Adorable Little Detonators

Our friendship survived bad dates, illness, marriage, fights. Why can’t it survive your baby?

Photo: Bobby Doherty
Photo: Bobby Doherty
Photo: Bobby Doherty

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Over the past three years, all but two of Sasha’s core group of high-school friends have had children, and of her core group of college friends, half of them have had children and others are in various stages of family planning. In that time, Sasha has been trying to start a family too, struggling through failed IVF cycles. Sometimes, admittedly, she found it difficult to stay close to her friends who were successfully starting families while she suffered through infertility. But the distance also grew as her day-to-day life and theirs became too much and the time they had to give each other became too little. Sometimes it felt like all anybody would talk about was their children and their adorable developmental milestones, and she couldn’t relate. She would text, craving idle chitchat, and her friend would respond with a photo of her child at the playground — annoying at best, but it could also fill Sasha with a specific grief that threatened to overwhelm her.

Eventually, Sasha moved back to Los Angeles, and on a recent visit to New York, she was smacked in the face by how different her friends’ lives had become. “All we did was go to playgrounds,” she says. “My whole photo reel is just pictures of me with different kids of my friends at the playground.” She and her husband decided the next time they go to New York, they’ll cough up the money for a hotel. “We’re going to make our plans, and if people would like to get sitters and meet us out, great. Otherwise, sorry.”

It’s not that she doesn’t love her friends or that they don’t love her. It’s not that she doesn’t miss them, or want to spend time with them, or want them in her life, and vice versa. It’s just that “it has changed everything,” she says of her friends becoming parents, in the same deadpan tone as a sitcom character breaking the fourth wall after a record scratch. “More than marriage, more than a new job, more than moving across the country, I think there is nothing that represents more of a challenge or a threat to adult friendships than parenthood. It is the only thing that is permanent and time-bound. It has fundamentally shifted my relationships.”

Cover Story

When One Friend Has a Baby, and the Other Doesn’t.

Babies, those little assholes, really do show up in our lives like a popular girl transferring into school in the middle of the semester. Their sudden presence, though welcomed, coveted, hard won, and considered a blessing to their parents, throws the social order into disarray. In 2017, the journal Demographic Research published a study out of the Netherlands that looked at how the age at which parents had a baby impacted their personal relationships. In probing that question, researchers concluded that across the board, the strength and quality of friendships “typically decreases after people become parents” and that most of the quality degradation occurs around when the child is 3, during the years that kids’ needs are most demanding of their parents’ time and energy. Friends might drift away during this era, but friendships come back. It might take six months or three years or a decade, but babies eventually become kids, and parents stumble out of those dark days with a restored freedom to commit to their social lives. The dilemma facing friends with kids and friends without them isn’t so much if they’ll ever have the time to meet up at a bar for happy hour; it’s whether all those years of being busy and disconnected have messed up their friendships so much that nobody will want to go.

The friendship divide is not some dramatic breakup but a slow-rolling tectonic shift that neither side notices at first (especially the parents). The fissure often starts as an abstract fear of unknown agents of change (an emerging baby and an emerging parent) and the shared realization that two lives, which had been more or less plodding along a similar path, are about to diverge. While one friend veers off into colic and diapers, navigating the way a new child gives new meaning to their sense of self while simultaneously taking a wrecking ball to it, to their ownership of their bodies, their sleep schedule, and their understanding of their careers, the other, childless friend is, yes, dealing with their own wrecking balls (partnering up, divorcing, trying to have children, deciding never to have children) but is otherwise living in a fairly unaltered state. One friend is sucking snot out of a tiny nose hole, while the other remains free to travel, socialize, work, and evolve however they want to. And like all abstract fears, the preimagined rifts have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some of the ways friendship changes in this life stage is just “being in your 30s.” Friends are already disappearing from dinner parties and birthdays and day trips and concerts and “God, I’ve had a shit week. Can we just sit on your couch and eat takeout?’’ evenings. There are so many big events besides having children that make you less available to friends: serious relationships, career changes, getting sober, moving cities, caring for aging parents, finances. We talk through those moments because we’re aware enough of how important friendships are and how hard they are to keep. You literally live longer the more adult friends you have, and if you believe the surgeon general, we’re all one invitation away from being part of the “loneliness epidemic.” Parenthood (specifically motherhood) is a known contributor to feeling isolated, but though we tell friends, “You work too hard,” or even, “Your new girlfriend is a drag,” we never point our fingers at the baby and say, “That thing is tearing us all apart.” My close friendships have survived most, if not all, the big-adult life events. As my friends settle into new parenthood, I can’t ignore the ways we’re drifting apart. I think it’s time to discuss the babies in the room.

