THE BUCKS COUNTY DINING table was impeccably set, all flickering taper candles and cloth napkins and pretty serving dishes heaped with food. Rachel*, 36, had spent the afternoon prepping—roasting chicken, chilling wine, giving three-year-old Ava a bath, tidying the playroom. She checked her watch. Kelly, her best friend of 11 years, would be there soon, husband and child in tow.
It was much less work when entertaining meant ordering Chinese, Rachel thought, recalling the countless impromptu dinners she’d shared with Kelly over the years. But then Rachel married Michael, and Kelly married John, and then each couple had a baby, which meant that meals out of cartons didn’t cut it anymore. Life had drastically changed for both women, mostly for the better.
Rachel and Kelly had met as 20-somethings in their Doylestown gym and instantly became joined-at-the-hip friends. The time they didn’t spend working—Rachel as a teacher, Kelly as a trainer—they spent together. They even kind of looked alike: both fit, stylish, glossy brunettes. When they married within a few years of each other, their inseparable twosome grew into an inseparable foursome, and they enjoyed the perks of burgeoning careers, splurging on fancy dinners and fancier vacations. Each cried when she found out the other was pregnant, jointly envisioning playdates and family get-togethers and matching Bugaboos. They’d share tips and tricks of the mommy trade over coffee and strap their kids into car seats for educational trips to museums and farms. Their children would be best friends, too.
Only it wasn’t working out exactly as planned.
Kelly and her small crew arrived and filed around Rachel’s carefully set table; within minutes, the kids were eating and the room was abuzz with adult conversation and clinking silverware. But then Kelly’s five-year-old, Patrick, decided that he wanted down. He banged his spoon on the table and cried, clearly at the precipice of a three-alarm tantrum. Kelly cooed and mussed his hair, admonishing him to “Sit, please, sweetie. Be a good boy and sit.” So Patrick held his breath, turning his little face the color of a ripe plum.
Across the table, Ava eyed the chaos with interest and then raised her arm as if to chuck her own plastic spoon across the room. Rachel shot her a Don’t even think about it look. Ava’s spoon stayed in hand. Meanwhile, Patrick had slithered from his chair and taken off his shirt, and was now bounding around the table, bare-chested, roaring like a lion and slicing the air with a plastic lightsaber. His mother laughed, half-guiltily, chirping about his incredible energy, and continued eating. Rachel mustered a tight smile and tried to barrel through the crazy-child din, determined to salvage the evening. But it was pointless.
Dinner was over.
PARENTS OFTEN SAY that having children neatly divides life in two: the Pre-Kid Era, and Everything After. If you’re lucky enough—or you’ve planned well enough—to have kids around the same time as your friends, you enter Era Two armed with a roster of potential playdates and a gaggle of people with whom to discuss all the changes parenthood invariably brings. But what happens when the kid that totally changes your life totally changes those friendships, too?
“It’s miserable and it’s heartbreaking,” Rachel says of her realization that parenting differences—read: Kelly’s bratty kid—were slowly chipping away at their once rock-solid relationship. But if you’ve watched any TV in recent years, or listened to the radio, or even glanced at a magazine (including this one), then almost no form of post-baby misery that Philly moms are talking about comes as much of a surprise. There’s been so much buzz about the effect our kids can have on our self-identities (they control them), our marriages (they deflate them, at least at first) and our sex lives (ditto) that the idea that kids might put strain on our friendships, too, well … it almost sounds like a given. But that doesn’t necessarily ease the sting when your lifelong BFF suddenly morphs into a BFUB (that’s Best Friend Until Baby).
It’s even possible that an increasing occurrence of BFUBs is the most obvious sign of the parenting times we live in.
“We’re so kid-centric now,” says Edd Conboy, a family therapist at Philadelphia’s Council for Relationships. “If you look at it generationally, I was born in 1950, when adults and children lived in relatively separate worlds, probably a little too separate. Baby boomer parents were lightly more intrusive into their kids’ worlds.” And now, after a well-documented progression from two distinct spheres into a meshed world in which kids have their own drink preferences at Starbucks, in which we schedule their playdates in our BlackBerrys, in which they aren’t expected to sit silently while the grown-ups talk Grown-up Stuff, there just seems to be more opportunity for kids to affect—or mess up—adult interactions.
But while it was true that Kelly’s kid had soured her dinner party, Rachel wasn’t ready to ditch the image of two happy families, or to let anything ruin her friendship. A few weeks later, she invited Kelly, John and Patrick back to her house, optimistic that it would be different this time; Rachel knew Kelly wouldn’t really raise a brat.
But round two saw Patrick saunter in, make a beeline for Rachel’s couch and promptly begin jumping up and down. Kelly and John didn’t bat an eye. Rachel seethed.
“I had to look like the bitch because I had to go in and say, ‘Patrick, please stop jumping on the couch. That’s disrespectful,’” Rachel says. And then the battle was on. John stared at her incredulously from across the room. “Honestly, Rach. What difference is that going to make? In 100 years, are you really going to care about that?”
There was a loaded silence. Even Patrick-the-Human-Lion-Jumping-Bean was still. Yes, thought Rachel. Yes, I will.
It was Kelly who finally broke the silence. “You’re never going to let us watch Ava by ourselves, are you?” she asked softly. And there it was—the line in the sand. Rachel looked at her friends, angry and embarrassed and sad.
KATE, A CHESTNUT HILL mother of two, is a Zen, Earth-mother type. She does yoga and devours books on homeopathic medicine, and her kids don’t eat stuff that contains blue food coloring or refined sugars. When you talk to Kate, you really don’t expect her to be able to relate to this messy unraveling of friendships—she seems so calm. But nobody was more surprised than she over a BFUB drama that started with her best friend, Maureen, at Kate’s son’s first birthday party.
