My friend Cathy and I recently took an afternoon off and got a couples massage. We lay side by side in a small candlelit room entirely at ease. It was the third time we had met in person.
In February 2017, our mutual friend, Steph, introduced us over email. Steph’s first child had just been born. Cathy and I were both due in June. Steph said she’d found it helpful to have another pregnant friend when she was pregnant, and since we both lived in New York — me in Brooklyn, Cathy on the Upper East Side — she thought we should connect.
As our due dates grew closer, Cathy and I transitioned from the occasional polite email exchange to rapid-fire text messages at all hours. In the first 11 months of our children’s lives, we never once saw each other. Especially early on, Brooklyn and the Upper East Side might as well have been London and Tokyo. But we texted every day, usually somewhere between 10 and 20 times.
We got each other through post-birth recovery, nursing woes, the search for child care, high chair selection, the transition to solid foods, road trips and sleep. So many texts about sleep. We sent each other gifts in the mail. We texted pictures and videos. When my son was 8 months old, I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant again. Cathy was one of the first people I told, and the only one who responded with, “I had a feeling.”
Before I became a mother, I dreaded the thought of making new mum friends almost as much as childbirth. The idea of having to bond with women whose only connection to me was the fact that we happened to have procreated around the same time seemed highly unappealing. The popular narrative I’d heard most about mothers of young children was that they tended to judge one another mercilessly.
One afternoon when I was two or three months pregnant, eating lunch alone, I sat beside a group of women who all had very young babies. I soon deduced that they’d met online and were getting together in person for the first time. They confirmed my worst fears. They all seemed flustered. They didn’t get each other’s jokes. “I’m Kate, and my baby is Rose,” one of them said on arrival. The others called her Rose for the next hour. She looked pained but didn’t correct them. “She’s Kate,” I wanted to yell. “The baby is Rose.”
I thought I’d be fine without this sort of forced companionship. I had plenty of friends who’d had children already. Yet those same friends swore that meeting other brand new mothers was essential, and that these strangers would soon be some of the most important people in my life.
I learned that they were right upon skipping the formalities and going straight to discussions of milk supply with Cathy, and two other women as well. I’ve also spent the last year texting dozens of times each day with Olessa and Siobhan, whose sons were born within weeks of my own. We three are lucky enough to live near each other.
During maternity leave, we’d try to meet up once a week. We breast-fed together in a cafe. I am usually a modest person, but I almost immediately abandoned the idea of covering up with a blanket while nursing my son. Not to make a statement, but because I am highly uncoordinated.
Olessa and I worked together years ago and were longtime friends. I had never met Siobhan. But our time together each week felt like a small miracle. I didn’t have to explain my strange new self to them. We were all obsessed with our babies. We were all overwhelmed. If one of us started crying for no reason, the others just passed her a tissue and kept talking.
I trust these women more than anyone. We take advice from each other before doctors or parenting books. We often make different decisions for our children, and yet there is never a hint of judgment. As we’ve found our footing, our conversations have moved to topics beyond babies. There’s a built-in intimacy there, and so it feels natural to talk about other important life events too. I hope it worked out this way for those women I eavesdropped on. Maybe by now they’re all getting some sleep, and they joke about the time nobody could remember Kate’s name.
A friend told me recently that she still talks every day to the mothers she leaned on when their now-10-year-olds were newborns. Some of them, she said, were people she knew beforehand, but this shared life event, unlike any other, accelerated their bond. I thought then of Steph, who introduced Cathy and me. She was only a casual acquaintance until we connected over being pregnant. She was so generous with her knowledge and time. She sent an enormous spreadsheet detailing all the things I needed to do and plan and buy before the baby came. Our friendship was solidified when I asked her what the frozen maxi pads on the list were for, and she calmly explained in great detail.
Steph continues to play this role for Cathy and me. To a new mother, a woman with a child a few months older than yours is a huge help. Most recently, I asked her if babies can eat tuna salad and when my child will stop being a human wrecking ball, destroying everything in his path. (The answers were Not a lot, but it’s good to try new things and Never.)
I’m almost 37. It’s been a while since I made so many close friends all at once. When I think back on it, circumstance was at the root of every lasting friendship I’ve ever had — the girls I grew up with just happened to live on the same street as me; my college friends just happened to choose the same school. As I get older, more set in my ways, there’s less room for these chance meetings to occur.
I’m now more than halfway through my second pregnancy, and although I’m much better prepared this time, I’ve been feeling wistful that my original new mum friends won’t be along for the ride. You need people who are in the trenches with you because you forget so fast what babies are like. Already, I cannot recall what a child does at four months vs five months vs six. Recently, I got an email from a woman who is due two weeks after me. We’ve long been fond of one another, but we’ve never hung out one-on-one or even exchanged phone numbers.
“Will you be my text-neurotic-things-to-every-day friend?” she wrote. It’s her first baby.
I responded right away: “Of course.”
— New York Times News Service
J. Courtney Sullivan is a novelist.