When she announced her pregnancy, Sasha’s friend assured her that nothing would change. “She was like, ‘I’m going to get sitters! I’m going to be out! We’ll still hang out all the time,’” Sasha recalls. I said the same thing when one of my best friends, Liz, told our friend group she was pregnant. We had found each other during a lonely postgrad stretch in San Francisco and amassed a decade of road trips, shared beds, outfit swaps, and sisterly arguments. We once had a fight that resulted in our not speaking for months and came out on the other side; I knew our friendship could withstand almost any obstacle. She burst into tears proclaiming she wasn’t ready for everything to change. “Nothing will change,” we assured her as she sipped her seltzer and we chugged our Chianti.

Like Sasha and her friends, we weren’t arrogant enough to believe that things would stay exactly the same; we were just naïve enough to think that things were about to shift only in little, tolerable ways that wouldn’t undermine who we were to one another. After all, this little person was a new, nonverbal interloper, and we’d been friends for over a decade. And frankly, in the face of such a great, spinning unknown, we had no choice but to hold fast to our delusion that one of us could have a baby, but all of us would still make it to happy hour.

Maybe if it had been just one person at a time, at a reasonable frequency, the sudden presence of children would not have remade my friend group so swiftly or radically. But over the past three years, like Sasha, I’ve become one of the few childless people among my college friends, my postcollege friends, my co-workers who became friends, and the slightly secondary groups of friends I secured as company when all the other groups started having babies. (So much for contingency plans.) At one point earlier this year, nine of my friends were pregnant simultaneously. That surge can’t just be chalked up to my melodramatic inability to roll with change; statistics back me up here: There was, indeed, a post-COVID baby boomlet. Yes, everyone was really having babies without me.

By now, I easily recognize the beginnings of it: the coy smile that comes right before the admission that “we’re starting to try.” I edgily monitor drink orders, holding my breath for the smash cut to the big announcement. Afterward, I stay quiet, but seethe, when my friends remind me that I could do it too — that I could even do it alone, as if not having a partner were my reason, rather than a mix of ambivalence, ambition, and biology. I’ve felt judged, as if my friends were treating my decision to remain child-free as transitional, despite my once having shown up to a baby shower bemoaning how insane I felt thanks to the Plan B I’d taken the night before and declaring it worth it because “no fucking way did I want a baby.” (Cute.) I know I’m acting out, so I try to choke back the irrational-feeling resentment that it’s their fault I’m now reconsidering my life choices and feeling like I’m missing out on a milestone I never wanted to hit.

I’ve learned to hide my real reaction to a new pregnancy — nobody wants their joyous announcement to be met with “Oh my God, not another one.” Instead, “You’re having my new best friend!” has become my boilerplate response, even when I can already feel myself adjusting to the distance I know is coming, pulling away before I’m pushed out, flouting my freedom as I go. Once the babies are here and we try to make plans, I bristle at the tinge of superiority I imagine in their unapologetic assumption that everything operates on their schedule (though I know to some degree it has to). And when I complain about my life, I imagine that my busy work schedule, double-booked social calendar, and fatigue from opting to stay out late the night before are trivial to them, so I hold back details while wondering why they aren’t more curious about my life. Don’t they care? When I slip and rant to them about someone else’s annoying parent behaviors, I worry I’ve inadvertently shamed them, too, or, worse, confirmed their fears that I’m not on their side and secretly find them just as annoying.

I’m being extreme — I’m not that bad — but friendships are delicate, their permanence not guaranteed. (How many times have you asked yourself, Would I be friends with this person if I had met them at this stage of life?) Dings and barbs and unintentional acts of impatience and intentional acts of pettiness can slowly pile up until, before we know it, we run the risk of reducing friends — people we theoretically love and know well — to their harshest stereotypes. It becomes us vs. them. On one side: People With Kids (PWIKS: frazzled, distracted, boring, rigid, covered in spit-up; can’t talk about movies, only about how they wish they had time to see them). And on the other: People Without Kids (PWOKS: self-absorbed, entitled, attention whores, grumpy about life’s inconveniences even though their life is easy). When those slights go unaddressed, it becomes all too easy to pull away.