Kate had invited Maureen and her three kids to the fete: The two women had been close friends since their single days, back when the idea of kids and first birthday parties seemed eons away. Now, a decade later, Kate was happily surveying the festivities when she saw Maureen (never exactly a health nut) give her own baby—also a one-year-old—a slice of cheesecake. A monstrous, adult-size slab of cheesecake.
“It was full-size,” Kate says, in a tone that still, today, reveals her horror at the supersize portion. “Her child was one.”
After she’d worked so diligently to create a healthy lifestyle for her own kid, how could she ship him to Maureen’s house for playdates knowing that he’d have bricks of sugar (some of it probably blue) crammed down his throat? It was like a new, unflattering light was shining down on her friend, suddenly illuminating all the other disturbing habits Kate had observed over the years: Maureen’s kids were sometimes disrespectful and often destructive, little hurricanes that whirled in, spilling apple juice on Kate’s loveseats and tearing things apart. Kate didn’t want her son to be around it. But she couldn’t tell Maureen that. Maureen was stubborn and easily insulted. It was easier to pull away.
“And we were best friends before that,” Kate says soberly. “We’re good phone friends now. We still hang out from time to time. But we never socialize with the kids, which is hard.”
Maureen isn’t Kate’s only BFUB casualty. “Little things, like if you breast-feed, whether you have outside or inside help—those things become dividing lines, and they really impact friendships,” she explains. “There were times when I definitely felt like people were looking at me like, ‘Do I really want to go there?’” When she decided not to vaccinate her youngest child, several friends decided they most definitely did not want to go there, and bolted, a kid under each arm.
“It was a really polarizing choice, and it’s definitely caused some discomfort,” she says. But, she continues, it’s not like she became someone else entirely once she had kids—sliding Manolos into the stirrups and trotting out post-birth in Birkenstocks. She just became a more intense version of herself: Kate in hi-def.
And the potential threat of smallpox aside, Kate makes a pretty valid point about choices, and the growing list of Big Parental Decisions. Our grandparents didn’t debate the virtues of all-organic diets; they didn’t argue Ferberizing versus coddling; they didn’t discuss which TV shows to block or take strong stances on blue food. Not only are parents more involved today; the choices they’re making for their kids are more involved—and there are way more of them. And all these options mean more room for conflict, a veritable booby trap of dividing lines.
Take Liz, a Mount Airy mom who was more than a little miffed when she discovered her BFF-turned-BFUB left her own three-year-old daughter unattended with Liz’s three-year-old son for an extended period of time. “I mean, it’s a safety issue,” she rants. Or Michelle, a South Jersey mom of three (all under the age of 10), who doesn’t allow cell phones or TVs in her children’s bedrooms and who says she’s tired of taking heat from her closest mom-friends for the rule. Or Meg, a Center City mom who cut a friendship short when she realized that her BFUB not only was allowing Meg’s seven-year-old to play with her friend’s daughter unsupervised (and shoeless) down the street, but also appeared to be raising a pint-sized Mean Girl.
“It’s a shame, because for a couple years we would do playdates all the time,” says Meg. “It was nice to have an extra set of hands, babysitting and picking up from school and everything, but I don’t want my daughter hanging out with her child.”
For now, Meg says, she’s content to drift apart—the sort of drifting that entails rowing in the other direction: dodging phone calls and crafting excuses to avoid playdates. She hasn’t seen her friend in months. “I’d definitely love to have drinks and catch up, but I feel that she’ll be like, ‘Let’s bring the girls,’ and what can I say? ‘No, I don’t want my daughter hanging out with yours’?”
Once you’ve been BFUB’d, it’s hard to go back.
WHEN IN 1996, Hillary Clinton wrote about it taking a village to raise a child, she landed herself on the New York Times best-seller list and launched a catchphrase that everyone from school administrators to politicians still parrots today. But the going trend among actual parents veers more toward telling the village to shove it and venturing off to find a new village when criticized. And why not? Hanging with like-minded parents is easier. There’s no guilt. No conflict. No “But Mom, Stephanie’s allowed to swear/run laps around the grocery store/drink coffee.” There’s no BFUB looking at you like you have three heads when you ask her child to please not bury his Tonka trucks in your begonias.
For lots of us, friendship means never having to chastise your pal’s children (an unspoken rule that is yet another modern phenomenon, says Conboy). But why, when we can exact judgment on the minutiae of our friends’ lives (I hate your hair; your job is sucking the life out you; your boyfriend is an idiot), is parenting so off-limits?
“Parenting choices are just so personal, and I don’t think anyone wants to hear that they’re getting it wrong, so it’s just easier to distance yourself from it,” says Michelle, the South Jersey mother of three.
Rachel says she’s tried to distance herself the right amount from Kelly; the two are still friends, just not the matching Bugaboo kind. They get together with the kids a lot less, and on the infrequent occasions when they do, Rachel is anxious: “I know Ava’s going to be less likely to listen,” she says. “I know she’s going to pick up on things that she wouldn’t necessarily pick up on with other kids.” The couples also don’t vacation together with the kids, which means that Rachel and Michael’s jaunts to Disney World are with new (BFAB) friends.
“It’s not a bad situation,” Rachel says. “We’re just not meeting up for lunch or at the park as much I do with other friends. I’m hoping, as Ava gets older, that will change,” she says. “Because I like Kelly so much, and I love her kids. I just don’t really like them that much right now.”