After my son, Jack, was born, a friend texted me and said, “Congratulations! I’ll see you when he’s six.” I smiled, not knowing if he was joking. He wasn’t joking. Jack is now five and a half, and my friend wasn’t exactly right but eerily close—I have seen him maybe three or four times since that fateful, extraordinary, stressful, life-changing day.
That friend wasn’t the only one to drop off. After I became a dad, my social life atrophied, practically overnight. Having a kid, as any parent knows, instantly transforms your relationship to almost everything and everyone, including friends you once considered the most important people in your life. Some friends will drift away, some you will inadvertently ignore, and still others will ignore the very fact of your new parenthood (“C’mon, this fourth glass of wine isn’t going to drink itself!”). And, of course, you yourself will engage, consciously or not, in a kind of friendship triage, during which your social circle will get mercenarily rearranged: Who will bring over home-cooked meals? Who will watch the baby while you take a shower? Who will expertly feign interest in your monologues about infant bowel movements? Just as good sleep will vanish and your sex life diminish, so too will your social circle shrink—or, at least, be completely altered.
What I didn’t expect, and what I’m still grappling with, is how persistent, multi-faceted and disorienting this transformation can be. It hit me last summer when my wife, Liz, was away for a weekend. Jack spent a night with his grandparents, and so I had, for the first time in forever, a night to myself. I thought I might go out and see a movie. But I didn’t want to go alone, and when I thought about who could join me, my list of potential dates was depressingly short. Half the people I might have once called up now had kids of their own and couldn’t get away on such short notice. Many more were people I had been neglecting, I realized, for months, even years. I felt a sudden, surprising spasm of loneliness. And a complicated wave of other emotions came in its wake: guilt, sadness, a bit of fear. I’d once been proud of the number of good friendships I had; they made me the person I was. Now that I was a parent, I had become somehow both more and less than that person. When Jack was born, it was obvious we needed our friends to help us raise him, and they did. But now I realized that I needed more from friendship, that those relationships gave me identity and purpose beyond my role as a parent. I was afraid that if I didn’t revive those old friendships or cultivate new ones, frankly, I’d end up miserable.
I didn’t call anybody that night. I stayed home and watched reruns of The Office on Netflix. I knew my relationships with most of my friends had changed, but when, and how, was I going to get those friends back?
A growing loneliness
If you’ve just become a parent, it’s very possible you’re in your 30s; in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, almost 46 percent of first births were to mothers age 30 and older. Congratulations on the new baby, but I’m also sorry to say that if you’re in your 30s, you are probably also losing, or have lost, many of the friendships you had in the previous decade—whether you’re a parent or not. In your late 20s, the number of friendships you have starts to plummet, according to Emily Langan, an associate professor of communication at Wheaton College in Illinois who studies interpersonal relationships. “That’s historically true,” she says, “and it’s more true now. A lot of the data is saying we have fewer quality friendships than previous generations had.” Blame increased mobility (people move more frequently now for work and other opportunities) or social media (ease of communication makes for shallow, disposable relationships), but no matter when and where you live, as you age, there are simply greater demands on your time. “We see a consistent decline in friendships over the course of life, and that’s because of the choices we make about our time,” Langan says. “I don’t think we have less of it—I think we make different choices about how we spend it.”
Langan suggests our western culture is particularly afflicted by the loss of friendship, and even if this is debatable, what’s definitely true is that our anxiety around the idea of loneliness has grown. In the UK, it’s estimated that more than nine million adults often or always feel lonely. That prompted the government this year to appoint a minister for loneliness, tasked with establishing policies to help measure and assuage isolation across all sectors of society. Various recent studies have shown how harmful loneliness can be to your health; in a Harvard Business Review essay, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called it “a growing health epidemic,” as bad for your well-being as smoking cigarettes.
Loneliness affects pretty much everyone at some point in their lives, but it comes in different forms and concentrations, arriving at different times and places. But just as the loneliness of a confused teen feels unlike the loneliness of a confused senior, the loneliness of parenting has its own peculiarities. In her 2014 book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior cites a 2009 study that surveyed over 1,300 mothers and found that 80 percent of them believed they didn’t have enough friends and 58 percent of them felt lonely. She doesn’t quote stats on lonely men but discovered plenty of them as well among stay-at-home dads. “The first year, I was incredibly isolated,” one father told a support group Senior observed. That isolation, I’ve learned, from my own experience and from other parents, can lead to a host of problems, minor and major: increased anxiety, a loss of autonomy, exhaustion, depression. Friends don’t necessarily prevent or relieve all of these things in anyone’s life, but the loss of friendship, or even a perceived or temporary loss, can certainly exacerbate them.
In the past decade or so, the word “matrescence” has come into popular use, used to describe the disorienting, even debilitating, identity shift (comparable to adolescence) that comes with new motherhood. Liz didn’t use the term herself, but when she was on maternity leave, she did seek to ameliorate the feeling by joining mom meet-up groups (one in real life, three on Facebook, plus two music groups for Jack) for both the emotional support and the social life. “It was good to have camaraderie,” she says now. “Not only were people free to hang out, but they were going through the same stuff I was.” At the same time, however, “it felt like going back to high school,” she says. “What do you mean I have to make friends with all these people I don’t know?”
