October 20, 2020

How to Handle a Mom-Friend Breakup

L and I connected online, as pregnant women sometimes do. I began reading her blog, and she mine. We met at a downtown café, where we shared a waffle with ice cream, a few weeks after exchanging our first emails. During our pregnancies, we went to the same prenatal education classes — birthing, breastfeeding, infant first aid. We swapped yoga and baby-wearing and infant-clothing resources.

Soon after the birth of our children, two months apart, when coffee dates were far fewer, we began to text each other daily while nursing our babies to sleep. That year, we bonded over not only nipple blebs and sleep training, but also my recurrent ovarian cysts, her disagreements with her mother-in-law, my then-husband’s travel schedule, and her demanding new job. As my daughter and her son became more mobile, we met at the park or indoor play spaces.

On the morning of my daughter’s first birthday, L messaged, “Happy birth day to you!” — a friendly reminder that the day was just as much a celebration of me as it was of my child.

But in our second year of parenthood, our trail of messages thinned. We rarely met up. I learned she was well into her second trimester with her second child, not directly from her, but after parsing a comment on her social media. No single event marked our relationship’s end, just our slow realization that, despite the intimacy of that first tumultuous year, beyond the traumas of infancy, we had little in common.

Countless articles and books exhort pregnant women to find their postpartum “squad,” breathlessly promising bonds that can last a lifetime. And for some, this narrative does indeed play out: Women meet as new parents, and because of perseverance or luck (or both), they find priceless connection. For others, however, friendships forged in the crucible of early parenting are merely transitional, temporal or even transactional, and can often be complicated by big emotions — from confusion to grief — when they don’t turn out as expected.

We seek connection during times of upheaval, explained Juli Fraga, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco. Early parenting is intense and nonstop. Who better empathizes with a new parent than another new parent?

“The need for support in new parenting is so strong,” Fraga said. “But oftentimes, we don’t know a person outside of their role as a parent, and we mistake intimate moments — at what other stage of your life are you lifting up your shirt with zero self-consciousness? — as emotional intimacy. Those are two very different things.” The latter requires vulnerability and transparency, and new parents, in the maelstrom of the arrival of a new child, may not have the ability to form such close, sturdy familiarities.

Fraga, whose child is aged 11, recalled her own early-parenting friendships and how, like me, she grew apart from a mom friend. “One mother stopped talking to me and responding to my emails,” Fraga said. “It was very confusing.”

Jennifer Page’s friend “breakup” happened later, in her daughter’s early childhood, after she and her child became close to another mother-daughter pair at day care. Each mother would host regular play dates, but over time, as their children became more independent, “there were more awkward silences in our conversations,” said Page, a higher-education professional in western Massachusetts whose child is now 11. And once their daughters declined to spend time with one another, simply outgrowing their own friendship, the mothers’ interactions also dwindled. “I really felt the loss in my life,” Page said. “She was the person I talked to about everyday things, and it just faded away.”

While many friendships gradually grow faint, mostly because of time, space or disinterest, other splits are precipitated by larger tensions in a relationship, from differences in parenting styles (now stretched to include differences in how to respond to the coronavirus threat), to politics and religion, to monumental shifts in family dynamics, such as death or divorce.

Evelyn Shoop, a Portland-based writer and consultant whose children are 10, 8 and 4 years old, struggled with parenting an “intense child,” as well as postpartum depression, and encountered judgment from friends who were parents. “I would get suggestions about books to read and techniques to use,” she said. “It’s tough because a lot of advice we give to others in early parenting is about reassuring ourselves that we’re doing a good job.” Shoop found the advice rarely met her needs.

A friendship that has ended in a difference of opinion or simply drifted apart isn’t ultimately meaningless. These connections have great worth, whether in the short- or long-term. “They can provide validation and a sense of belonging with a group of people who are also going through the same life change, and also a social outlet — motherhood can be lonely — or a confidant,” Fraga said. “During the first year of parenting so much attention is focused on the infant, and less so on the mother. A friend who can hold that space, and listen, can be indispensable.”

Page said that her friends in early parenthood were “a lifeline” in a way that her then-partner couldn’t be. “Even though the friendships didn’t last, and I may have some sadness around that, I’m so grateful that I had them,” she said. “To be seen and heard and understood by another person was so valuable.”

Mom friends also often serve an outsized role in a new mother’s life. “It’s not only connection to the shared experience and camaraderie,” said Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D, a Denver-based clinical psychologist in private practice and author of “Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process.” “So many parents are raising their children away from extended family.”

There is also much to learn from any relationship, no matter how fleeting. Eight years on, I have come to appreciate L’s necessary companionship — and to cherish such “seasonal” friendships. Shoop has recalibrated her expectations for friendships between the births of her first and third children: “The cadences of my friendships are different,” she said. “Early parenting is full of ideas and expectation, but very little experience under your belt.”

Ziegler advises women to reconsider actively grieving friendships that have ended. “Not everybody thinks of a lost friendship as grief necessarily,” she said. “You are much happier when you get to a place of realizing that your kid’s best friend’s mom might not have been somebody who you necessarily think you would have chosen out of a crowd to be your friend.”

Fraga, drawing from both her personal and professional experience, suggested that it’s worth asking yourself what kind of friendships you need in parenthood, and how you can form those, rather than pursuing relationships that you have been convinced are necessary. “The best way we can continue to cultivate intimate relationships with other people is to continue to cultivate intimate relationships with ourselves,” Fraga said. “Ask yourself: How did that feel? What kind of relationships do I want to have? What is important?”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.