfriends along." And the need to share stories, laughs, and support isn't just a woman's thing -- dads need their pals too. But parenthood is time-consuming and preoccupying, and maintaining new and old friendships is challenging. Which is why Child conducted an online survey of nearly 1,000 moms and dads to see how parenthood has affected their friendships. See how you compare, and listen in on what experts have to say about the friendship factor.

The Time Crunch

While 69% of women felt satisfied with their friendships before having kids, only 54% felt that way afterward. For men, satisfaction with friendships dropped from 67% to 57%. The culprit? Time. Before they had children, men spent 16 hours a week with friends -- after kids, that number dropped to 6 hours. Before children, women spent 14 hours per week with friends, but only 5 hours after.

"When we're stressed, friendship is often the first thing we put on hold," says Boston-based author Ellen Goodman, coauthor of I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives. This is especially true for women: 45% said they had fewer friends after their children were born, versus 38% of dads. The force behind this is often cultural, says Harriet Lerner, Ph. D., author of The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life. "ln our society, mothers are still the ones expected to make the sacrifices that children require," she says.

When Priorities Change

No longer sharing interests with pre-parenthood friends is a phenomenon many moms and dads experience and the number-two reason they felt dissatisfied. "My single friends lost interest in me once I had kids," says Steve Dawson, 41, a father of two in Vacaville, CA. "I became a family man. Now they seldom call. I think they assume I don't have time to meet up with them."

Janet Bolan, 41, of West Lafayette, IN, tells a similar story. "When I had my son, my friends who didn't have kids didn't come around as much," she recalls. "They just weren't interested in children." She eventually made more friends through a parenthood group.

It's inevitable that having a family will change a person's interests, says Sandy Sheehy, the Galveston, TX-based author of Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship. "Of course you're going to find every step of your child's development fascinating, and that's what you'll want to talk about with friends," she says. But understandably, most people outside your immediate family won't be equally enthralled. In fact, she adds, connecting with pals who don't have kids is extremely important. "You need to be reminded that you're a person, not just a parent."

What You Want From Your Friendships

Maintaining friendships after you have children is tricky because what you want from your friends may change. At least that's what our female respondents told us. Before they had kids, 90% of the women depended on friends for having fun. But once they had a family, that number dropped to 50%. Most (56%) felt that having friends who are good listeners became more significant.

Having someone to open up to is crucial, considering how much emotional support new moms need, says Dr. Lerner. "Motherhood can be isolating and surrounded by false sentimentality," she explains. "If a mother can speak openly to a friend -- and not be judged -- that's the greatest gift a friend can give."

So does having kids alter men's lives the way it does women's? Not quite. Having fun was men's priority in friendship before and after they became dads. The explanation lies in the way men bond, says Goodman. "When men hang out, they're often shoulder to shoulder, engaged in an activity, whereas many women like to sit and talk," she notes. Peter Nardi, the Claremont, CA-based author of Men's Friendships, agrees. "Men and women want the same things from their friendships, but they tend to go about getting that intimacy differently," he explains.

Who You Look to for Support

Our most stunning results came when we asked parents to divulge who they turned to during hard times. Though most said they preferred to rely on their spouses, we found that women bypassed their husbands and brought their concerns to friends -- but the men didn't do the same. Nearly a third (32%) of women report that their friends better understand their stresses than their spouse does, while only 13% of men agreed. Additionally, 22% of women said they prefer to look to their friends for emotional support, versus a mere 8% of men.

Part of the reason concerns opportunity, says Molly Farrell, 29, mother of a 2-year-old daughter in San Rafael, CA. "By the time my husband gets home at night, I'm trying to get dinner ready and it's not a great time for a serious discussion," she explains.

And Sheehy reveals that we're all more likely to turn to women when we need to talk. "Studies show that single people, whether male or female, go to female friends for help," she says. "Women tend to give emotional support and walk each other through problems; men are more inclined to instantly offer solutions."

How You Make the Connection

When mothers need a sympathetic ear, technology often provides the means. More than half (54%) noted that they do most of their communication by talking on the phone, sending e-mail, or chatting online, compared to 35% of men.

