When my daughter Lucy was born last year, I was thrilled — but almost immediately, lonely. Outings with my child-free friends left me depleted and when I ventured out alone with my newborn, all I noticed were pairs or groups of moms walking the mall with their kids or sitting together on a blanket in the park. I wanted desperately to be part of their circle, to have mom friends. But don’t we all? Aren’t we all trolling the playgrounds and child care pickups for mommies to hang out with, to gab and commiserate with? I wanted mommy girlfriends but was terrified as to how to approach the groups I saw. It was like being the new kid in school all over again.
Luckily, someone took the initiative to reach out to me. I stopped in to a coffee shop on one of my solo (with the baby, of course) expeditions out, and as I finished placing my order, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was another woman — a mom with a tiny baby strapped to her chest in a sling.
“You have a newborn too!” she noted euphorically. Sleeplessness reflected in her wide eyes. Instantly, I recognized her as a fellow traveler on the weird journey of new motherhood. And with that stroke of courage on her part, Stacy quickly became one of my closest friends.
The need for mom friends kind of blindsided me. After all, while I was pregnant, I’d read every book I could get my hands on regarding newborns (Lucy is my first). But in the early days after my daughter’s birth, as the long, sleepless hours stretched ahead, I didn’t need knowledge. I needed commiseration. And I was the first in my group of friends to have kids so they weren’t empathetic to my new life challenges. It was completely isolating.
Friends are important in every stage of life, but during motherhood, friends are the life boat that keep you from drowning. Drowning in self-doubt, in frustration and in sheer exhaustion.
“Having fellow mom friends is so important, so you have support from those who share similar experiences,” says Ashley Juarez, the Dallas-Fort Worth area Texas coordinator for Postpartum Support International, a support organization for women suffering from postpartum mood disorders. “There’s no more get up and go. You have to manage a baby’s schedule, your schedule and constantly putting the needs of your child before you. It’s a lot, and the key is doing it with people who share similar experiences.”
Research agrees: A recent study from Arizona State University found that, when you’re a mom, unconditional acceptance by friends and authenticity in relationships play a key component in happiness. Interestingly enough, marriage wasn’t even a factor in measuring Mom’s well-being. While a rock-solid relationship is no doubt a great thing, it doesn’t replace female friendships.
And when moms get stressed, studies show that they often lean heavily on social support from friends rather than their spouse.
“When you become a new mom, you’re thrust into the uncharted territory of hormonal, physical and emotional changes,” explains Kim Kertsburg a licensed clinical social worker and perinatal psychotherapist at Postpartum Support in Dallas and Fort Worth. “Your partner may be sympathetic and supportive but can still have a hard time understanding a mom-identity crisis. It’s totally normal to have feelings of isolation, of the what-the-heck-happened-to-my-life kind, and speaking with other women lets you know it’s totally normal.”
MAKING MOM FRIENDS
Unfortunately, however, nurturing friendships can seem more challenging now — when you’re juggling work, kids, husband and other responsibilities. And lots of us resort to doing things on our phone via social media, texts and emails.
Experts and Dallas-Fort Worth area moms alike recommend adding Meetup and Facebook groups that match your interests or the ages of your kids.
“Facebook groups are great,” enthuses recent Dallas transplant Ashley Bixler, mom to a 22-month-old son. “What I love is that you can post something in the middle of the night and get a response. You feel, ‘oh, I’m not alone.’”
And virtual support works: According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 80 percent of mothers consider social media somewhere they get support. But while a virtual LOL can get you through a toddler tantrum, experts stress it’s not enough. There’s no substitute for genuine face time with other moms.
“I didn’t really have very many friends before I moved to Dallas,” Bixler explains. “My husband and I had been pretty nomadic with his job, and we had both been working like crazy. But when we moved to Dallas, I knew it had to be different. For one, my son wasn’t a baby anymore. He was a toddler who needed socialization. And to be honest, I did too!”
Bixler planned a two-prong attack to make friends. For one, she began saying hi to the moms she saw at the playground, at the library or at mommy-and-me classes.
“It’s kind of like dating,” she admits. “I feel like you begin to see the same moms over and over again. So you might say, ‘what time are you planning to come tomorrow?’ And keep it low-key like that. And then you can sort of suss out whether or not you actually want to commit to a playdate.”
FINDING YOUR TRIBE
Meeting friends used to be as simple as you liked them, they liked you, you had things in common and started to hang out. Now you’re a package deal. Not only do you have to click, but depending on the ages (this is a moot point for newborns and infants), the kiddos have to get along too.
When I met my first mom friend, Stacy, I was lucky — it turned out she and I were pretty similar in terms of viewpoints, which is one of the reasons our friendship has lasted through the tumultuous first year of motherhood.
