We of the far-flung families share a situation where we have to look to each other for help because there is no one else, and nobody can do it alone.
The scene: Christmas Eve in Boston. The weather is rainy and unseasonably warm, the dregs of paltry December snowfall washed away in a March-like, sooty wetness. Still, we have a modestly decorated and perpetually shedding tree sheltering a mountain of presents for my 3-year-old daughter, a pork shoulder marinating in the fridge, and plenty of alcohol, cookies, and chocolate to ensure an indulgent holiday earned by a year sponsored by Satan and the annual rationalizations that win out over any intentions not to gain five pounds by January 1st.
My husband and I decided to stay home this year, opting to put on our own Christmas for the first time since our daughter was born. My mother has arrived bearing a laundry basket of presents and apple crisp. The four of us walk to a condo a few blocks away, where our friends and their 3-year-old have invited us to a seafood pasta dinner.
It is a makeshift Christmas unlike any my husband and I had as children ourselves. Jason and I both grew up in small towns home to large extended families—our holidays included grandparents, aunts and uncles, and gaggles of cousins. My family’s holidays were noisy affairs with predictable meals (roast beef, mashed potatoes, and this salad with a dressing only my aunt could perfect) and rhythms I knew as well as my own heartbeat.
But Jason and I would enjoy no such familiarity when we became adults. Like most of our 30-something cohort, we entered a post-industrial job market, and had to chase the moving target of stable employment to states sometimes thousands of miles from our origins. I grew up in upstate New York, Jason, in rural Alabama, and our daughter was born in western Wisconsin, about equidistant from all of her extended family, who have learned to be part of her life mainly through Facebook and Skype. We’ve since moved to Boston, making it possible for my mother to drive up to see us monthly, which is awesome. But the day-to-day of our parenting includes none of the relatives whose houses were just extensions of my own as a kid.
Isolation is the dark underbelly of parenthood in America, a country famous for its pro-life extremists, but stingy parental leave, unsubsidized childcare, underfunded public schools, and privatized healthcare. And the pervasive current of loneliness and anxiety that runs through the lives of today’s new parents is magnified by geographic isolation that deprives us of affordable babysitting and regular exercise.
Enter: Mom’s groups. Playdates. Music classes. Strollercizing. Baby Boot Camp. Paint ‘N Play. Mama and Me yoga.
We dismiss and make fun of parents whose lives become indistinguishable from their kids’, but look, those meme-worthy activities include other parents. In other words, potential adult friends! Such expensive structured play in cities populated by transplants is really just friendship speed-dating in disguise. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
We met the friends with whom we spent Christmas Eve at a seasonal weekly outdoor concert for kids in our neighborhood. Their son and our daughter are only a month apart in age, and though I have only a vague recollection of that first encounter, I’d bet my next paycheck that we bonded over fruits and veggies in pouch form and conversation regularly interrupted by meltdowns. Basically, it was an impossible time for any of us to be at our best.
I agree with fellow Role Reboot writer Lindsay King-Miller that parents do well to incorporate child-free friends into their lives. Friends without kids do wonders in reminding you of your individual worth and the world outside your baby’s nursery. Jason and I love getting together with my child-free college roommates, who also live in the Boston area, precisely because they see our kid as a necessary add-on, rather than the main thrust for socializing. They’ve kept us in the know on important matters like the Trillium Brewing Company and where to get excellent, reasonably priced oysters. They steer the conversation blessedly toward politics, work issues, and benign gossip.
But parenthood has changed the nature of friendship for me in deep and permanent ways. I need a lot less from my friends—their time, for instance, which I can’t reciprocate anyway—and I’m finally able to need my friends in different, more individual ways that honor their strengths and accept their humanity.
And when it comes to being friends with other parents, I’ve found some freeing patterns that not only make motherhood better, but also aging in general.
My parent friends exist both online and in person, but they share many of the same characteristics. The mothers I run with have a special kind of ambition to just be OK. They have well-honed bullshit meters applicable to everyone, including themselves. They are Maggie Smith hilarious. They don’t care what condition your house is in, or if you made it to the gym this week, or if the only thing your kid has eaten that day is cereal. They listen intently and with sympathy to all of your worries about screen time, and then say nothing when you put on Finding Nemo so the adults can have one uninterrupted hour to talk.
Friendship between non-villaged parents has even less pretension. You want to find friends you click with, of course, but the criteria for clicking can be refreshingly low between people raising other people in a vacuum of extended family. You come to the union with need, so your guard comes down quickly (if it was up to begin with). Within a few slapdash meetups at the playground, you’re all in, both feet: You want to help each other survive this impossible life with as much support, solidarity, and humor as can be managed. And that means rotating play dates so everyone’s house has a chance to be mauled by toddlers. Swapping phone numbers of reasonably priced babysitters. Cheapo potlucking with wheat crackers and guacamole and sliced cheese. Emergency day drinking.
Life is too full for polite, incremental sharing, so it all hangs out right from the get-go. You have no choice but to be flawed when you’re in a group of parents and your kids. Your boob will fetch loose from your nursing bra. Your child will squirt pureed beets onto your new friend’s jeans. You will be telling a story about adventures in potty training, and then, with no discernible transition, find yourself swiping the tears and snot off your face with a used tissue because, until this moment, you didn’t realize how tired and scared you are all the time.
And because pregnancy and labor and the fragility of little bodies moving through an unconcerned world shoves mortality straight into your face, you get right in there when a parent friend experiences something truly terrible. You are not shocked at their pain; such pain is a shadow over all parents, pain imagined in every horrible way because all such love strengthens our knowledge of the inevitability of loss.
In our friends’ home, beautifully decorated and also strewn familiarly with toddler trinkets, my daughter immediately takes over their son’s bed and lays claim to his collection of stuffed animals. Their son sneaks a present from under the tree and opens it with the skill and precision of a surgeon. Our friends have been through loss this year only they have the right to narrate, but which has underscored for us our importance to one another. We of the far-flung families share a situation—a neighborhood, yes, but also the particular moment of impending middle age with kids—where we have to look to each other for help because there is no one else, and nobody can do it alone. And in that situation, we’re essential parts of one another’s families.
Is there any greater privilege?
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.