I knew that most friendship groups undergo two culling seasons. The first is after leaving university, when those life-and-death friendships, forged in the last of your formative years, are subject to the whims of geography and badly-paid first jobs.
Then, just as you think things are sorted and you find new mates to hold your hair back as you vom into a plant pot, then begins the second cull in your mid to late twenties. People start to settle down and get married, the difference in your pay cheques and profession begins to pinch and you no longer have the patience to put up with nightmare drunks or flakey mates.
Both of these experiences are huge and upsetting, because we define a lot of ourselves by our friendships. But by the end of it what you’re left with a core group of friends who make you laugh, are there for you and understand you.
I was under the impression that this was the last and final cull. But lo and behold, turns out these things happen in threes.
This time, unlike relationships or a job, it was caused by completely different life experience: having kids.
I don’t have kids, and apparently I’m one of a growing number. A new book by Rachel Pashley, _New Female Tribes: Shattering Female Stereotypes and Redefining Women Today_, has revealed over 12% of women around the world won’t have kids and in Italy, it’s as high as 25%.
Now I’ve realised I probably won’t have kids – I’m in my late thirties and not in a relationship - there is a crystallised understanding that now, there will always be a difference between me and my parent friends.
For me, it started slowly. First the realisation that I’d have to take control of the organising. Then chasing for dates. Then meet-ups organised around nap times. Then a pot-luck of not knowing if you’d have some alone time, or would their kid be there? Then location suggestions that no one without kids would want to go to: playgrounds and paddling pools. At 9am on a Sunday.
The thing is, unlike other life experiences, if you don’t have kids, you can’t fake it.
You can’t nod along in sympathy because you have no CLUE what it’s like to juggle work, home and a toddler with the demands of a North Korean dictator. I still have the hugest respect for parent friends who cane it the night before knowing they have to get up to do the school run and still put in a full day of work, because I can barely do it with a decent amount of sleep.
But on the other side, there’s a reservoir of empathy that eventually runs dry.
Sometimes it may be a perceived poor return on friendship – last minute cancellations, or if you’re child-free, you may end up travelling miles only to have your rare catch-up hijacked by their kids.
For others, it may be because the kids thing is more emotionally complicated than any of the other life choices. Some may choose to be child-free, some may not.
Unlike the other two culls – where the friendships naturally fizzled out or were so toxic they couldn’t continue - I didn’t want to actually lose any of my friends.
However, I didn’t feel comfortable articulating what I needed to my friends because I felt like they already had enough on their plates. They didn’t need an adult-sized baby tugging on their sleeves for attention too.
But then I read a brilliant piece by parenting columnist Robyn Wilder, who was talking about navigating friendships when one of you doesn’t have kids. Wilder has two very small children – one is under 12 months while the other is three.
She wrote: 'If you can save space in your heart for the friend who’s become consumed by a new relationship – because you know they’ll resurface in the future – do the same for a friend who’s submerged in parenting.'
I had never looked at it that way before – mainly because I saw my parent friends making lots of other parent friends, and because we saw each other so rarely, naturally concluded that they just didn’t want to make time for me because I didn’t have kids.
I emailed Robyn about it, who wrote back: 'Before I had kids I knew it was busy and hard, I just didn't appreciate that even your smallest moments can involve stress and multitasking (currently writing this while feeding everyone breakfast), and everyone deals with multitasking differently. So often it's not a case of a friend with kids not putting you first, or not wanting to, it's just that your friendship has got tipped into a box with a whole mess of other stuff.'
I’ve read plenty of pieces where child free women have ditched friendships because they couldn’t make it work, or seen firsthand how people have moved further apart. But I’ve worked really hard on my friendships – they’ve been there for me in some of the darkest times, and I wasn’t ready to let them go.
What I’ve started to use is a three-pronged approach. The first is just to acknowledge that friends with small kids may just be MIA for a while, and that’s okay. Robyn said: 'Many mums have a biological need to be close to their small children, and get a bit antsy otherwise. So when they're babies and toddlers it can be a bit tricky, but once they reach school age people are generally more up for long nights out/weekends away/holidays etc.'
Makes sense, because unlike a Tamagotchi, kids grow up and become more self-sufficient, so you just have to bide your time and be patient.
The second is that if your friend has stopped breastfeeding yet keeps bringing their kid along meaning you can’t catch up, SAY SOMETHING. It doesn’t mean you’re saying you don’t like their kid, you’re just saying that you really like your friend and would like some uninterrupted time. Most people will get it and to be honest, prefer a catch-up where they can rant, swear and be themselves.
Robyn agrees: 'I would have zero problem (if a mate said) this. When the baby is small, it can be tricky, as I've mentioned, but once there's a bit of independence and your friend is more comfortable without them, it's as appropriate as asking to have time with a friend without their partner constantly tagging along.'
The third is that I had to acknowledge I was being a massive baby about all of these new friends they were making. Friendships are a reflective glass to a certain extent, and you seek like-minded people to talk about your experiences to. Of course they’d need friends to talk about breastfeeding and what happened to their vagina after birth, so who better than someone who had been through that experience?
In the same way, I want friends who I can talk to about being single, or spending money on silly stuff and for me not to feel guilty or paranoid about that. So I decided I had to make some new friends and have been very gung-ho about it. If I come across someone like-minded – whether that’s through work or a mate of a mate – I’ll take the initiative to ask them out for a coffee or a drink. So far I’ve made about six new friends in the last two years which has breathed some oxygen back into my friendship circles.
I’m not naïve enough to think that every friendship is going to make it – if that was the case I’d have more than four school friends and three university mates.
But I am glad that I’m trying to actively do something to nurture and save the ones that are there because they are absolutely worth saving.