“Moms feel so much pressure to do everything perfectly from day one,” Kertsburg says. “When you meet new moms and start talking honestly, you realize that everyone is figuring it out. Finding a judgment-free place to talk to other moms is crucial. Regardless of whether you choose breastfeeding or formula, a stroller or a carrier, a mom group can give you confidence in your unique way of mom-ing.”
But as moms begin to find their parenting groove, it’s natural to find there are some women they click with more than others. You won’t necessarily jive with every mother you meet, but like Bixler’s dating analogy, you have to keep putting yourself out there.
“I definitely found that it was a process to find ‘my people,’” says Keller mom Jenna Schoen, who has three kids ages 6, 4 and 3. “And I had to get out of my comfort zone. I’d been working full time until a year ago, so I’d had no personal life at all. And then I was home with three kids, and had no idea where to go or what to do with them. I kept having to tell myself ‘no one is coming to the door to be your friend.’ That really forced me to put down my phone and talk to people. What I’ve found to be a great way to break the ice is just to bust through what I call the-glitter-and-baby-powder myth. It’s when you see a mom and assume that she’s got everything together. But none of us do. So break it down by admitting it: Ask a mom if she has an extra diaper you can borrow, or confess that you’re having a tough day.”
If you’re too shy to make the first move or feel like a weirdo stalker for asking for another mom’s number, make time to pursue your interests. Attend a regular spin class, join a local book club or find a running group. It’s easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger when you can lead in with the activity at hand.
MAKE TIME FOR MOMS
Still, even if you find “your people,” making the most of your mom friendships is key — and an emotional necessity. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and when you factor in separate schedules, you’ve got to make “mom time” count.
“It’s relatively easy to make surface friendships and coordinate playdates,” says Dallas mom Jennifer Vestry, who has a 16-month-old daughter. “But what I’ve noticed, at least for me, is that establishing deep friendships can be difficult. While it’s comforting to talk developmental milestones and child rearing, I found that I missed having deeper conversations about the things I was interested in prior to having a baby. So I think it’s essential to bring up topics that are interesting to you, and see if you can connect on that level.”
Another tricky part of navigating mom friendships? The, well, navigation aspect of it.
“Sometimes you might meet a mom you love at an event, then realize she lives half an hour away,” Bixler laments. “It’s just really tricky to coordinate regular meetups when geography gets in your way.”
To that end, Schoen recommends getting to know your neighbors.
“Think about hosting a block party or inviting a bunch of people to your backyard or a nearby park,” she advises. “When you have a network of close by people, playdates can be a lot more low-key. You know you can be home in five minutes if your child is getting cranky, and you don’t have to freak out if you forget anything.”
And moms and experts stress that mom dates don’t need to be long to be effective.
“I’ll sometimes text a friend and see if we can meet at Starbucks for half an hour on a Saturday morning,” Bixler says. “I think we sometimes psych ourselves out because we think we need some big ladies’ night out to replenish. But we don’t. A quick coffee can be soul-replenishing. Finding those small pockets of time to reconnect is key.”
FOR THE LONG ROAD
“I’ll admit, I initially thought that making mom friends would be easier, but I definitely came across cliques, “ Bixler notes. “It was surprising, I was like, ‘we’re moms, we’re not in middle school.’ But then I realized it was just part of life.”
Schoen agrees, feeling the best way to sidestep cliques, power struggles and mean girls is to think about how you can show up and help out. “I always think, ‘how can I be of service?’” she says. “I definitely look out for the mom sitting on the sidelines and just say, ‘hey.’ I ask how old her child is, and it might be a one-off conversation or it may develop into a friendship, but the point is that you’re looking up from your phone and connecting.”
And the advice for expectant moms, moms who just moved or moms who find themselves in a new life situation such as suddenly assuming the stay-at-home role? Find a community immediately, says Rebekah Lewis of Denton County Birth Network and a mom of two.
“If I had advice, I’d say don’t wait,” she urges. That might mean seeking out groups before giving birth, relocating to a new city or cutting the cake on your final day at the office.
For me, one year into the mom friend journey, it’s still a challenge. I recently had to “break up” with a mom friend who was loudly judgmental of the foods I chose to feed my daughter. Another mom friend whom I spent several days a week with while I was off work ended up drifting away when I ramped up to a five-day-a-week schedule. Now that I’m working, weekend plans are developed with military-like precision: I only have 48 hours to spend time with family and prepare for the week ahead. And so I’ve found sneaky ways to get in my precious mom friend time: A smoothie in the gym café 15 minutes before spin class, even meeting up at Target so we can shop and chat at the same time. They may not be the ladies’ nights out that consumed my pre-kid life, but they’re real and essential to my happiness and well-being as a mom.