When was the last time you made a new friend? Or grabbed an early morning cup of coffee with an old friend? A recent study found that when women have children, they drastically reduce the amount of time they spend with their friends -- barely five hours each week, down from 14 hours a week before having a child. And yet friendships are vital to our health and our happiness.
We spent some time discussing the changing dynamics of women's friendships with journalist Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale).
Stephanie Wagle: Marla, why did you decide to write this book?
Marla Paul: I've gotten a huge response to columns I've written for the Chicago Tribune and Ladies' Home Journal magazine, so I knew friendship issues were touching women's lives around the country. We don't talk about friendship troubles. We're embarrassed about it, even ashamed of it. We blame ourselves, and then we start to question our likability, and we wonder why we don't have that fantasy group of friends that everybody else in the world must have. What women have to realize is that having a lot of close friends is, in fact, a fantasy for most people.
We have so many shifts in our modern lives that separate us from our friends. That's why I wanted to write this book, to encourage people to reach out and let them know that they're not alone. The book has a lot of good strategies about how to make and keep friends. It's very weird to try to make friends as an adult. You feel like you're being pushy or too needy. So you might make a small effort and if somebody doesn't respond with open arms, you pull back and stick your head back in the sand. Women need to learn not to take things so personally and understand that you have to be extremely patient.
SW: Why do you think friendships are so important to women? What makes it different for us than it is for men?
MP: I think we all instinctively know we feel better after spending time with a special friend. We feel energized and happier. If we share a problem with a friend, we feel less hurt. But there's also this whole new body of research showing how profoundly friendships impact our emotional and physical health. Friendships protect us from depression and anxiety. They boost our immune system, and we have a healthier cardiovascular system when we spend time with friends. Our memory is enhanced and we sleep more deeply. The list goes on about how spending time with friends and having close confidantes supports our health.
Men need friendships, too. But the research shows that women are much more soothing and comforting than men. One study placed women and men in stressful situations and it found that people who were placed with a woman had lower stress level than people who were with a man. I think women tend to be better listeners; they don't try to fix things the way men do. And for many men, their best friends tend to be their wives. Men don't seem to be as comfortable sharing emotional intimacy with each other. They get together more around activities -- sporting events or work for instance.
SW: What is the toughest challenge for pregnant women and new mothers when it comes to maintaining their friendships?
MP: Having a baby can be vastly wonderful, but it can be devastating to friendships. If you have a child and a lot of your friends don't, you'll feel like you don't have much in common anymore. On the other hand, it's hard for friends without kids to understand the hurricane of a new baby. They don't understand that you can't pick up and meet them for a drink, or take the baby to the mall on a Saturday. Your friendships will change when you have a baby, and I think it's really important to talk about that together. The women who have held on to their friendships were able to talk about the change and accept that their friendship would have a new shape.
The friend who did not have a child has to be more flexible, and understand that she'll have to give more than she gets for a while. As wonderful as a baby is, new mothers go into a crisis mode because it's so overwhelming. So, being a loving, giving friend is important. This new focus on the baby is not going to last forever -- the kid is going to go to school. One way to stay close is to be helpful: bring over dinner, offer to babysit. The kids shouldn't always be with you when you do something together, but once in a while it's a good idea.
On the flip side, the new mom has to be sensitive too. Even though the baby is the center of your life, realize that everyone is not interested in every minute detail of your baby's life. Stay interested in what's going on in your friend's life. Even though you may not be able to relate to her boyfriend troubles or work woes, you can still care about her feelings. So make sure the conversation is really balanced. And whenever possible, try to make an effort to head out to her turf. If the friend is having fertility problems, that can be really difficult, too. A new mom has to be sensitive to that, and not blather on about the joys of motherhood.
SW: Let's talk about how to make new friends after you have a baby. How do you find new mothers to be friends with?
MP: It's so important as a new mom to make friends with other new moms who are going through the same thing you're experiencing. Having a baby can be extremely isolating because you're just trying to get your baby fed, and figure out how to breastfeed, and how to give her a bath, and you're not thinking about your social life. Plus, a lot of women come from this incredibly rich social environment of working to being home alone with a crying baby. It's like a double-whammy. You're in the place where you live, but if you've been working you haven't invested a lot of energy into becoming friends with your neighbors -- you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. When you have a new baby you have a new job, which is making new friends.
