Last night, we missed a friend’s 40th birthday because- 20 minutes before our neighbour arrived to babysit- our daughter announced that she was going to be sick.
We really, really wanted to go to the party- and I’m not just saying that because the birthday boy might be reading.
While I cradled my daughter on the bathroom floor post-vomit, she asked me, for some reason: ‘Mummy, would you give up anything for me?’. And I said yes, of course I would, in a moment. Including a rare night out with my fellow Parental Unit, in the big city. Including being with a friend to mark his landmark birthday.
Being a parent, of young children at least, means giving up all sorts of things. Lie-ins. Privacy. Abdominal muscle definition. An existence in which you never have to wipe another person’s bum or nose. Your heart, in its entirety. But I wondered, as I messaged our friend to apologise for our no-show: does being a parent also mean giving up the ability to be a good friend?
Part of me says that I should give myself a break. Much of life is ruled by sod’s law, and even more so when you have little kids. Last night wasn’t the first time we’ve had to cancel a night out, or leave one mid-evening, because of an ill child. That’s unavoidable.
But another part of me knows that there are dear friends whom I haven’t seen for a year or more. Pre-kids, we used to meet up most weekends. There are friends who have had two children, and I’ve barely met their first. There are SMS and WhatsApp notifications, sitting there all red and accusing on my phone, that I swear I’ll reply to ‘when I’ve got a spare minute’.
Of course, literally speaking, I have spare minutes- especially as I am currently between jobs. But a minute of clear headspace and heartspace to properly engage with friends in the way I want to? That feels like gold-dust. When your knackered brain is full of after-school club timetables and flu vaccination dates and panicking about what to do for your kid’s birthday party which is suddenly three weeks away and you haven’t planned anything, and your hands are packing school bags and combing nits out of hair and squeezing cheeks a bit too hard, and your heart is constantly bursting and bleeding, it’s tricky to grasp those minutes.
When the chips really are down and a good friend is in crisis, I hope that I’m there. But, regretfully, even that’s limited. I mean it when I say ‘call any time, I’m always there’, but due to circumstances beyond my control (one aged 4 and one aged 7), ‘any time’ can mean any time apart from 6am-8.45am and then 3.15pm-8pm; and ‘always there’ means I’m there, but unfortunately often unable to be there in person- because there’s a bug in the design of children which means they’re not able to look after themselves, and partners are, inconveniently, not always on hand to do the job.
And, just like any relationship, it isn’t just the crunch times that matter in friendship. Staying in touch for the humdrum times, the casual coffees and the comfortable silences, is important too. But how to do this? For me, partly it’s about squeezing in power-palling sessions when I can. Partly it’s about staying in touch in other ways. Social media- so often maligned for ruining ‘real’ communication, is a godsend in this respect. There are many friends who, even though we may not be able to meet or talk often, because of geography or the fact that we are frankly a bit crap, still feel very close, because of social media.
There will be a time, in maybe ten years, when I think/hope I’ll have much more time for connecting with these friends in person. But in the meantime, in my heart of hearts I know I can try harder, and do better. I value my friendships, and don’t want to lose them. So while I may not be able to magic an ill child better, or leave the babies alone in the house, I can apologise for not attending a party, but offer a dinner invitation instead. I can plan mate dates, and stick to them. Because I would give up anything for my kids, but I don’t have to give up being a good friend. Until the next tummy bug at least.