We quickly learned that after you become a parent, your friends suddenly fall into three different categories: those who don’t have kids, those who do have kids, and those you’re friends with because of your kid. Before I became a dad, I didn’t really notice this division (and I wasn’t even aware of the third category), but post-Jack, I found the segregation preposterous. I wanted to keep hanging out with my childless friends, but now I had less time for them. I couldn’t stay out as late; I complained, predictably, about the cost of babysitters. At the same time, some of those friends seemed to have less time for me. One childless friend, a psychotherapist in her mid-40s, told me a couple of years ago that her social circle had started to skew younger, that she was increasingly hanging out with people in their 20s and early 30s because friends her age were too busy with their new families. And when she did spend time with her parent friends, conversations could get tedious. “Don’t spend the first 20 minutes we’re together talking about what school you’re going to send your kid to,” she told me. Another friend, who’s 41 and also doesn’t have kids, went in the opposite direction: Many of her friends are now empty nesters in their 50s and 60s.
Even before Jack, I only saw these particular friends every couple of months or so, and those meetings tended to happen more spontaneously or accidentally—at a party, say. Now it’s hard to tell what I miss more: those specific friendships or the ease with which they kind of bounced along, or the life I once had that allowed for such casual, low-pressure relationships. Now, however, my friendships are much more utilitarian and governed, to a large extent, by my kid. After Jack arrived, the world opened up in many ways—neighbours we never even noticed before struck up conversations; the community centre, library and various drop-in programs became daily haunts; Liz and I learned just how many parks were within walking distance. At all of these places, we made small talk with strangers and formed fleeting friendships. When Jack started daycare and then kindergarten, he made friends, we became friendly with his friends’ parents. Playdates were organized; birthday parties attended. I stood in the schoolyard most mornings after drop-off, talking T-ball with dads and summer vacation plans with moms.
If my previous friendships had developed like most people’s do—gradually and organically, out of shared interests, experiences or community—these new ones started because we shared just one specific thing: kids. And, over time, even as a few of these friendships developed and became more “real,” they still remained largely superficial and unsatisfying. How much time can you spend talking about summer vacations, really? With Jack now about to start grade one, we’ve found only one other couple that we’ve bonded with in a way that feels meaningful beyond our kids’ friendship. (Ironically enough, the kids themselves aren’t great friends, no matter how much we try to nudge that along.) All of this was contributing, as well, to the sense of loss I felt. I wanted my nascent friendships to feel as profound and intense as my youthful ones did.
Maybe it’s better to think about friendship in a different way, Langan suggests. “The nice part about friendship is that it isn’t confined to a particular kind of relationship,” she says. “You might have very different friendships as a parent than you had in your 20s, but they may be a good different.” Whereas friendships when you’re younger can be all-consuming and all-or-nothing, it’s better to accept in later adult life both the capaciousness and the limits of friendship. Your boss can be your friend, your sister can be your friend, your kid’s hockey coach can be your friend—none will provide everything you might want in a friendship, but each will provide something you want and need.
Starting to rebuild
I love being a dad, and I love being identified as a dad. But I also mourn the parts of my life that have been supplanted by Jack’s needs and desires. I used to play softball and soccer, for example, and now I take Jack to T-ball and soccer. My oldest friend is Jack’s most beloved uncle. They see each other at least once a week, but for the first few years of my son’s life, it was surprisingly frustrating that Jack absorbed all of my friend’s attention. Trying to have a conversation about anything else was impossible. As delighted as I was that they were so close, I selfishly also missed the chummy, private bond my pal and I had developed over 30 years.
I understand the feeling: Jack is the most fascinating person I know right now. There are many moments when I’m out with friends, talking about the usual dispiriting things that preoccupy most people in their 30s and 40s (romantic woes, job insecurity, expanding waistlines), when I think I’d much rather be at home with a joyful, wide-eyed five-year-old who’s experiencing everything in the world for the first time.
As Langan reminded me, unlike being a parent or a sibling or a child, being a friend is a voluntary association. It’s one that’s often put aside when major events, like, say, becoming a parent, occur. “By its very definition,” she says, “maintenance is going to be required.” So, since that initial brush with loneliness last summer, I’ve tried to revive some withered relationships. The results have been mixed, but it helps to acknowledge explicitly that the time we now have is limited—the intimacy of conversations is now accelerated. (Maybe, paradoxically, it helps having a kid in this regard, too; adult conversation is rarer and more precious.) I’ve also opened my mind to new possible friends in the playground. I’ve tried strenuously to find things beyond our kids to talk about, to focus on other parents as people, too. It’s at least easier to have deeper conversations now that we don’t have to catch toddlers falling off the monkey bars.
Sooner than I like, Jack will be old enough that, as fascinating as he will still be to me, I likely won’t be to him—I’ll be lucky if he acknowledges me on the street. Already, his favourite, most wounding, insult is, “You’re not my friend anymore.” He uses it on me at least a couple of times a week. I’ll miss these early years just as much as I’m missing my old friends. But maybe my new friends will, by then, be my old friends.
This article was originally published in September 2018.