Which is why, by the time my most recent friend announced her first pregnancy — a friend who had been a cornerstone of my social and emotional life since our junior year of college — I no longer had it in me to deliver my “new bff” line because I was certain she was birthing my mortal fucking enemy. That year, she added a personal message to her holiday card: “Happy Holidays. Please don’t stop being my friend once the baby comes.”

One Fourth of July, in my early 30s, I went upstate to spend the day with a college friend, her newborn, and one of her neighbors who had just had twins. Four new-new parents, three new-new babies, and me. Looking back, I think it was significant that my friend invited me into her life during a moment of total insanity. But at the time, I remember feeling like I suddenly had no idea who this person was anymore. She tried to engage with stories about my life but was clearly preoccupied. Meanwhile, she and her friend couldn’t stop discussing newborn bowel movements. Even if she didn’t necessarily want to be talking about poop, and was self-conscious about how much she was talking about poop, she needed to talk about her new baby, and all of the mysteries and anxieties, and feel understood by someone. I realized that I could nod and smile but never relate or soothe. I had a panic attack and left before the hot dogs got off the grill. I’m sure she was baffled by my reaction. And seven years later, I’m sure she’s still baffled, while I still have no clue what it felt like on her side of things.

Jess, now 34, also found herself a little blindsided by her childless friends after she had her baby. She was the first among her tight-knit group to get pregnant. They’d been by her side since her father died when she was 17; they all lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood and saw one another through bad dates and weddings and health crises. But a month or so after her child’s birth — a difficult one that included a placental abruption and an emergency C-section, followed by a staph infection — Jess felt isolated from the people she had always relied on. Even when they were trying to be helpful, it didn’t feel like enough. “They were acting almost as if I’d just had a baby,” she says, tearing up over Zoom, when to her it felt like much more had changed. She started to collect a litany of perceived slights. One friend came over to meet the baby and made a weird remark about how she looked; another stopped by for dinner and didn’t offer to help, even while Jess was juggling care of her infant, doing the laundry, and ordering dinner. “She started eating without me,” Jess recalls. Finally, Jess broke down crying and told the friend she needed more support, but the friend had no idea what kind of support to provide and Jess found it impossible to describe. Shouldn’t she just know? Like they had always known what to do for each other. All of this left Jess feeling an urgent, persistent need for new friends. Immediately.

Her son is now almost 2 and a half, and she has a robust neighborhood parent group that meets up at the playground and for coffee and dinners. She has had a couple of teary conversations with her old friends, but the distance has endured. They’ve stopped inviting her to things, even though she knows they still see one another. At their infrequent one-on-one hangs, Jess senses herself getting frustrated by conversations that don’t leave her space to talk about her kid. When her childless friends do weigh in on feeding or sleep habits with any sort of knowingness (your niece and nephew do not make you an expert, I’ve found), she gets irrationally annoyed. Recently, she tells me, she was surprised when a member of the friend group got engaged and invited her to her bachelorette party: “Like … we’ve hardly hung out?”

New motherhood is psychological and hormonal. It’s a wild time filled with practically every emotion — ambivalence, joy, love, frustration, fatigue, grief — and new experiences. It’s not all that surprising that you’d need new friends who understand you. “Moms don’t ask other moms if you need anything; they just offer,” Ashley, an L.A.-based mother of one, remarks. She has a group of five super-close friends, her “cheese-and-comps crew,” so named for their monthly ritual of getting together for wine and cheese and giving one another compliments. They met when they were all coming up at CAA in their 20s. Now, three of the five in their group of friends have children. “It was like they got FOMO or something,” she jokes. She recalls a time when she was at a party, her newborn was constipated, and she was trying to explain it to a friend who doesn’t have kids: “I felt like I was cornering her.” It’s possible that Ashley is projecting and her friend really was interested in the emotional experience of having a constipated baby, but when Ashley discussed the topic with a handful of moms at the party, she didn’t feel self-conscious. She didn’t feel boring or rigid or fixated on her child. She didn’t feel ashamed that she wanted to talk about her child as she was experiencing her (everything she did was interesting, but also so dull). They offered advice, got into the nitty-gritty, and knew exactly how to reassure her.

