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How to Stay Friends With the Child-Free

Tips for staying connected with your adult besties who don't have kids—and why it's good for you

It’s no secret that having kids changes everything. Free time once spent enjoying brunch, yoga and reading for pleasure suddenly becomes packed with all manner of kid-centered activities. Parents can spend so much of their time focused on their kids that other relationships suffer, such as their friendships with other women who don’t also have children of their own. But it’s important to maintain a semblance of your adult life apart from the important job of being a mom or dad.

Why Stay Friends?

Friendship in adulthood is often the result of commonalities, and photographer, marketing writer and Dallas mom of one Tessa Falk realizes that circumstances play a major role. Thinking back to when she first gave birth, Falk remembers wanting an instant connection. “I craved the support of fellow moms,” she says.

Sarah Feuerbacher, Ph.D., LCSW-S—formerly clinic director at the SMU Center for Family Counseling, now at Counseling CARE Prosper—knows how important those relationships can be. “When people have children, they enter into a completely different world that is only understood by someone who is a parent,” she says.

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Be that as it may, relying solely on other parents for support or being reluctant to ask a childless friend for theirs may be cutting off your nose to spite your face. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; by keeping your childless friends separate from family matters, you’re not giving them the chance to be involved in a major part of your life.

You may think you’re doing your pal a favor by sparing her the details of your child’s latest potty-training troubles, but she might have some advice to offer from a non-parenting perspective, if not a shoulder to lean and laugh on.

Moms and dads often need a break from the daily grind of parenting, and friends without kids are usually happy to provide just that.

Colleen Tomlin, a Dallas teacher who doesn’t have children, fully understands when her friends with kids need to engage in parent talk. “It’s the No. 1 thing that is occupying their mind. They love to talk about their children, both the positive and the negative,” she says. “If you’re great friends, you may hear a bit more of the negative. But that’s a good thing, because they trust you and know you can listen and offer help to problem-solve.”

Taking that into consideration, friendships are sometimes most enjoyed when the topic of kids is left at the door. Moms and dads often need a break from the daily grind of parenting, and friends without kids are usually happy to provide just that. So plan on booking a baby sitter the next time you meet your friend for coffee and brush up on your current events (or reality TV) so you’ll have something to talk about.

Friendship 2.0 via Social Media

In spite of its purpose to bring people together, social media can actually separate parents from non-parents when moms and dads feature kids as main characters on their feeds. People who don’t have kids might stop checking someone’s profile if they know it’s just going to be another baby photo. But it can be a tool for managing relationships in an ever-busier world. “It helps people share how they are doing with their loved ones in a way that still keeps healthy priorities and boundaries,” Feuerbacher says.

Using social media as a means of keeping in touch shouldn’t be the primary form of communication in any friendship, but if it means keeping ties with single or child-free friends, then so be it. Of course, if you’re uploading family photo albums and nothing else, you might want to reconsider your approach. Instead, share creative projects or photos you took from a recent work trip. Your followers will appreciate the new material.

The Golden Rule: Do Not Judge

So what makes a good friend, parent or not? Lauren Espinosa, an accountant and single mother of one in Dallas, appreciates friends who understand her busy lifestyle and don’t blame her for canceling dinner plans if her baby is suddenly sick.

Parents can unknowingly patronize their childless friends just as much as non-parents might criticize their pals’ parenting skills.

But not everyone can appreciate the magnitude of becoming a parent, and not all parents will understand the perspectives of their childless friends. Unsolicited opinions and advice can poison the well of friendship. Parents can unknowingly patronize their childless friends just as much as non-parents might criticize their pals’ parenting skills.

“Some people at work  just because they don’t have a child  have said that I’m a little soft with my daughter,” Espinosa says. “But they only see certain situations when I’m in public.” This kind of disapproval might explain why parents seek the camaraderie of others. The lesson to be learned here is simple: Neither side of a friendship stands to benefit from passing judgment.

Sensitivity About Fertility

Another major obstacle that may put up a barrier between adult friends is fertility. For Falk, some of her friends’ challenges with getting pregnant have taken a toll on their bond. “I’ve walked their road, and it was always difficult for me to be around parents when I so desperately wanted to be one myself,” she says. “I let them lead the relationship, because I want to remain sensitive to their journey.”

Feuerbacher recommends directly asking a friend who’s having trouble conceiving what kind of support she would most appreciate. “Some people need space, and being a true friend may mean allowing them to process their experience without you,” she says.

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No matter how difficult your journey in parenthood, it shouldn’t mean the end of closeness with non-parent friends. In fact, becoming a parent presents a whole new set of challenges, and investing in friendships is one way to help you get through them.

This article was originally published in February 2014.

Illustration: iStock