A NEW FRIEND WAS TIPTOEING into a confidence about her divorce when my toddler climbed onto a giant ottoman and fell off. A few minutes later, after some screaming and soothing, I turned my attention back to her. “Sorry,” I said. “You were saying?”
But she was by then trying to distract her own child from an electrical cord. She wagged her head slightly, as if to reboot. “No idea,” she laughed. And just like that, we were back to the polite, somewhat guarded conversation of two people who don’t know each other very well.
Everyone knows it’s hard to have conversations with toddlers underfoot and that friendships can suffer. But with good friends, you can hang on and trust you’ll have soul-searching chats again when your kids stop trying to eat gravel. A bigger challenge is forging new friends with a young child in tow. That’s the hurdle I faced when I moved to Western Massachusetts just before my son entered the sharp-object-exploring, can’t-be-unsupervised-for-a-millisecond stage.
Over and over, I’d meet another woman with a young child, and, on a good day, we’d get as far as exchanging our names, not just our kids’ names. On a really good day, I might sense possibility for further personal connection. But this would be about as good as it gets: “Oh, you work in media? Me, too! Do you . . . SWEETIE, YOU CANNOT CLIMB INTO THE LIFEGUARD’S CHAIR. . . . Excuse me. Goodbye!”
Luckily, I live in a small town, and I kept seeing the same handful of women at the nearby lake beach. In time, the fragmented nature of conversation became the new normal, and a few of these encounters blossomed into neighborhood dinners. But six months after the move, I complained to a pal in Cambridge that I’d made only parent-friends in the Berkshires, no “real” ones. “I have no idea if we have anything in common other than shared nap schedules,” I sighed. “I mean, maybe we do, but how would I know?” She sympathized. Then she added, “Shared nap schedules is a big deal at this stage of life.”
Her words made me aware that I may be sticking to an unreasonable definition of friendship. Like many women, I’ve long seen conversation as the key to intimacy. With old friends, I’m often wistful for the days when we could while away a Sunday at Carberry’s coffeehouse. Even as I’m glad to get to know their kids — and introduce them to mine — there’s a pang of regret that we can’t pour a glass of wine and really, you know, talk.
By necessity, I’m trying to expand that definition and discovering an appreciation for friendships rooted in mutual willingness to eat dinner at 5 p.m. I’ve also discovered the deep affection that can develop between adults when each takes an interest in the other’s child. It’s a new feeling, to feel attached to someone because she cares for my little guy — a new and powerful feeling. But I still crave deeper connections that aren’t about the kids and wish I could hurry up the process of establishing them. Certain things just take longer with toddlers in the picture, whether it’s getting out the door in the morning or establishing intimacy with another adult.
As to the woman whose divorce story lost out to the power cord, we met again the next week. I sensed she and I had more in common than children because we got caught up in conversation and failed to notice a brewing sippy-cup battle. I haven’t heard the end of her story yet, but I think I will. It just might take a few more visits. And a few more after that, too.