I had a fantasy when I was pregnant. I thought perhaps after I gave birth, a door would open with smiling women standing in doorway, beckoning me into a new wonderland teeming with other moms. Some part of me believed that moms would stop me at the supermarket with great advice, bond with me at Mommy and Me, and exchange secret handshakes at playgrounds. Any troubles I’d had building satisfying adult friendships would be mended by this common link we had—motherhood.
Although it’s a common fantasy to new moms, we all soon learn that the reality is quite different. Yes, having children brings all sorts of new adults into our lives. But as often as not, we won’t quite jell with these new acquaintances. The elementary school parents can sometimes start to feel like a high school clique, or the Stroller Strides group members are all younger. Just like before we had children, we won’t feel drawn to everyone we meet, and most moms aren’t going to magically become our new BFF.
The farther along you are in the parenting, the more discerning you become about friendships. It’s wonderful to open your arms to the seemingly never-ending flow of new faces that your kids bring into your life, but it helps to focus on the following categories. These are the moms who will truly enhance your parenting and your life:
1. The Mom Who Doesn’t Compare Your Kids
We’ve all experienced the parent who’s so focused on her child that she’s become a bit competitive. “Shakira is reading Harry Potter,” she’ll announce of her kindergartener. “How is your Jane doing with her reading?” Since Jane is still struggling through her I Can Read! booklet, you shrink from the conversation. In my experience, this happens more when kids are young. Mommy and Me groups can be our only way of seeing how other kids are developing, so it’s normal to compare—but it’s also anxiety provoking. Look for the mom who isn’t contrasting your child with hers. (If she’s too busy scarfing her toddler’s cheese sticks to be evaluating his eating habits, I consider that a good sign.)
As the kids get older, comparisons tend to be more subtle. If an elementary school mom is particular about who her child plays with, that’s a clue that she’s judging other kids and finding many of them inadequate for her child. That kind of mom, even if she finds your child delightful, can make you feel like you and your kid have to measure up. Look instead for open-minded, open-hearted parents who recognize that all kids have good and bad qualities, good and bad days.
2. The Mom Who’s Willing to Smack-Talk about Her Kids
Just as it can feel uncomfortable to hang out with a mom who compares, it can also be a chore to spend time with someone who unfailingly adores her children, to the point of blindness. No one’s kid is perfect, and parenting is stressful. But as Danielle and Astro Teller noted in an essay on Quartz titled How American Parenting Is Killing the American Marriage, (http://qz.com/273255/how-american-parenting-is-killing-the-american-marriage/) “We are allowed to say bad things about our spouses, our parents, our aunts and uncles, but try saying, ‘My kid doesn’t have a lot of friends because she’s not a super likable person’ and see how fast you get dropped from the PTA.”
When I get caught at a school function talking to a Pollyanna who thinks her kids walk on water, I start to feel unworthy and, worse yet, bored. Better to engage in lively conversation with a mom who sees reality. That conversation can be bitter, empathetic, and authentic, and more often than not, funny.
Connecting with the mom who has a wry sense of humor about her kids, her parenting, and her partner is like getting a gift. Someone who’s willing to whisper at the dance recital that her daughter is completely out of step can make us feel that she’ll be much more accommodating of our mistakes. And she helps us see that there isn’t a pinnacle of perfection we’re struggling toward, but rather a wonderful middle ground of both strife and joy.
3. The Mom Who Gives Help
It’s an odd fact of life that having kids means that, at just the moment our lives get overwhelming and over-scheduled, we’re surrounded by new acquaintances and often hesitant to ask them for help. It’s hard to keep in mind that we’re all going through it—even that mom over there with a nanny and an eager grandparent—and it truly takes a village to raise a child.
Some moms are ready to offer help, generous with their time, and loving to your child. If you find one like that, shower her with praise and homemade cookies, and overlook the fact she’s late all the time or doesn’t discipline her children the way you prefer. She’s worth her weight in gold for the sense of community she provides, and the invaluable peace that comes from knowing that, if you schedule Evan’s baseball game at the exact time as Parisa’s photography lesson, there’s someone out there who can lend a minivan.
4. The Mom Who Takes Help
Who wants to continually ask for favors without ever being able to reciprocate? A true mom friend also knows how to lean on you. The feeling is that you need each other, rather than that you’re the only one who feels sometimes rushed, lonely, or emergency-prone.
Gravitate toward the mom who is secure enough to reach out when she needs a hand. This relationship will feel more mutual, more equal. Plus, every time she asks for help is one more time you get to ask her. Someone who gives without ever taking feels superior, as if she has no needs while yours are never-ending.
5. The Mom Who Gets Your Child
As important as it is to truly like your new mom friend, it is just as key that she truly likes your child. We all need someone who can help us see the best in our kids on those days when we’re too fed up to remember their superior qualities. Or even when—especially when—the mom commiserates with us about how terribly our son is behaving, it’s crucial that she understand him. My best friends can remind me how my daughter’s moodiness is linked to her wonderful emotional openness and honesty, and praise her growth and self-control even when I’m frustrated that she isn’t as calm as the other kids in the play group.
It’s easy to forget the big picture when we’re focused on the minutiae of our kids’ lives and their development. Great friends can present a balanced view that helps calibrate us. They support us, but also feel supportive of our partnerships and our children. “That’s just Sam’s personality,” they soothe us when we’re utterly tired of Sam’s shyness, rebelliousness, or perfectionism. Or they offer my favorite excuse: “It’s because he’s gifted.”
6. The Mom Who Reminds You What You Love about Parenting
While we need the mom friends who can carp, complain, and commiserate—in short, can keep it real—we also need the ones who drag us back to the light. There’s so much to love about raising our children, and having a buddy who enjoys her life encourages us to enjoy ours. We can learn from our friends’ strengths as well as feel comforted by their weaknesses. On a recent school day, I kept my younger daughter home after she was awake all night. When I called my friend awash in frustration that neither of us had slept and we’d both have to miss our appointments, my friend suggested mildly, “Have fun with her today. It’s like a gift.” Suddenly my whole perspective shifted so I could see the day as an opportunity rather than a loss.
So my original fantasy was a bust; I won’t be romping in a golden-lit utopia of mom friendships anytime soon. The reality of the world of new parent pals is something much better: a chance, with every one of my kids’ new schools or new activities, to meet one or two like-minded ladies to bond with. And whether we become lifelong soulmates or just temporary besties, these wonderful, flawed, lively mommies make the journey so much more gratifying.