She’s more conscious than most of how her childless friends may feel abandoned in all of this. When her friend Natacha had a multi-event birthday party, the friend group made sure to show up. “We just can’t be like, ‘I can’t come because I have a baby,’” she says. “She’s planned every single one of our showers, and we’ve never returned that favor.” So they go hard for her birthday. They even got her an Hermès watch.

Ben, a Brooklyn father of two, tells the story of two vacations he has taken recently, one on which he and his wife were the only parents. Mornings were annoying: He wanted to get up and get to the beach, knowing he had only a small window before needing to come back to the house for nap time. His friends got going at a leisurely pace, wondering if they should have eggs before they went to the beach, wondering why he was rushing them. It’s vacation — who wants that energy? One day, they made plans to have lunch without him — they went to town and had a whole day while he grumpily schlepped back for nap time, reminded of how easy his life used to be, how he too used to just wander around until he felt the “right amount of hungry.” He felt unconsidered and excluded from a whole world of plans that sounded so goddamn nice.

Then he and his family took a trip to a seaside town in Europe and rented a guesthouse with another couple and their two kids. Another pair of friends, a couple without children, stayed at their own rental home nearby, opting out of what Ben describes as the “really fun, totally chaotic, joyous environment where nobody was sleeping. We were rotating meltdowns.” When their friends came over, they complained about the uncomfortable pillows in their rental. “We were all just like, ‘Give me a fucking break.’” he says. “Our annoyances expand to fill whatever container we have. But it was just very funny that after they left, the four parents started cracking up and making fun of them.” He adds, “I feel like I’m almost able to be a better friend to other parents, other dads, because I can be like, ‘Hey, man, me too. It’s all right, we got this. We’ll figure this out.’ It’s just an easier reciprocating dynamic.”

For others, child-free friends are a portal to their pre-child life, a.k.a. the “Mommy’s (or Daddy’s) Night Out” friend. Diana spent her 20s hanging out at Lucien. When she got pregnant at 30, she was the first among her friends and worried about her ability to stay connected to a scene where people go out five nights a week. When her child was born, instead of going from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn to raise her child, she moved from Brooklyn back to downtown Manhattan to make sure she could still be part of things. She prefers to keep her kids separate from her social life. “The perfect blend is to leave the kids out of the picture when I’m with friends who don’t have kids. We don’t really talk about them,” she says. She doesn’t invite them to hang out with her children (except for the people she’s closest to). For her, the siloing isn’t for burrowing deeper into her parent side but for maintaining her sense of self. She also has a husband who is willing to negotiate those nights, and they have the means to hire a sitter regularly, which of course helps. (Money is another barrier between parents and nonparents; I can afford a lot more dinners out when I’m not paying $20 an hour to be there.) That’s a commitment to lifestyle few can pull off, and it comes only by hiding some of herself from her friends. I asked her if those friends felt left out of that part of her life. Maybe they wanted to be included. She’d never stopped to consider it, she admits.

What all these parents are describing is part of my growing paranoia: that all my friends with kids are hanging out without me not only because of their schedules but because they have a unique emotional bond that I am inherently left out of. Or that they are constantly rolling their eyes at me behind my back. The same way my parent friends report suspecting they aren’t invited to a lot of nights out they would like to be included in, I worry I’m excluded by reason of “no kids.” I resent the idea that my friends with kids would prefer to vacation without me — and would possibly feel annoyed if I insisted on coming, something I’d never considered. I’d rather endure the chaos than be left out, just as I would rather endure a group chat that was once composed of mostly childless people and is now mostly child-having people, in which I accuse them regularly of having side conversations about Snoos that I’m not privy to. More than that, I worry I’m not being a good enough friend, even when I think I am, simply because I cannot fully understand how to be a good friend. And so my friends with kids decide that the only way to feel supported is to retreat into a silo of other people with kids.

