Aliza Sherman Risdahl was driving in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, when her cell phone rang. On the other end was her best friend calling with big news: She was pregnant.
Risdahl congratulated her, then hung up — and burst into tears.
“I struggled with multiple miscarriages over a two-year period. During that time, my girlfriend Jo (McGuire) got married and was pregnant within a few months,” says Risdahl, 41, a writer and Internet consultant.
McGuire knew news of her pregnancy would trigger mixed feelings in her friend. “There is no doubt that I hesitated to call Aliza to tell her I was pregnant,” she says. “I knew she would be happy and angry.”
While Risdahl tried to juggle the sting of her own infertility with being supportive of her best friend, McGuire worried she would hurt her friend with even the smallest details of her pregnancy and chose not to share many of them.
“It strained our friendship some,” recalls McGuire, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother in Fort Collins, Colo.
The issue of having children — or not — can pit women’s friendships with land mines. What for some is a joyous event can trigger painful feelings in others. Some may have regrets about their own choices, worry they'll lose their friend to the pull of playgroups and other mommies or feel a stab of grief about their past own losses or infertility. And even when both women in a friendship are at peace with the decisions they’ve made, having a child often still means the relationship needs to be renegotiated.
Four months after McGuire learned she was pregnant, Risdahl found out she was going to have a baby as well. Today, they remain close, but both say navigating that particular period in their friendship was tricky. What saved them, she says, was being honest with each other.
“We learned some lessons,” says Risdahl. “We respected one another's feelings and never pushed too hard. We stated how much we cared for one another — you can't be too clear about this and it should not go unspoken.”
Vicki Iovine, author of “The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy” and other books, points out that it’s natural for women to feel jealous about what their friend has — whether it’s a baby or a more carefree childless life.
“(A new mom) may get jealous and a little exasperated when you tell her about the sexy little dress you bought for a party that you’re going to with a hot guy. She may even tell you that your life feels a little ‘trivial’ to her now that she has found her true meaning in life,” says Iovine. “Don’t let it hurt your feelings — she is really just frustrated and a little jealous that you can even think of being sexy when she is trying to express milk with an electric breast pump.”
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How do friends get past it? Talk — even when it’s a hard conversation to have.
“Feeling jealous does not make one a bad person. It is a normal feeling especially when there is a disparity,” says Debbie Mandel, a New York-based stress-reduction specialist, mother of three and author of “Turn On Your Inner Light." “If you are the jealous person, affirm your friend. If you are the object of jealousy, be understanding and compassionate.”
As lives evolve, so do priorities. Some childless women complain their friends with children turn into mommy machines — always wanting to talk about their babies and resembling very little of their former fun selves.
Amy Tiemann, author of “Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family” and host of the Web site www.mojomom.com, says mothers need to make the active choice to work at and maintain their friendships.
“You need to keep your lifelines and the friendships that helped you figure out who you were and who you want to become next," she says. "It might seem a great idea to get lost in motherhood now, but two years from now, you might wonder, ‘Where did all my friends go?’ And that's a real loss.”
Beware the 'mommy mafia'
Happily child-free by choice, Lisa Giassa, a 35-year-old public relations executive who lives in Bergen County, N.J., saw many of her friends get sucked into what she calls “the mommy mafia.”
“All they do is talk — more like complain — about their kids, their husbands, dramas with teachers and other mommy mafia members,” says Giassa.
She has few friends left who have children and cherishes the ones she calls “me-first moms.”
Me-first moms, she said, nurture friendships, while members of the mommy mafia are more likely to go months without calling.
“It's as if they became incapable of doing anything that didn't fit their ideal of what a mommy should be and do. It just became too much effort and I began to ask what am I getting from these friendships? What am I giving? Then I realized we just grew apart. So it was time to find new friends.”
Kathryn Pizzo, 38, and Barbara Popoli, 33, met long before Pizzo became a stay-at-home mother to two.
While they say their friendship never really struggled even as Pizzo’s family grew, it has changed.
“There isn’t quite as much wine to be had,” jokes Pizzo, who lives in Bellevue, Wash.
Popoli and her husband, who have chosen not to have children, moved to London for two years and by the time they returned, many of their friends had kids.
"Instead of ending a dinner party at 11 ... now dinner's moved up to 7 so they can get the kids home to bed. We make it work," says Popoli, who lives in Marysville, Wash., and is a corporate general manager. "My husband and I love all the children in our lives but also love that at the end of the evening, they go home with their parents."
Pizzo says she and Popoli have kept their friendship strong through communication and finding new common ground. The two focus on a shared passion — talking about current events.
She adds it's important to talk with each other about the changes the relationship is experiencing.
“Don't pretend they aren't happening or you'll both have unmet expectations,” says Pizzo. “Appreciate what you can learn from the other, and try to live vicariously a little bit through the other to help see things from their point of view. Find more and new common ground than what you may have had BC (before children).”
Sue Kidd is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash.
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