Before having kids, your significant relationships include—or perhaps center upon—friends. And then you have kids. Sometimes, you find yourself at a loss for friends when your kids are small. This makes sense, because your main focus is to keep them alive. Playgrounds are for … following them around. If you chat with someone around the sandbox or behind the swing you are pushing (with your child in the seat), bonus.
You look forward to the days when you won’t have to remain so vigilant about your toddler’s safety and you’ll talk to other adults again. You’ll have friends! Meantime, other people with children surround you—at preschool and then gymnastics classes or soccer games. Those people are, potentially, likable. They are, potentially, just as frazzled as you are. Your future seems bright and filled with good friends.
At least I thought so.
I was so sure that somewhere—while marooned in sitting areas, hallways, bleachers and patches of grass—I’d find my tribe. Because as my kids got a little bigger, and their schedules shifted from playground hours to preschool to elementary school to lessons and teams and performances, time when I wasn’t paying rapt attention directly to them opened up, although I was still tethered to all of their activities. So, I turned to other parents while I waited. And they turned to me. Like the miracle of M&Ms—melts in your mouth not in your hand—so very convenient and also delicious are these friendships! Giddily, we’d chat up a storm and glimpse our kids doing their versions of the same thing—living the dream.
But the dream wasn’t quite … within my grasp. I hoped I’d feel really connected, really close. I hoped for some actual friendships, ones that included each party completing full sentences. I was so delighted when a friendship gained traction. For example, I adored Barbara. We found each other in the germ-filled waiting area at the gymnastics place, just far enough away from everything to make errands or a dash home impossible. So, for eight months we walked together weekly during our kids’ gymnastics class. Our kids went to different schools and were one grade apart. Barbara and I talked about most everything—and then the class ended. Our kids didn’t go to the same camps or return to gymnastics in September. No weekly walk outside of the kids’ structured opportunities arose; we didn’t even try to find one. How could we? We had no time for that. In fact, we didn’t lay eyes upon one another for years, until our kids took part in the same dance performance. A couple of years after that, both kids were at the same high school, involved with theater, and became buddies. By then, though, we were no longer in the hallway waiting for them.
It took a while to appreciate that these friendships of camaraderie and convenience often turned out to be ephemeral. Like that lyric, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” however lovely these folks I met were, when our kids’ activities shifted, our friendships often evaporated, or at least receded beyond reach. To maintain a connection, the kind you’d ascribe to a tried-and-true friend—phone calls or texts, face-to-face time—seemed much more difficult when our parental duties included so much shuttling in different directions.
I began to realize I’d ignored the airplane rule metaphor: Rather than putting my oxygen mask on first, I’d stopped building my community in favor of my children’s activities empires. Not just me: My friends—the ones I never get to see much—and I are all consumed by our kids’ schedules, and we’re chatting with the folks we happen to see.
Nearly 20 years in, I’ve begun to think more about how this unspoken expectation that our parental duties include being seated at the edges of our children’s lives commands so much of our leisure and family time. I wonder how different, and potentially better, our families’ experiences would be if while the kids played, we adults could pursue, like for real, other things—and other people. What if, during my kids’ practices, I went on a walk with one of my friends? What if I’d done this, chosen my people, even though the kids’ activities changed? What a relief it’d be if I’d put on the oxygen mask and not felt as if I’d played hooky from my moral obligations. I’d be breathing, after all. Comfortably.
I don’t believe that to invest in my adult happiness marks me as a rebel—or at least I don’t believe it should. I’d like to see parents’ friendships move higher up on the list of priorities. When I see my kid in action, I’d also love to meet the people whose kids are playing or performing at the same time. And maybe we’d even become friends.