There are reasons both sides retreat, though. Even with my most dedicated friends, the ones who were most willing to toss their newborn into a Björn and let them nap while we took walks or met for a snack, I’ve found that as their infant becomes a toddler, that easy arrangement teeters into the impossible. We’ll meet up for brunch and their child will have a meltdown and declare, very clearly, “Home.” At a certain point, a parent can no longer socialize on their own adult terms. The toddler — and the toddler’s nap schedule — calls the shots. I remember sitting by the pool one summer with Liz as she cradled her 1-year-old. It finally felt like our friendship was coming back to life. We had had dinner and hours of conversation for the first time in ages just the night before. I was re-rehashing the details of a recent situationship that had defined my summer. She mm-hmmed absent-mindedly and nuzzled her son as he ate a peach. It was a sweet moment between them, and though I was touched to see my friend as fully Mom, she was so distracted (or focused, depending on the perspective) she didn’t notice as I trailed off. I snapped a photo of the two of them and then just stared at my phone in silence, wondering who else I could start hanging out with.

Some days, I look at my friends who have had children and am awash in gratitude and admiration. It’s nice to witness them parenting. Other days, I have two tickets to Shucked, and nobody can get a sitter, and my remaining childless friends have already booked themselves with three dinners and two concerts and, like, an orgy. Those days are when I really start to wonder what my parent friends must think of me. Do they see me as a proud Child-free Woman wearing my life like an Instagram caption? Or that person who relies too heavily on the Dads Who Still Go Out? Even though, statistically, the number of childless women is on the rise, the lived experience of being one still feels anomalous. I’m often surprised that even my friends seem to think it’s an “unconventional” choice. Of all the things I had prepared myself to feel marginalized for in this world in 2023, being childless was not one of them. “It’s society that makes me like a weird creepy alien outcast for choosing not to have kids, not one specific person,” says a child-free woman I talked to named Jen. “I think I carry a lot of that defensiveness with me, even in my friendships.”

The parents I spoke to have a way of describing their one fantastic childless friend (often single) who lives a cinematically liberated life. Ashley tells me all about how her friend Natacha spends two weeks in Spain with her partner to run with the bulls. Before she decided to have a child, after thinking she wouldn’t, my friend Erin modeled her idea of being child-free on her godmother, gallery owner Julie Saul, who had the most impossibly chic, busy, art-filled life. There’s a never-voiced assumption in their stories that in order to justify being child-free, your life must be vicariously appealing to your child-having friends.

“I just want to have lovely people to exist next to and go to the farmers’ market with and pick up the phone and call. I don’t want to have to go to extraordinary lengths to build community,” says Tasha, 34, who put her plans to have kids on hold after exiting an emotionally abusive relationship. In the wake of what she thought was a sure path to the marriage and children she really, really wanted, she opened a small business that took off post-COVID. Now she’s exhausted at the end of the day, fulfilled by work but sick of working, yet so proud of her business — it’s like her baby. She knows that her friend group, mostly kidded, wants her to be more present — they’ve told her as much, but she finds it too hard to course-correct. Just as she doesn’t have their language of playdates and tantrums, they can’t seem to access the words to ask her about her experiences. Instead, they reminisce about fun times they had in the past as if neither of their lives were interesting enough now.

If we don’t pull away, all these unspoken feelings make themselves known in one way or another, be it through some snide side comment or by lashing out and doing something hurtful even when friendship is on offer. I got into a conversation at a party recently with a woman I consider a heroic parent archetype (though one that might be resented by other parents). She and her husband have a 3-year-old daughter and truly have never stopped going, thanks to money enough to hire a nanny and a parent who lives nearby. They make it to Coachella every year. That night, they were planning on attending some horrifying-sounding dance party that started at 1 a.m., and by 11 p.m. they were passing out party favors and offering me an extra ticket. (I declined. I’d already OD’d on taco dip and was too tired.) This mother complained to me about something she called “mom blocking,” the act of deciding a mom can’t attend an event simply because she’s a mom. Her own mother had done it recently, telling her she couldn’t accompany her on a 12-day mother-daughter cruise because she needed to be home to take care of her child. “My child has a father,” she exclaimed. She can hang; it was infuriating when people decided she shouldn’t.

My friend Liz overheard and reminded me that I had once mom-blocked her: She had just had her second child, it was her birthday weekend, and I threw a backyard barbecue with all of our friends and didn’t invite her. “You had just had a C-section,” I said in my defense. “I knew you couldn’t come. I didn’t want to taunt you.”

“I actually had a very easy, very quick vaginal birth,” she corrected me. (I’d been telling the story wrong for a year.) And yes, she couldn’t have come, obviously she couldn’t have, but would it have been so much effort for me to invite her?

