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Can friendships survive when a baby comes along?

Marlene Dietrich said, "it's the friends you can call up at 4am that matter". I'm guessing these friends haven't just spent two hours pacing the floor with a screaming baby while arguing with their partner about who deserves the most sleep. At that stage, the 4am phone call would have to be really, really important.

Unsurprisingly, I didn't always manage to keep up with my social plans but what I didn't reckon on was that I would actively seek out other women in the same boat. I'm not much of a joiner, but I dragged myself along to the local parent and baby group and am still friends with some of the women I met on that first day.

Relationship expert David Kavanagh says that while women look for dependability and trustworthiness in their friendships with each other, they also look for consistency and this is something that changes when one has a baby. "The person who has the baby has a whole new life experience that the friend can't quite relate to."

"Women look for support," says psychotherapist, Bernadette Mooney, "and support also needs to come with time -- friends need to have time for each other. Often that's what changes when someone has a baby."

A 2007 study by the UK's Social Issues Research Centre found that, while women of all ages defined a close friend as "someone you can be yourself with" and "someone you can trust", those aged 18 to 35 considered "someone who understands you" to be twice as important as women aged over 35.



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As the average age of women giving birth in Ireland was 31.7 in 2011 (up from 30.4 in 2002), this may suggest that women look more for support and trust and less for understanding in their friendships as they start to have children.

Sinead Crowe had her first baby at 25 and felt very isolated from her friends. "I found the early days very hard. You're so restricted, you can't go out. I didn't know anyone in the area I live in, so I was very alone."

Most of her friends didn't have children and couldn't understand the new pressures she was under.

"Some of them didn't understand why I couldn't go out or was cancelling again because there was something wrong with the baby. Some of them wouldn't have been terribly patient and I found that hurtful.

"I did try to go out once a month with friends, but the next day would have been hell with the baby," she says. "For the first few months, I was just so tired all the time. I imagined that you'd have the baby and they'd sleep and then you could go out but for the first year, he didn't sleep so I just couldn't keep up with my pre-baby life."

Sinead joined a parenting website and got to know a group of women whose babies were similar ages. After a few months, they met up in real life and have been friends since. "I have some really good friends but I found the friends with children are the ones you need to be around in the early days. Just even to have a cup of tea with someone who knows you're so tired, you can't think straight."

Mary Bouchez, a mother of three who runs the parenting website MagicMum (www.magicmum.com), believes that the site can fill a gap in a new mum's life. "Neighbours and extended family are less present today than they were 30 or 40 years ago and finding yourself at home alone with a newborn baby can be a daunting experience."

She says that many new mums look to the internet for support. "The virtual friendship doesn't require the same level of commitment -- you can interact with your friends online when and how it suits -- it may be at 7am while feeding your baby, in the afternoon during his nap or late at night."

In the eight years since Mary set up MagicMum, she has seen the same issues recur with first-time mothers. "What comes up often is a feeling of isolation or of being excluded from plans because you have a baby. Pre-baby relationships can be difficult to maintain.

"While most new mums will admit to having a lot less time for their friends, they would appreciate being included in plans and would love for their friends to understand just how much their life has changed."

Fionnuala Conway had her son at 38 after watching all of her close circle of friends have children. "When friends started having babies, it was a lot harder to be spontaneous," she says. "The closeness you can have with friends, being able to see them every day, started changing around then. You might be emailing and texting instead of having conversations."

Fionnuala found that the social group disintegrated to a certain extent. "There were key people that would have kept the social side together and when they had children, the glue wasn't there any more."

She points out that their social lives were changing anyway, as they moved into their 30s. "The friendships changed, even among those that didn't have kids. The way of socialising changed -- there were fewer nights out and more dinners at home. So we did make efforts to accommodate those with families but we were interested in that ourselves, a different quality of life."

But what happens when babies don't happen? At the age of 33, Joanna Donnelly already had a child and was fully immersed in the baby world. When she started trying again, she didn't expect to have problems but six months in, she started to feel the strain.

"I did find it difficult to relate to other mums, especially those close to me. There was one particular close relationship that was very hard. Some other close relationships, I found difficult because of the ease with which they fell pregnant."

As time went by, Joanna found it harder to maintain her friendships. "I had to make lots of extra effort with friends and I don't think they knew. With more casual relationships, I could just back off."



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However, now that she has gone on to have more children, she finds it easier to relate to old friends. "I did resume some friendships after I was lucky enough to have my two sons. I just tried to put it all behind me as I don't think my friends were aware they had made things hard."

As for me, almost nine years on from that first baby, I have accumulated two more. The second and third took a long time and, like Joanna, I had to take a step back from some of my mum friends for a while. The upside to infertility was that I collected some more female friends along the way and now have a great mix of friends.

Certainly, having babies and not having babies can affect friendships but it doesn't have to be forever. "A friendship is like a garden," says Bernadette Mooney, "it needs to be cultivated. Women that don't have children need to understand that their friend is in a different place but that they can still be friends -- ok, they may not have as much time but the years go by very quickly and you can reconnect as the children get older. Really, it's communication that's key in any relationship."

So don't despair if your friend seems to have different priorities for a while. Just try not to call her at 4am...


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