The “mommy wars” ended my dearest friendship. What makes this especially bizarre is that neither of us were mommies yet, and the debate was purely hypothetical.
Let me back up. Jen and I were college roommates. The moment we met, as our parents lugged bookshelves and computers into our room, she lifted her eyebrows and whispered, “Let’s go have a cigarette.” She had a marvelous quality of being always just on the verge of laughter, lips perpetually curling up, eyes wide, making anyone who talked to her feel clever and hilarious and appreciated. Hanging out on the lawn or getting a pizza with Jen was the most fun, reassuring, supportive part of the day. We confided our conflicts with our families, particularly the mothers who had raised us and the fathers who were present but distant. We counseled each other through many ill-advised romances. She got me through a very difficult four years.
And then college ended and we entered our unmoored 20s, when one is supposed to be doing…something, career-wise and romance-wise, but we didn’t exactly know what that something was. We worked minimum-wage gigs to pay the rent and struggled in creative fields. We had more ill-advised romances. Our previous giddy, giggly rapport slid into depressed conversations about lousy men and Office Space-type jobs.
My favorite thing about Jen had always been her enthusiasm—she threw herself into things in a way that was hugely attractive, even if I didn’t share her passions: Pearl Jam. Ralph Nader. A Russian guy she met on a Greyhound and lived with for three years. But then, as we rounded the corner into our 30s, the passions got both weirder and more specific. It was as if her obsessive personality scanned the horizon like a searchlight, pausing briefly on completely random things: Hospitality school, for a semester. Organic farming, for a summer. Wearing vinegar for deodorant, for way too long. Yo La Tengo.
And then her attention landed, seemingly randomly, on the mommy wars; specifically, her belief that women should not work outside the home once children arrive. It was a cause that she took on like she’d taken on Nader or The Farm—completely all consuming. She began dating a mutual friend of ours, a man we’d both known in college. Very early on, she pressed him to agree that should they get married, she would stay home with the children. Our friend (her boyfriend) demurred, understandably baffled at being forced to take a stance on a complex, and at the moment, totally hypothetical, issue. On the second date.
“I just don’t want to go further in this relationship unless we’re on the same page, ideologically,” she said to me when I urged her to drop it.
“This is a weird thing to force a guy to commit to on the second date,” I said. “It’s not like, say, Judaism, where if you want to marry someone Jewish you need to suss that out early on. This is something that couples figure out down the road.”
“I want to figure it out now,” she said. And so she continued to hound our friend, who stuck with the relationship for a few more months, though he did try to persuade her that maybe they should get to know each other before making any big decisions about child care.
But then the argument began to occupy most of our conversations too. She came to visit me and brought a copy of a popular anti-feminist book, a book that purported to quantify exactly how much working wasn’t “worth it” for mothers. She seemed fanatical on the topic—again, a topic we had no personal investment in—and seemed determined to argue to death on the subject. Now, I like a good argument as well as anyone, but over the course of months it wore me down.
Finally I had to say, “Look, I can’t capitulate on this subject. Please note that both of our mothers were working mothers and we were not harmed. But anyway, I just can’t talk about it anymore. There are other things in the world to talk about.” And she said, essentially, “This is an issue that I am passionate about, and I can’t not talk about it.” And I said, “So, let’s not talk then.” And that was it, eight years ago.
This is nuts, right? To let one argument end a 15-year friendship? When I think back on it, I agree, it’s nuts. But in all the time since then, when I’ve thought about reconciling, about calling and apologizing, I’ve stopped myself—not because of the original argument, but because of everything that led up to it: the obsessing about an ideological topic to the exclusion of everything else. (The mommy wars was just the latest. Vegetarianism, quickly abandoned, was the loudest.) The love affairs with totally inappropriate men, which came along with declarations of her undying love within days of meeting them. She rhapsodized about sexual encounters in graphic terms, even when I indicated I didn’t want to hear. Every conversation was like a five-alarm fire in some direction: outrage, depression, love or sex.
The passion I’d admired in the girl seemed to be hardening into mania in the woman, and it was exhausting. Our conversations no longer flowed, bouncing along different topics, punctuated by laughter. Now every interaction with her meant enduring a rant. We were 33 then, and things had been sliding downhill for years. I gave up. That final fight was just the door swinging shut.
Sometimes I wish I had just “browned out” on the friendship rather than the fast blackout. Stamping my foot, metaphorically speaking, was a childish end. A more mature me would have just taken a step back from the friendship for a spell and let things naturally recalibrate themselves, as usually happens.
But all in all, I don’t regret it. Friendships should be nurturing and comforting, and while things ebb and flow—sometimes you need more attention; sometimes your friend does—it has to balance out over time. When every conversation feels like heavy lifting for months or years on end, it’s time to end it.
We’re 41 now, aging in different states. I have kids, and the complexities of balancing child care and work are all too immediate. I hope she’s found the life that she wanted, staying at home with her kids, working in her organic garden, maybe still listening to Pearl Jam. I’m happy, and I’m happy with my friendships. I hope she is too.