What I didn’t tell her, and I guess she’s finding out now, is that though I didn’t mean to hurt her, the slight wasn’t completely unintentional. Her second baby had kicked off my friend group’s baby boomlet. A bigger part of me than I would like to admit was irritated. When did all of my interesting friends become so conventional and heteronormie? I felt disappointed in the squaring of my friend group. I’d imagined my adult life as a certain kind of dinner party attended by people who lived all sorts of different lives, with and without marriage and children, who sought out all different sorts of experiences, who weren’t so traditional. I thought I had the kinds of friends who would be willing to take trips on the fly, or who at the very least would engage with movies and art. Now I had to either familiarize myself with Bluey to have conversations or find new friends to fulfill that fantasy. (And it is a fantasy. I hate last-minute travel.)

But if we can’t find a way to maintain the friendship, what then? Jen is 37, and she and her partner do not want children, hard stop. Recently, she has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this means for her life in the most practical terms. She has let herself grieve over the bonds that have changed and found new empathy for what her parent friends are experiencing. She also realized she just has to make new friends if she wants people to go to concerts with. “It’s a good opportunity for me to reengage with the vulnerability of meeting new people,” she says. “In general, we winnow our friend groups and our social lives as we get older, but I don’t have to do that. I can actually still try to expand them again because I have a lot of time and I am more financially secure than I was in my 20s, and I have these other opportunities.” But getting there requires a level of acceptance about your friendships that most people haven’t reached.

That study from the Netherlands found that while friendships of parents are at their most fragile when their children are around 3, by the time those children are 5, parents start engaging with their friends again. That’s a cause for hope, if only you can make it through those first three years. “I have one who truly dropped off the planet after she had a kid,” says Jen. Her friend emerged, on schedule, three years later. In their reunion conversation, her friend explained that she was drowning in postpartum stress. “She couldn’t take care of herself, so how could she show up for her friends? I understood that, of course,” Jen says. “But I was going through things in those three years that were pretty hard for me. I didn’t hold it against her that she couldn’t show up, but now there was this little gulf between us that we had to figure out how to deal with.”

Showing up can be a challenge if neither friend has a clear idea of what that means. Over lunch with my friends with kids recently, I admitted that I don’t always know how to be involved in the lives of their offspring. I don’t always have a sense of what I mean even when I tell my friends I want to be the best “auntie” possible. It requires negotiating boundaries and being willing to commit.

When Jessiline, at 40, started fostering the child she would eventually adopt, she knew she’d need extra support, and she knew some friends might slip away (she herself had alienated a friend with a kid in the past. “I was an asshole,” she says now), but she never thought Jato, her go-to person for almost 20 years, would be among them. He was like a big brother to her — whatever she needed, he helped. He even wrote a letter of recommendation for her when she started fostering. “I just kind of took for granted that letter meant he was going to be supportive,” she says. “And after the fact, I realized, Oh, we never got clarity about how our relationship was going to evolve after I became a mom.” Their friendship held on until Jessiline started a master’s program in psychology. On the first day of class, her son fell ill and she needed emergency child care. She messaged Jato for help, as she’d done so many times in their friendship, and to her surprise, he replied, “Listen, when it comes to things like babysitting or needing help with the kid, you can pretty much assume I’m not going to be able to,” she paraphrases.

“It felt like getting the wind knocked out of me,” she says. After that, their friendship turned from a reliable flow of affection and support into a slow trickle of occasional dinners, she says. Jato has his reasons: At the time, J, Jessiline’s son, was only 2. When Jessiline asked him to babysit, he was genuinely concerned about his ability to do it: “There might have been some traumatic moment where he was crying and asking for Mommy and I can’t explain.” He knew Jessiline was hoping he would play a big role in J’s life. She had wanted him to be J’s godfather, almost a father figure, which for Jato was too much. He wasn’t sure what the commitment would require. “If there was a lapse in the friendship,” he says, stressing the if; he wasn’t intentionally backing off at the time, “that’s probably what it was, some reluctance on my part. I didn’t want to make a promise I couldn’t keep.”

Eventually, J and Jato bonded, and Jessiline and Jato found the dynamic that worked for all of them. He’s not the godfather. Instead, he’s Tío Jato. “He’s my nephew now,” Jato says. J is just starting kindergarten, and Jato is the emergency contact for school.

