Of my wide and deep circle of women friends I was the first to have children. Until my daughter was born, I tended to my girlfriends' needs with the devotion of a surrogate sister and mother. If a friend lost a job or a lover, or simply needed some girlfriend comfort, I'd think nothing of dropping my plans with my husband and showing up at her home with a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and a Bull Durham video. But soon after my daughter's birth I began to realize that motherhood would forever alter my approach to friendship.
At first my girlfriends seemed interested in my new mothering adventure, as if I were sending postcards from an exotic location. But after a month or so, they were eager to pick up our friendship where we had left off. "Oh good, she's asleep," my friend Anne said during a visit, as she passed my daughter back to me. "Now listen," she continued. "I really need to tell you what's happening between Jeff and me." As Anne spoke about her new boyfriend she became teary-eyed. At the same time Gabrielle started to fuss and squirm in my arms. Immediately I felt torn -- frustrated that Gabrielle was distracting me from my friend and annoyed that my friend was talking over my baby's complaints. For a moment I hesitated, glancing back and forth between the two females who wanted my attention.
"Hang on, Anne," I said, finally focusing on Gabrielle. "I need to figure out what she needs."
"I'll wait," Anne said impatiently, plopping down on my sofa and picking her nails, as if our conversation had temporarily been interrupted by a phone call. While Anne waited for me to finish comforting Gabrielle so that she could have her turn being comforted by me, I started to realize that motherhood was going to cause more than a brief interruption in our conversation. The urgency of Gabrielle's needs and the heart-tug of our mother-daughter connection made it impossible for me to be the same drop-everything, attentive friend that I used to be. Even when Gabrielle wasn't physically with me, it seemed that I was constantly distracted by the huge space that my child claimed over my heart, mind, and energy.
Not only was I unable to give my girlfriends what they expected of me, many of them seemed unable to give me what I needed. For starters, I desperately wanted practical mothering advice. What can I do about that scaly stuff on Gabrielle's scalp? And more urgently, I wanted to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of motherhood: how amazing it is to discover this vast ocean of maternal love in one's heart, how watching my baby touch her toes can feel like the most gratifying moment of my life. I wanted to share how vulnerable I felt, knowing that I would lose my will to live should anything terrible happen to this precious being. I wondered if other mothers felt like hanging themselves when their baby wouldn't nap.
When I talked about these things with my childfree girlfriends, they often responded as though they were swimming out of their depths. "Don't worry," one friend offered. "I'm sure she'll grow up soon." Knowing that my league of women friends didn't have a clue as to how to help was the loneliest feeling in the world.
Then I met Robin at her garage sale. As it turned out, her daughter Ryanne was just a few months older than my daughter; like me, Robin had a passion for yoga and writing. When she agreed to meet me at the lakeside wading pool the next Saturday, I practically kissed the sky. I couldn't wait to have a meaningful connection with someone who shared my interests and could talk about the depths of mothering.
Days later, as soon as Robin and I parked our blankets and babies on the poolside grass, I launched in: "So have you written anything since Ryanne was born?"
"Wait a second," Robin said, trying to get her squirmy 11-month-old daughter out of her diaper and into a swimsuit. Once we got the girls suited up and their chubby legs dipped into the water, Robin asked, "How long have you been doing yoga?"
Just then a passing toddler accidentally splashed my daughter's face. After wiping the tears and lake water from Gabrielle's eyes, I asked, "Where were we before we got interrupted?"
"I forget," Robin said, laughing and lunging for her daughter, who had just wriggled out of her grip.
And on it went. After a few hours I began to feel frustrated, wondering how mothers managed to create intimate friendships if all they did together was childcare. But when we parted ways I was surprised to find myself feeling satiated even though we barely touched on the heartfelt conversations that I longed for. We did, however, manage to keep each other company and laugh with our babies in the sunshine. And we never once had to apologize for tending to our babies above tending to each other.
As much as I longed for intimacy and soulful truth telling, especially with other moms, I did not have the energy or freedom to nurture friendships in the ways that I used to. It was an awkward period -- a time of letting go of old friends (such as, alas, Anne) who could not accept or respect the changes in my priorities and a time of accepting my new limitations. As for my fledging friendships with other moms, at first they were indeed childcare outings. We would push our children in baby swings and strollers, sneaking in conversations literally behind their backs. With some women, such as Robin, we found our way into the self-revealing conversations that characterize what I most value about female friendships. With other moms we simply offered one another practical tips and playground companionship.
When my daughter turned 3, I found myself returning to my loyal, childfree girlfriends, finally having the freedom to join them for spontaneous movie nights or luncheon dates. Since that time, some of those old friends have become mothers themselves. Some remain my playmates -- the ones who bring out the adventurous, giggling girl in me. Others are my career cheerleaders and mentors, always checking in with my writing life, keeping me inspired and motivated in the midst of raising a family.
Motherhood has caused me to approach friendships as if they were branches on a life-sustaining tree. As a result, I've become ruthless about pruning the brittle, dead-wood branches, those friendships that refuse to bend -- draining my energy and offering no life in return. I now realize that careful pruning also makes room for new growth -- that witty, friendly mom in my son's first-grade class, the wise elder writer I met at a workshop. I've also learned how crucial it is to protect and fertilize the thick, sturdy branches of friends -- some with children, some without -- who are willing to grow and stretch along with me.
A therapist friend of mine recently conducted a survey with women who were facing the empty nest. When asked to identify what they wished they had done differently while raising young children, the majority responded that they wished they had cultivated their women friendships more. I don't know what the empty-nest transition will look like for me. My children are still young. But I suspect that when my children fly from my tree's nest, it will mark another phase of careful pruning. What I do know is that it will be those hardy and bendable branches of friends, like so many loving arms, who will carry me forth into the next season.
Seattle writer Gail Hudson is the wife of one, mother of two, and friend of many.