Relationships are weird, don’t you agree? Other people are unpredictable, and the endless combination of human interactions leads to some pretty frustrating encounters. In Nicole Knows, Nicole Cliffe helps us navigate all the ridiculousness relationships come with. If you have a question for Nicole, email firstname.lastname@example.org
I give a lot to my friends. I know that I ask a lot of my friends. I really think close friendships can add a lot to long-term emotional health. In recent years I’ve seen a lot of friends get married. Now, for the first time some are starting to have children. I am really trying hard to figure out how to navigate these new friendship dynamics. How can I stay close as my friends go through these big changes that I am neither going through nor party to?
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? – Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
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I must thank you, dear letter-writer, for giving me the opportunity to do two things I have always wanted:
- Open an advice column with an aphorism that represents the greatest truth of our lives as humans.
- Solve the eternal war between people with children and people without children.
Let me also commend you for trying to get out ahead of this! So frequently when people are fumbling through the intricacies of how to navigate the changes that having kids can bring to a friendship, it’s because those changes have already eroded or complicated an existing relationship, so what they’re looking for is damage control. You, on the other hand, are a good and thoughtful person and want to prevent these issues and move forward briskly, plan in hand. I celebrate you and I sing you.
My first impulse is to wade extravagantly into the child-having issue, because it’s (in my opinion) a much more serious milestone divide between friends than the marriage one, which, honestly, is another example of being a Child Haver and assuming all that comes before is dust and water. Therefore, I will address marriage first, if briefly!
One of the reasons I think the single/dating vs. marriage divide causes less fuss is that if you’ve been with a partner for a while, you can reasonably claim to sort of understand being married. Being partnered, of course, is not just Marriage Lite, and can be a destination and not a waypoint on the road to Really Growing Up and Settling Down, and there’s nothing more aggravating to a partnered-but-unmarried couple who have been together for 40 years than having people who have been married for six months act like they’ve unlocked the next achievement level in a video game and left you behind.
That being said, modern life does not afford many situations where one finds oneself making a binding eternal vow like we’re in a Harry Freaking Potter movie, and there are tangible and intangible changes that come with marriage that can make you feel disconnected from people on the other side. If your married friends say “things are so different now that we’re maaaaaaarried!” I recommend listening supportively and with focus, and if your unmarried friends are prone to insisting you take every three-date romantic arc they encounter with the seriousness you would bring to brain surgery, return the favor.
Okay! Onto Kidgate!
I have two children, and am very pregnant with my third. I was also one of the first people in my friendship group to have kids, while my husband was one of the last people in his friendship group to have kids, so I’ve seen both sides of this situation, and I’d like to think I can help you, at least a little.
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The metaphor I use most frequently to describe crossing the threshold from Not Having Kids to Having Kids is that of Engywook and the Riddle Gate from The Neverending Story (the superb Michael Ende novel as opposed to the subsequent great movie, but you’ll follow along fine.) Engywook has spent his life on the threshold of the Riddle Gate, studying those weird Sphinxes, desperate to know what the experience of being allowed to pass through them is like. And whenever he prepares someone for the task, he’s like please come back and tell me what it’s like and people always promise that they will, but once they’ve been through, they’re not actually able to explain it. Makes him nuts.
This is a roundabout way of saying that yes, things change when people have kids, and it’s very difficult to explain, the transformation (whether your children be biological or adopted) being mostly alchemical, but also that promises and assurances made on the threshold of child-having tend to dissolve, like tears in rain. Which is why there are so many jokes about people saying “well, when I have children, I’m not going to…” or “my kids will never” or the perennial favorite: “it’s not going to change our lives, we’re just going to incorporate our children INTO our EXISTING lives.”
Therefore, you will frequently meet up with your friends who have just passed through the Riddle Gate of Child-Having and find them blinking and vulnerable and sleepy and irrational and frustrating and changed and wonder, as you are currently wondering, how best to be friends with them. They are not quite the same friends you had before!
Now we come to the true pickle, and the reason for my Pride and Prejudice aphorism: despite all your best efforts to bridge this gap via thoughtfulness and casseroles and Skype, you may both become ridiculous to the other. Ideally this will be for a limited time, but you must accept and embrace this. It’s natural and beautiful, and how humans are. New parents are ridiculous in the ways they interact with their friends From Before and people who don’t have kids are ridiculous in the ways they interact with their new-parent-friends, and that’s fine. It adds flavor to life. You get to meet, interact, and then go home separately laughing wryly at each other. As time passes, you will probably find yourselves becoming less ridiculous to each other, though not always.
“Despite all your best efforts to bridge this gap via thoughtfulness and casseroles and Skype, you may both become ridiculous to the other.”