By Sarah Elton
I fell for L from across a basement apartment crowded by university-newspaper types. Everyone was dressed in black. L was too, but elegantly: a long dress that, with her dark bob, framed the smile that drew me over to sit beside her on the beer-stained couch.
I was 19. She was 21. I was a timid freshman looking for friends. She was in full third-year glory: she’d formed her clique, had a boyfriend, and ran the college newspaper. And yet she wanted to be my friend too.
What friends we were! We met for coffee in smoky, darkened cafés, to talk about existentialism, globalization and boys. We slurped pad Thai noodles side by side on our way to foreign films and documentaries. Then — because those were the days before real life set in, when it didn’t matter what time you went to bed or woke up in the morning — we’d move on to sleazy diners where, before midnight, we would order French fries and she, a Coke, and then all-night breakfast if dawn was nearing.
Long before we made different decisions about having kids, decisions that would end this blossoming friendship, she took me to her suburban family home at Christmas to see her mother’s prized decorations. When we’d travel — she to Pakistan, Italy, Malaysia; me to India, France, Mexico — we’d send postcards and bring home gifts of clothing, jewellery, books.
Then, together, we became adults. She became a lawyer and thrust herself into her career, opening her own criminal law firm. She’d spend the week in court, defending accused thieves and attempted murderers, and then drop by my place on the way to a jail visit to tell me her crazy stories. I became a journalist, got married, had a baby. Our friendship adapted to our adult lives: we only went to see one documentary a month, we drank Perrier, we called it a night at 10 p.m.
Even though we didn’t see each other as frequently as before, we were still close. She’d call me from the car on her way to a suburban courthouse. I’d pop in at her office and we’d go for Earl Grey tea and baguette, buttered with jam, in the main floor café.
When we didn’t see each other for weeks on end, we were still able to pick up where we’d left off. All we needed was a brief on the latest facts and then we were in motion once again. We would sit down, lock into conversation mode and POW! We — or at least I — was struck by the lightning bolt of best-friendship.
This was, in large part, I think, because of L’s magnetic personality. She’s the kind of person who makes you feel like a million bucks. Her warm smile when she sees you, a big hug, kiss, and then a look of deep intensity and interest as you tell her your stories, as if nothing ever so gripping has been uttered before. When you are the centre of L’s world, you feel fabulously fun and you believe that you are her closest, dearest friend.
And then somehow it all ended. Just like that, L didn’t call anymore.
When I first realized she had disappeared from my life, it felt like a sudden death. Poof — she’d vanished in a cloud of jury trials that had her too busy to get in touch.
In hindsight, I now see that it was a more gradual process. Slowly, the responsibilities of motherhood were getting in between us. They were my responsibilities, and they’d put an end to our spontaneous dinner outings, or just about anything spontaneous, save for emergency diaper runs.
When I first became a mom, L would still invite me to go out like before. But that stopped when I was never able to join her. I soon noticed she no longer included me in the events of her life; if I wanted to see her, I’d have to initiate it.
Then, sometime last spring, she started to vanish. I’d phone once, twice, even three times and she wouldn’t call back for days. Days soon became weeks. By mid-summer, she wasn’t calling back at all, and I’d only talk to her if she happened to answer the ringing phone; I suspect she was screening my calls, as I’d seen her do to others before. By the end of August, I felt like I was stalking her and stopped trying to get in touch altogether.
The last time we spoke was last September, from my hospital bed, two days after my second daughter was born. It was late and she’d tried to come for a visit, but had been turned away by the nurses because guests weren’t allowed in past 8 p.m. She stood on the curb outside my window and called up to my room on her cell to congratulate me on another girl — “You are amazing,” she’d said. “I’ll come by and meet her tomorrow.”
They say that when you have kids your childless friends will peel away from your new life. Your lifestyles are too different. You drift apart because Saturday still means brunch and yoga to them when for you, the day is about going to the park, naptime and birthday parties.
When my elder daughter was born three years ago, I swore I would keep all my friends—with or without offspring—and that I wouldn’t make new friends with people only because they too had kids. The last thing I wanted was to spend my life talking about leaking diapers, the pros and cons of nannies versus daycare, the best teething toys, the place to go to get tiny shoes at half price. I wanted to be a parent, but I didn’t want to become only a parent who only did parent stuff—the sight of a grown-up pulling a small child down the sidewalk in a plastic wagon gave me the heebie-jeebies. That image encapsulated parental servitude to me.
I might have procreated but I was still the same person. My mind functioned as it always had. I loathe the expression “mommy brain,” and its implication that we women part with our rational selves at the door of the labour and delivery ward, leaving us only capable of thinking about Pablum for the next decade or so. I still want to work, to talk about the news and books, and even go on trips. And it isn’t just for my benefit. I want my daughters to be exposed to other ways of life, ideas, and the world beyond the nursery.
I don’t think I am alone. From what I can judge, based on the fleets of strollers I see at art galleries and museums in my city, the number of high chairs on offer at chic restaurants, and the stories I hear of parents backpacking across Vietnam with toddler in tow, today’s generation of moms and dads are reluctant to become just that—and only that—Mom and Dad. Keeping friends on the other side is part of the plan.
For me, it worked with one kid. After she was tucked into bed and in the care of her dad or grandparent, I could pop off to a movie with a girlfriend; when she was in daycare I could meet friends for lunch. In fact, my first time away from my elder daughter was to meet L and a friend for dinner. It was an Italian place a 10-minute walk from my house. I was nervous as anything about leaving the baby—I drove so I could make it home in seconds and compulsively checked my cell phone screen for missed calls—but it was a great evening. For me it was a celebration of the fact that my child and my childless friends could co-exist.
But, it seems, two kids was the tipping point. I had been warned, but blithely thought I could swing the second without damaging the delicate balance between Mommydom and adult life. But now, even if L called asking me out to that same restaurant, I wouldn’t be able to go. There’s the baby to nurse and the preschooler to read a bedtime story to, not to mention dinner to make, umpteen loads of laundry to process and a husband to catch up with. Maybe when the kids are a little older and not so dependent on me, I thought, but right now, I’m happy at home.
These days, I hang out with other moms. We often talk about temper tantrums and teething, what to make for dinner and how hard it is to have more than one child. It’s not bad at all. In fact, I enjoy my time with these women, who are smart and educated and ambitious in their careers and who also happen to have reproduced.
We talk about the news too, and books, films, ideas. But I miss L.
I wish we could still be friends. I wish our lives could enmesh once again. If she could stand the chaos of our home, she could come over for dinner and maybe, between the whining, the giggling and the spilling of milk, we could have one of those conversations that cemented us together in the first place. After all, beneath this frazzled exterior, I’m still the same person. I think she probably is too.
Sarah Elton is a writer in Toronto. Even with two small children, she’s always up for coffee and a movie — when she can make it.