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Fickle Friendships: Life After Baby

Two o'clock! I hurriedly slipped a pinkie between the lips of my newborn son, Henry, to break the suction from his feeding, buttoned up my blouse, grabbed the diaper bag, and we headed out the door. I didn't want to miss one minute of my afternoon rendezvous with my new best friends, Nancy and Rosemary, and their babies.

I was almost frantic in my eagerness to see these fellow moms, neighbors I'd met when we each gave birth the same year. All we did on our outings was push our strollers up and down the street discussing spitup, sleep deprivation, and the relative merits of kimono-style T-shirts versus snap-bottom ones. But it was the high point of my day.

More things change when you become pregnant than the tidiness of your house and the number of hours you sleep per 24. Your friendships undergo dramatic transformations too. That's because the kind of support and socializing you need evolves along with your baby, as does the amount of free time you have and how you want to spend it.

Sound unnerving? There are plenty of silver linings, as this guide to mommy mates proves.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline (Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.).

Type 1: DINKS and SINKS

(double income, no kids and single income, no kids  -- aka your old best friends)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: You spent long Saturday afternoons shoe shopping. You lingered over salad and cappuccino, dissecting careers or comparing sob stories. You borrowed each other's clothes. You hatched plans to encourage your significant others to get along as well as the two of you  -- and failing that, you went to girl movies without them. Sometimes you'd sit side by side at another friend's baby shower, exchanging raised eyebrows at the parade of diaper-disposal systems and nursing pillows  -- objects as alien as moon rocks.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: You complain about your mushy midriff, and your friend clucks sympathetically. (At the same time, you're eyeing her washboard with rank envy, while your labor story is giving her the willies.) You notice that she glances at her watch during your tour of the nursery she once eagerly helped you decorate. You make plans for lunch, but the baby develops a mysterious fever, so you cancel. Maybe next week. Shoe shopping? Maybe next year.

THE FUTURE: Depends. Babies can make friendships more challenging, but they certainly don't have to wreck a valued relationship.

Your pal is probably delighted by your newfound happiness, even though she has a hard time relating to all things bambino. She genuinely wants to know how you're feeling and whether there's anything she can do to help  -- so long as you remember to keep up your end of the dance too. The trouble is, in your zombielike haze, it can be hard to remember even big things like her birthday, let alone little things like returning her calls. Movies and lazy Saturdays are tougher to arrange. Besides, you resent it when she says, "So what else is new?" whenever you linger more than a few minutes on maternal topics.

Of course, longtime friends have a history that's defined by more than one's breastfeeding status. The trick to keeping up is for both sides to make a concerted effort  -- and have lots of patience with each other. Still, the pull of opposing lifestyles can snap some duos apart (or send them on a slow drift away). Usually, it's less a reflection on either of you than a testament to the fact that life is all about change.

On the other hand, maybe your bundle of joy will inspire your friend to get pregnant too. And then you can let her raid your closet again (for maternity clothes) and go shopping for some comfortable shoes for once.

Type 2: The Preg Pals

(aka the women you meet at Lamaze class, the coworker who blooms simultaneously, any mom-to-be/new mom who's within six months of your own remarkable change)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: Nil. You never paid these women any attention before your bellies (or babies) attracted one another like magnets.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: Intense! Put two women with matching middles on a park bench and voila!...instant kinship. Everything is deliciously, weirdly new to you both. "Me too!" she'll shriek when you moan about stretch marks or marvel how it is that you can wake from the deepest slumber the instant your baby coughs. She knows. And her interest in the minutiae way outlasts your partner's.

So you gravitate toward each other. You plan lunches and walks. You talk so much that you have to force yourself to pause  -- allowing her to talk so much that she has to force herself to pause for you. It's heaven.

THE FUTURE: For the short term, things look very promising. These women need you as much as you need them.

You won't know until your kids are older and you get your parenting sea legs whether these newbie bonds can be sustained. For many women, the tie that began with a delighted "And when are you due?" lasts through toddlerhood, preschool, and college. For others, the fledgling friendship peters out as the intensity of new mamahood does.

For example, Nancy and Rosemary  -- the two neighbors I bonded with so tightly during my maternity leave  -- are now, a few short years later, virtual strangers again. What happened? The rest of our lives got busier. We had little in common besides our kids, who never hit it off as playmates. My son started kindergarten a year later than theirs, widening the gulf. When we run into one another, we still pick up the thread of kid talk, but we no longer seek each other out. Still, I'll never forget how they helped me make sense of that momentous transition.

