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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : Friends Forever--or Until the First Baby

October 26, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Children change friendships--for better, for worse, sometimes permanently, sometimes just for a while.

In the old days, this 35-year-old married woman from Los Angeles liked to go out for weekend brunch with her lifelong friend. "We'd talk about families, men, friends, what we did. We'd spend four hours drinking coffee and talk. You'd end up very wired and feeling like someone's listened to you," she recalled.

Now the scene is like this: "I get to her house and sit and wait while she gets the baby ready for an hour. Then we go out. We talk about the baby for a half-hour. Then she wanders out to the car or bathroom to change the baby again for another half-hour. I'm alone waiting for her in some fashion for an hour and a half. The rest is only partly normal talk and commuting."

Smart and savvy professionals, both women knew something like this might happen. "She asked me right before she gave birth, 'If I get too boring about my child, tell me and I'll try to be better.' How can you tell someone who has this precious, precious baby that she should chill out?"

She's hoping against all odds that her friend will eventually bore herself, find other things to talk about, and return to normal.

The poignant reality is that her friend's life has been irreversibly turned inside out, and "normal" is an idea whose time has vanished. She probably already knows she's boring.

Another Los Angeles woman, a 46-year-old mother of three young children, said she suddenly realized how boring she had become to childless women during a recent needlepoint class.

"Five of us were sitting at a table. We spent the entire evening talking about kids. 'My son did this.' 'My daughter did that.' 'This one is driving me crazy.' Yadda yadda yadda."

After two hours, she said she noticed one woman hadn't said anything. She found out the woman had no children. "I said to myself, 'If I were at this table without children I would have vomited.' It was awful."

The mother said she's already lost several friends due to parenthood. "If you are a halfway-involved parent, you become literally consumed with children's stuff and have very little time for women's stuff," she said. "Two of my dearest friends are now only acquaintances. It's very sad. I can't begin to tell you how sad it is."

Because it took her so long to start a family, she is also loath to leave her children with a sitter to go out with other adults. Now she and her husband gravitate to friends who either have children or who like to be with children.

According to social anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, author of "The Year After Childbirth" (MacMillan, 1994), childless women have difficulty comprehending why new mothers can't organize themselves better. "They do not understand how restricted life can become and the superhuman feats of organization required to get out of the house and be on time."

But even as babies drive a wedge between some friends, they also bring some people together. Mothers make new, often surprising friendships, finding common ground with women they never thought they would--younger women, older women, women from various backgrounds with different and enlightening ideas on mothering.

It's always possible for old friends to reconnect when the children are older. At first, what friends need to understand, Kitzinger said, is that "your friendship is now in a completely different context and needs some working at if you think it's worth maintaining."

Still, the woman without children feels awkward about broaching the problem with her friend. Needs are emotions usually talked about only with lovers, not women friends. She wishes there were some rules here on how to proceed.

If somehow she could send her friend a message, wrapped perhaps in a diaper like a fortune cookie, it would say, "Can we set an egg timer and talk about your baby 40 minutes and life in general for another 40? I need you too."

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