It doesn’t sound revolutionary to suggest that the key to maintaining your friendships through the hurricane of early parenthood is simply to do the hard slog of communicating and committing, but it actually is. We’re not conditioned to put the same amount of effort into friendships as we do other relationships (romantic or familial, or even professional). And there are all these unknown variables that can arise and have no obvious solution: What do you do when your child-free friend has no interest in being surrounded by children? When they love you but don’t really love kids? Or perhaps your friend’s child just doesn’t like you. Are you supposed to debase yourself by pulling silly faces just for the sake of impressing a tiny person when all you wanted was to be able to spend time with your adult friend? Do you just let the friendship go, confining it to text messages, or are you only friends when they spring for the sitter? How much work are you supposed to put into a dynamic you’ve opted into?

Ben has found his own lower-key solution: inviting his friends over to help with bedtime and then to hang out after the kid goes to sleep. “It’s inviting people into a certain kind of vulnerable chaos that New Yorkers don’t often invite each other into,” he says. “I have friends, not super-close friends, who have never set foot in my apartment. Telling someone, ‘Come to my house while I clean up or do bedtime’ is real intimacy.” Yes, you risk exposing them to the pure hell of child-rearing, and they might not have the most fun, but it’s a bet on that friendship. “It’s a great joy of my life when my 3-and-a-half-year-old is goofing around with my best friend who doesn’t have kids,” says Ben. Some friends, well, they will just fall away. But other friendships will stop feeling so situational. Those are the friends who will feel like family.

Author and chef Samin Nosrat doesn’t have children and has decided not to have them, but she hosts a weekly dinner for herself and her friends with kids in the Bay Area, where she lives. It was a tradition she’d always wanted to have, and one day she found herself with six extra pounds of roast pork and put out a call for mouths. It has evolved into a weekly Monday-night hang — everyone knows to protect the night — where people with kids and people without and their dogs, too, prepare and eat a meal together. Sometimes Nosrat cooks, sometimes they just make a salad and order empanadas if everyone is tired, but the ritual is a chance to be in one another’s lives. “I love babies. I love children. I’ve always loved kids. I have other adult friends who don’t feel that way, and so they’re very much like, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant? See you in 18 years,’” Nosrat says. “But my instinct is, I’m going to figure out how to come to you; I want to come see that baby and stuff. I don’t resent having to do a different kind of labor.”

Her dinners are proof of what can happen if you manage to hold on through the extremely annoying and difficult parts of this particular parenthood-driven ebb and flow in a friendship. Everyone is right to feel how they feel, and everyone is being just a little bit of an asshole, but eventually the dynamic rights itself, and it has the potential to be even better than before.

The kids who come to Nosrat’s dinners are a bit older, so they’re “actual members of the dinner table,” she says. She gets to know their personalities, rather than spending time with little beings who can’t exist without their parents, and getting to know them has been rewarding. “I think part of it is, if and when you can, taking a big-picture view, the long view, but it’s hard,” she says. “I mean, trust me, I get it — it’s really, really hard. But now I’m sort of appearing in the midst of a regular family’s life.”

For the average person who can’t make six pounds of pork shoulder on the fly or doesn’t have the superhuman discipline required to stick to a regular Monday-night utopia, there is another way forward. In early summer, I attended a birthday party for babies and adults: a radical experiment in integration. The party for the 1-year-old started at 4 p.m., and the adult portion started after 7 p.m., when the babies would be put away for bedtime. Naturally, come 8:30, there were still some babies hanging around. I stepped on a toddler who was sitting on the floor, well below my eyesight. As the night progressed, my friend Joe wondered aloud when the kids would go to bed-bed. “I don’t know how long I can keep coming to parties like this,” he said with a deep, pained sigh. And I knew what he meant. It was fun, but it was compromised fun. The reality is nobody loves your baby (or pet) as much as you do. We were ceding our sacred Saturday night to something — to age, to a lifestyle we weren’t ready for, to an identity we didn’t claim, to having to be less drunk than we wanted to be because the children were watching — all for the sake of having time with our friends. But as I watched another friend cut her night short due to toddler meltdown, I felt comforted that all of us were making that compromise. And even though nobody quite got what they wanted how they wanted it, at least we found a way to hang out.

Why Can’t Our Friendship Survive Your Baby?