Type 3: The Seen-in-a-New-Light Gang

(aka friends with kids whose lives suddenly seem a lot more like your own than you'd thought)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: You saw each other at parties or in the hallways at work. You made polite conversation. You liked her and seemed to share the same sensibilities, but the relationship never got off the ground. It annoyed you that she didn't return calls or dinner invitations very quickly. She was always rushing to do something, like pick up her kids at daycare. She was a bit further down life's road than you, and you couldn't relate.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: As soon as you announced you were pregnant, she showed a lot of polite interest. She asked all the right questions  -- "Who's your doctor?" "Do you need to sit down?"  -- and supplied plenty of helpful answers too. She stopped by after the baby was born. You realize she's not just nice  -- she's amazing.

Why did she never seem tired, now that you know how little sleep she got? Why didn't you notice how much you have in common? You call her for advice. You make plans to meet in the park.

THE FUTURE: Bright. A child is just the thing to nudge you onto the path to true friendship. Parenthood is the ultimate common ground.

I'd like to think I'd have gotten to know Dorothy, who is one of my best friends and has boys seven and nine years older than mine, even if I hadn't climbed on the momhood bandwagon. But you never know.

Type 4: The Nursery School Network

(aka childcare chums, sandbox associates)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: These new friends are the equivalent of colleagues at work, people who grow familiar through the repeated exposure of your everyday routine. Except you sit next to one another in circles instead of in cubicles, reading about the latest upswing in head lice rather than the stock market.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: Circumstances throw you together: daycare, playgroups, the park. As at work, some of these acquaintances look more interesting than others. So you strike up conversations: "When was she born?" "I like that diaper bag." Soon you're whispering together during class or jabbering away next to your cars with your babies on your hips. You schedule your own playdates or form your own mothers' group with like-minded souls.

THE FUTURE: Jolly. Places where other new moms regularly congregate are the perfect spots for friendships to take root and blossom. You have the benefit of similar schedules; you know you'll see one another every Wednesday, say, or at the 5 p.m. pickup, which removes the burden of making plans. You have a lot to share (obviously). And if you're very lucky, your new relationship will last into the next session and beyond.

Type 5: The Friend of a "Friend"

(aka the parents of your child's best buddies)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: Nonexistent. You may never have known this person were it not for the fact that your children were pals. She may have entirely different interests from you, be older or younger, or perhaps live clear across town. Whom your increasingly social tot declares (usually during preschool) to be her "bestest" friend is a giant crapshoot. You have no idea what your child is getting you into.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: It's like a blind date. Neither of you initiated this relationship, but there you are. You tentatively feel each other out. "So, what do you do?" "Has your home been taken over by Nintendo?" ("And, um, do you keep any ferocious dogs or guns in the house?") You learn each other's household schedules  -- when the grown-ups work, which afternoons nobody has swim lessons or soccer practice. You memorize her phone number. You know her child's eating preferences, quirks, play passions, and stuffed toys' names. In fact, her child practically becomes a member of your family  -- that is, when your child isn't busy being a member of hers.

THE FUTURE: Rich with potential. You didn't pick these folks as friends, and they didn't pick you. But that won't stop you from seeing a lot of them at pickups and drop-offs and, perhaps, over extended cups of coffee. Maybe you won't hit it off beyond that, but you might get lucky. Ellen, the mother of Henry's best buddy, Frank, became familiar enough that we went to see a concert in another town overnight. We talked nonstop  -- and not just about kids. It was great.

Type 6: The E-Amigos

(aka your distant, wired friends  -- old and new)

YOUR FRIENDSHIP THEN: Maybe you palled around often at some time and place in the past  -- in high school, in college, at work, when you lived in another city. You did all the usual things friends do together. Or perhaps you didn't know each other before at all. And then you all had kids.

YOUR FRIENDSHIP NOW: You eagerly wait for your baby to finally drift off to sleep. You log on. You've got mail! You find a picture of the baby of an old friend with whom you've recently become reacquainted. Or there's a note  -- half gossip, half toilet-training advice  -- flashing on-screen. Or you join a chat group of moms you haven't met but who have kids the same age as yours.

For me, e-mail has been a terrific way to reconnect with old friends. Now that most of us are moms, it's added a new dimension to our occasional conversations  -- and a new reason to stay in touch, share ideas, and watch one another's children grow. Many women find bottomless support through online mothers' groups. Such pen pals may be strangers or area women who sometimes convene offline too.

THE FUTURE: Long-term. Virtual friendships require minimal maintenance, though they aren't the kind in which you can sip lattes, trade babysitting duties, or exchange real-time laughs, tears, or hugs. Yet they offer up plenty of love, encouragement, and advice when you need them.

"Wish we were sitting in a dark bar having this conversation," I recently lamented by FlashMail to Mary, a friend from high school living in another state with a baby the same age as my youngest, thinking of the delicious intensity of our old-time conversations. But new moms are wise to take their friendships wherever they can, in as many forms as they can. After all, your time may be scarcer, but your need for buddies is even bigger than ever.