Can friends and toddlers mix?

There appear to be many people out there who believe having toddlers is a fabulous way of giving your entire family’s social life a boost. You pick up on your children’s playgroup friendships, you invite both kids and their parents over for braais, park dates and beach dinners – and before you can say ‘climbing frame’, you have an instant Multipurpose Friend Network, with Emergency Lifting built in to boot.

I am not one of these people. I am over thirty and a working mother - I need a whole bunch of new friends with stick-on kids like I need a dry-clean-only white business suit. What I need is to find some way to manage my toddlers and the friends I already have at the same time. And let’s face it – when you have children, friendship is no longer as easy as having a favourite pub in common.

There are, of course, two versions of adult friends at this age – those with children and those without. When it comes to those without, I pride myself on being a fairly sensitive kidded person. I do not inflict my toddlers on others without ample prior warning. I am careful to make clear demarcations between Adult and Child-Friendly time. I try not to talk about my children unless someone is either paying me to do so, or has expressed a specific interest in one or other of them.

I did recently have a particularly revealing experience, though. I was in a bookstore, energetically arguing with my sons over the merits of owning yet another Bob the Builder video, when I looked up to find some childless friends looking down at me pityingly.

‘These must be…Them,’ Childless Husband remarked dryly, briefly glancing at my sons before moving off. I have known this couple for over ten years, and see them socially fairly frequently. I have had children for over four years and this was their first interaction. And, I am hoping, for all concerned, the last.

But at least with unkidded friends, the issues tend to be obvious enough to deal with on a case-by-case basis. It is the parent friends who are more likely to present more of a poser.

There is this prevailing myth that most of us buy into at some level – ‘if we have children around the same age, we should be friends’. And convenience definitely is a factor, but too much reliance on that aspect can negate the whole purpose of having friendships in the first place – which is to provide you with a little fun and emotional support.

‘When you have children, it becomes very important to preserve at least some separate adult space for yourself,’ says clinical psychologist, Monica Spiro. ‘If all your friends have children, you need to guard against perpetually sacrificing that space altogether.’

I know a group of women friends who meet for dinner once a month and have only one rule: that they don’t mention their children. That way the mother vs. single divide eases up and everyone can concentrate on reconnecting as individuals, at least for one evening. This monthly Girls Night seems to act as a friendship recharger – allowing the women to spend the rest of the month happily doing parkland picnics and family bunfight brunches, surrounded by shrieking toddlers, safe in the knowledge that their own relationships – the whole reason the bevy of husbands, kids, dogs, etc. got to know each other in the first place – are still solid in their own right.

And then there are the actual practicalities of a room/garden full of parents and toddlers… and a whole range of parenting techniques just waiting to rub each other up the wrong way.  Discipline differences can create huge tension, for example. Take my husband, who believes in anarchic parenting (I kid you not) and is therefore non-violently against any form of discipline stronger than ‘Do you think it was a good idea to bite your brother?’. Put him in a garden with my friend Angela, who has a wooden spoon with an unhappy face kokied onto it… and it doesn’t take too long before there is a certain frisson in the air and the fence starts closing in.

‘People take their parenting roles very seriously and very personally,’ says Spiro, ‘and while it is very hard not to take umbrage at challenges, or even perceived challenges, from your friends – it is important to try and keep competitiveness and clashes of this nature to a minimum. Take a step back, acknowledge differences in this highly prickly realm, and try to respect them.’

Parenting style clashes are one thing, but what about actual personality clashes? What if your children hate each other? Or, even harder, what if you seriously dislike your friend’s child? Not easy at all.

‘I have a real issue with my friend’s little girl,’ says Sarah, a 38-year-old mother of two young daughters. ‘She gets her own way all the time, she bosses my children around, she domineers the conversation, chooses the games, hogs the toys… to be frank, whenever they are over I spend most of the time waiting for them to leave. And this is one of my best friends. It is horrible.’

‘Situations like this can be terribly awkward,’ says Spiro. ‘It is very hard to discuss the problem – the best way is often simply to create a little distance in the relationship, in the hope that as the children grow and develop, the problems might resolve themselves.’

Which seems like sound advice. In fact, it all sounds very similar to the situation one faces when your friends pair up with new partners, and you need to feel your way around that new relationship too. In the end, if the friendship is strong enough, you find a way to survive both annoying new partners and annoying new children, if necessary. And if the friendship can’t take it. Well, perhaps it has run it’s course. Like my friendship with the Smug Bookshop Couple.

Of course you can have friends and toddlers at the same time. Just like you can have a marriage and toddlers, or a job and toddlers. It is just, well… perhaps a little more challenging than you were expecting. Welcome to motherhood.

Do you still have friends? How is the relationship between your friends and your toddler?

Read more by Sam Wilson

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