FROM playgroup parents to school-gate mums, most women have found themselves part of new friendship groups after the arrival of children.
In many cases, the new friends they make aren’t necessarily ones they’d have chosen, had children not been part of the picture. Nevertheless, these often-convenient friendships can mean a great deal to many mums, according to new research.
The Lancaster University study has found that having children is the single most significant factor in altering women’s friendships — for better and for worse.
Sociologist Anne Cronin, who led the research, says: “Having children, or having friends who had children, radically changes women’s friendship groups.
“Women make connections with other women through antenatal groups, playgroups, school, etc, and these friendships are very different from other friendships women have because they’re very much based on shared experiences and difficulties. Mums said they were a real lifeline for them to share the things they were going through, that nobody else could really understand.
“These strong bonds were created through the feelings for their own children, and the trust they developed through doing things like sharing childcare strengthened their bonds even more.”
However, it’s not all good news for mums on the friendship front as, while they’re making new mum friends, they’re often losing older friends who don’t have kids.
“Some women found that they lost a lot of friendships, partly because they didn’t have enough time, energy, or finances to maintain them, and others found that when their friends had children, they talked about their kids all the time, and the women without kids found it boring,” says Dr Cronin
Indeed, one of the 40 people who took part in the study said: “Then she had children and our friendship changed dramatically. She became very child-focused and that was quite difficult because she’d talk about her children all the time and I didn’t.
“In astronomical terms, she’s like a dying star of a friendship.”
The length of time that mum friendships last varies — they’re often long-lasting if children go on to the same schools, but may be lost if children go to different schools.
And if they’ve lasted ‘til children go to secondary school, a deep friendship may have formed which could dwindle and be lost after the children move on, the study found.
“That friendship bond, which had grown incredibly strong, was actually incredibly fragile, because it was a form of friendship that was made through the children, and women created their own identity and sense of what it was to be a mother through them,” says Dr Cronin.
“So they felt they were losing their children, their friends, and a sense of their own self as well.”
However, children flying the nest, or simply going to different schools, doesn’t automatically mean mum friends lose touch. Continuing with such friendships does mean women have to make a conscious effort, though, and develop new ways to meet.
“They need to start doing more ‘adult’ things, like going out for a drink,” says Dr Cronin.
“So the form of the friendship changes, but the thing that glued it together is still there. It’s just that mums might talk about how they feel about their children moving schools, or leaving home and going to university.
“In the study, there were a few really long friendships that carried on, but there were more that broke apart when the children’s situation changed, and the mothers tended to be very upset about that.”
Dr Cronin says that because mum friendships are based on connections made through children, they can sometimes also invade the intimacy of the couple or family, with mum friends often becoming part of the domestic unit through shared childcare and mutual exchanges of support.
She says: “The phrase ‘you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends’ is something we often hear. But mum friends aren’t exactly chosen — unless it’s by the kids’ own choice of friends — and yet they can become friends for life.
Laura Haugh, mum-in-resident at MummyPages.ie, agrees that mum friends are very special.
“New mums crave the advice and emotional support that only other mums who have walked in their shoes can provide,” she says. “That’s why online parenting communities and forums are so popular. The anonymity and 24/7 nature of the online parenting forums are very important for lots of mums, but it’s also important to meet other mums too in the physical world.
“I always say that you can never have enough friends, and that true friends will always be there in the good times and the bad. Friendships become harder to maintain as life becomes busier, particularly for those mums juggling work outside of the home as well as in the home. You may find that you lean on particular circles of friends at different times in your life or for different challenges you face, the important thing to remember is that a problem shared is a problem halved.”