How to Manage Mom Friends

When it's the grown-ups who need help getting along

by Suzanne Barston

Motherhood can be lonely. Sometimes it feels like you're the first (and only) person going through the challenges of raising kids. And old friendships often fall to the wayside as you find yourself ankle-deep in diapers and teething toys. That's why finding good mom friends is so important. They make you laugh, let you cry, and entertain you with snarky texts during preschool orientation.

But mom friends can also be complicated. Unlike your old relationships, there are more than two people involved. The very nature of the relationship means there are at least four.

Maybe things are going well until her daughter hits your son, and your friend doesn't do anything. Or she makes judgmental comments about a parenting style that is uncomfortably similar to yours. And even though you depend upon mom friends deeply, there are no accepted rituals – like taking a break, having a trial separation, or breaking up – for navigating the inevitable ups and downs of these intimate relationships.

Here's a guide to managing four of the most common roadblocks to smooth friendship.

Scenario One: She sits back and lets the fists fly
When Laura Brown's 3-year-old daughter was washing her hands on a recent playdate, the other child pushed her off the stepstool, asserting the sink was hers. "She slipped off, hit her head, and fell to the floor," says Brown who expected her friend (and the perp's mother) to discipline her child. Instead, her friend just told her daughter to go play outside and explained that the sink is her "favorite." Brown, a mother of three in Los Angeles, says she tried talking to her friend about the incident, but she "acted like she didn't know what I was talking about."

Maternal instinct makes it hard to stay calm when someone hurts your child, but author and friendship expert Melanie Mills says it's important to remember that your friend might be having protective urges of her own. Mills suggests beginning the conversation in a way that will not put your friend on the defensive because she is likely to stop listening if her 'mama bear' protective mode kicks in.

Instead of saying "Jessica hit Sally," try saying something like, "I saw that Jessica and Sally had a disagreement, and I think it got physical. What can we do to help them?" Remember that you are not trying to tell her how to parent, rather focusing on helping the children learn to play together safely.

Scenario Two: You love each other, but your kids don't
Playdates with babies or toddlers are all about social time for the moms, but as your kids grow older and develop opinions and preferences of their own, the get togethers may become more difficult. "Every time we try to have a play date, my friend's son wants to sit and play board games. My 5-year-old is more of the go-outside-and-kick-a-ball type," says Jessica, a 38-year-old mom in Baltimore, Maryland. "He clearly doesn't like being around my friend's child, and I know it hurts [my friend's] feelings."

Mills suggests that there could be a hidden lesson in these sticky situations. “Part of getting together with your friends' children while they are young is to help them learn how to navigate situations – socially, emotionally, and mentally – in a safe environment," says Mills. "This could be an opportunity for your child to learn how to see the good in the other child, and it teaches him that the world does not revolve around him."

On the other hand, your friendship matters, too, and if your kids' incompatibility is causing tension between you, that's worth considering. Perhaps you could switch to child-free coffee or wine dates in the evening, so the two of you can enjoy each other's company instead of playing referee. Invite your friend for mom-only time and bring up the fact that your kids seem to be going through a phase. Keep it blame-free. "I guess they just have different play styles right now. I'm sure they'll start playing well again." Let her know how much her friendship means to you.

Scenario Three: You have vastly different parenting philosophies
Parenting choices are often fraught with insecurity and passion, and friends don't always see eye to eye. (I speak from experience: One of my closest mom friendships unraveled during a heated discussion on Jenny McCarthy's antivaccine crusade.)

"What has been important for me to understand is that the choices of others are in no way a judgment of my own," says Jessica Martin-Weber, creator of The Leaky Boob parenting community and mother of four in Portland, Oregon. "And even if someone is judging my choices, it says more about what they may be struggling with than it does me." She suggests calmly discussing the topic without resorting to personal attacks.

But if you feel continually judged, it might be time to reassess the friendship. Friends should support and empower your choices, even if those choices differ from their own. Always try explaining your feelings first, but if the judgment continues, it might be time to take a break. Your friend's judgment may come from her own deep-seated insecurity, but that doesn't make it any less painful for you.

If you're having trouble with your own tendency to judge others, think of it this way: Are you friends with people of different religions? Does it affect your friendship? Unless someone is actively trying to convert you, the answer is probably no. The same goes for parenting philosophies. Be sensitive, and if all else fails, avoid hot-button topics as much as possible.

Scenario Four: You are growing apart, but your families are close
Someone who "got you" when you were a new mom may not be the right friend for the parent you are now. But should you call the friendship quits if your kids are close and your families spend a lot of time together?

"If it's a close friendship of long standing, there's more to lose by pulling the plug," says Irene S. Levine, a psychologist and author of The Friendship Blog. So you might want to figure out some fixes, such as seeing each other less often or taking some time off.

During this cooling off period, gradually spend less time together while building bonds with new people. Or encourage your kids to play together solo by offering to watch her kids while she runs errands.

"Allowing for some space in the friendship can be a good test to see if you gravitate back toward each other with new boundaries," suggests Hannah Raun Thompson, a social worker and mother of two in Burbank, California. Or you may realize that the friendship has developed as much as it is going to.

Know when to fold ‘em
If you think cutting ties is the answer, Stephanie Small, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, suggests having an honest conversation about what went wrong. "Feedback like that can be invaluable for someone who's pushing people away and doesn't know why," she explains.

On the other hand, some people don't react well to criticism or confrontation, even if it's done in the spirit of healing. "If you don't think it will be well received, sometimes it's best to just let these things fade out gradually," says Small. 

If your friendship is causing you pain rather than giving you a strong source of support, it's ok to move on. Being a mom is hard enough, and the last thing you need is more drama and tantrums in your life – especially from the people who are supposed to give you a break from it.

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Suzanne Barston

Suzanne Barston

Suzanne Barston is the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood and Why It Shouldn't. You can read more about Suzanne's struggle with breastfeeding and embrace of the bottle on her website Fearless Formula Feeder, where you can also learn more about the #ISupportYou movement.

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