So why are dads reaching for the phone and mouse less? Again, it may be due to the dynamics of men's friendships, which tend to be more about activity than discussion. Privacy is also a factor. "Women often share intense feelings with friends, and as moms, they worry that their anger or sadness might alarm their children if they talk to their friends when the kids are present," Sheehy explains. When she interviewed women for Connecting, she found that many felt closest to friends when talking to them on the phone or online because they didn't have to censor themselves.

While communicating electronically may be convenient, our survey indicated it's important to see people face-to-face. The more people relied on technology to keep in touch, the less content they were with their friendships. Sixty-four percent of those who feel less than satisfied say they do much of their chatting online or on the phone, versus 41% of satisfied respondents.

How You're Hanging Out

Socializing is often a family affair for today's moms and dads, with more than 38% of women and 23% of men saying they commonly go to their friends' homes with their kids.

But when it comes to spending time with their single pals, the issue becomes far more complicated. "Most of my friends are single and not family-oriented," says Farrell. "And while they've never asked me not to bring my daughter when we go out together, I assume they would rather not hang out with a crying 2-year-old." Farrell says that since she had her daughter, she spends a lot more time with her sisters, who also have children. "It's much easier for me to make plans with them, such as going to the park. And their kids are older and will entertain my daughter while we're there."

Regardless of the difficulties of staying close to friends who have no kids, experts say it can be done. "There will be friendship casualties when you have kids, but true friends will stick with you," says Iris Krasnow, the Maryland-based author of Surrendering to Marriage and Surrendering to Motherhood. "They may feel abandoned at first, but they'll understand your priorities have shifted."

What Your Children Learn From Your Friendships

Despite the challenges to creating and maintaining friendships, our respondents felt strongly about modeling positive ones for their children. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of women and 64% of men say that seeing their parents with friends teaches kids how to interact socially.

"My kids love that I have friends that I've known for many years," says Krasnow, who has four sons. "I've known my friend Debbie since I was in fifth grade, and the other day one of my sons asked me if he and his pals would be friends for that long."

A parent's friends can even act as extended family members to a child, notes Goodman. "In this era of smaller families, kids need to have a group of trusted adults who love and care for them."

And making the time to be with our friends has positive effects for the family as a whole, says Dr. Lerner. "Children benefit from not being the constant focus of their parents' attention," she says. "They need to know that their mom and dad have other important relationships that require time, energy, and commitment. And they need to know that their parents have fun."

  • 53% of parents unhappy with their friendships feel forced to choose between family and friends because of time constraints. Only 14% who are satisfied with their friendships feel that pressure.
  • 19% of fathers and 18% of mothers feel dissatisfied with a friendship because they no longer share similar interests.
  • 82% of women and 68% of men say most of their friends also have kids.
  • 6 is the average number of close friends men have; women have 4.
  • 2 to 1: the ratio of women to men who say that parenthood is the main topic of conversation among their friends.
  • 29% of mothers wish Rosie O'Donnell could be their friend. Sixteen percent would prefer Oprah Winfrey, and 12% relate most to Katie Couric.
  • 58% of women and 49% of men say it's important that their friends like their kids.

How We Did Our Survey

We commissioned Fairfield Research, Inc., an independent third party, to conduct an online survey on behalf of Child magazine, using Fairfield Research's National Panel of over 30,000 individuals who have agreed to participate in surveys.

An e-mail was sent to a random sample of approximately 2,500 national panelists, 50% men and 50% women, inviting them to take part in a Web survey about their friends and how their friendships changed after they had children.

The survey ran for 11 days. During that time, 909 individuals completed useable surveys: 292 were men and 601 were women.

Fairfield Research collected, cleaned, coded, entered, and processed all surveys by the cutoff date.

Sample characteristics:

Men: 32%

Women: 66%

Age:

18-24: 8%

25-34: 37%

35-44: 38%

45-54: 12%

55 or older: 5%

Median age: 35.9

Marital status:

Married, living together as a couple: 86%

Single, never married: 6%

Divorced/Separated/Widowed: 8%

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Copyrighted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Child magazine.