Mommy & Me exercise classes are a great way to meet new moms. There's a national group that has local chapters, called Mothers & More, which can also be a great support. I've also been reading about these movie theaters that are having "Bring Your Baby Day" -- that would be a fun way to meet people. You could organize a Mom's Night Out once a month -- get together with your kids or without your kids and connect that way.
SW: In the book, you talked about "friendship bandits." What is the most common problem that women face in terms of keeping friends?
MP: For working women in particular I think it's time. There's the perception that your job sucks a lot of time out of your day, and you've got your family, and we tend not to make friendships a priority. And we suffer for it. I notice that when I'm really busy and pushing friends off until next month, I get into this emotional malaise -- I feel disconnected and crabbier with myself. In the book, I talk about a number of women who are incredibly busy, but because they realize how important these friendships are, they make the time for them. They're like magicians the way they find space in their lives for people. And their emotional makeups are much happier.
SW: Could you give some examples of how working moms and busy moms can find time for friendships?
MP: I'll tell you what some of these women have done. They meet really early in the morning for coffee, before work. They squeeze in a dinner, even though it's tricky because you feel tugged by your kids and your husband. But they do it anyway -- these are sacred spaces on their calendars where they get together with a group of friends or a girlfriend. They work out together. They walk the dog together. But if you can't find time to see each other, e-mail is fabulous, because keeping track of the details of your friend's life is essential.
SW: Can you talk about the dynamics of friendships -- how do you break up with a friend who is not right for you anymore?
MP: I've been getting this question a lot, and I think it depends on why you're breaking up. If it's somebody who is a kind person, but you just don't feel a connection, I think you could take the path of disengagement. But you have to do what you feel comfortable with. Communication is so important -- because some friendships don't have to break up. It's ideal if you can address it when the friendship is still salvageable, perhaps by saying, "I feel like our connection is weakening. What do you think?"
But when somebody betrays you, that's a little different. Then you can straight out say, "I don't want to be your friend anymore."
SW: How can you build a new friendship into a deeper, longer-lasting friendship?
MP: I think not expecting too much, too fast is important -- you don't want to scare a person. Paying attention -- if you know that something is happening in her life, follow up, whether her father is in the hospital or her birthday is coming up. Do something personal and above the norm. I had a new neighbor who, when she moved in, asked when my birthday was. Then on my birthday she brought over a little cupcake and a birthday card and I thought, "Wow, this is a really thoughtful woman." I felt very warmly toward her and that started us off on a nice relationship.
SW: Do you think the dynamics of friendships change for older women versus younger women?
MP: I don't think the rules of being a good friend change. But the issues change. When you get into your 40s and 50s, more women are divorced or even widowed, and those women are often shunned socially. It's a challenge for the married women to retain friendships with newly single friends. And it's a challenge for a woman to make her married friends comfortable with her as a newly single woman. Also, there's a retirement angle -- people lose friends as they pack up and move someplace warm for half of the year. I think older women particularly need to keep adding to their friendship pool because as people retire, move away, or become ill, that's something they're going to have to deal with.
SW: What is the difference between long-distance friends and geographically close friends? Do you think one set is more important than the other?
MP: I think you definitely need face-to-face friends who you can meet for lunch, who can give you a hug, or bring you dinner if you've had surgery. But if you have a good friend who's moved away, she's not less of a friend. The one thing I do for my long-distance friends is to be there for important events for them and their families. It helps to physically see each other once in a while.
SW: What makes a good friend?
MP: I think somebody who is really present, who really pays attention. Somebody who is a good listener, who doesn't try to give advice. Someone who's willing to be supportive and not tell you what to do, and or how you should feel. I think that's extremely valuable. And be willing to offer physical support too -- I had surgery, and a friend of mine took the time to drop off my favorite biscotti and offered to drop off dinner. Those are the people you become very close to -- the people that are really there for you.
Marla Paul is a writer living in Chicago with her husband of more than 20 years and their teenage daughter.