When my oldest daughter started preschool 14 years ago, I was antsy, pregnant and desperate to connect with other women. But friendship among mothers, as I quickly learned, is built on much more than shared experiences; it requires a similar approach to child-rearing. For me, that means blending humor, levity, mellowness, and honesty; a refusal to take oneself–or one’s children–too seriously; an acknowledgment that parenting can be tedious as well as rewarding; and a commitment to preserving one’s pre-kid self, no matter how distant or tired she may be.
Luckily, these qualities–or lack thereof–come to light quickly in ordinary social interactions. I remember how excited I was to meet the mother of one of my daughter’s first playdates, a boy I’ll call Jonah. When she came to pick him up, she was warm and sparkly-eyed, and my hopes soared. But then she said, “Come on, Jonah, we’ve got to get home and see if we trapped any worms in our worm-catcher!” My heart sank. It had been raining for days, and my daughter had spent a lot of time watching “Little Bear” on TV. Could I be friends–I mean really be friends–with someone who consulted a book of rainy-day activities and then actually implemented one, let alone one that involved earthworms? I was dubious.
At the opposite extreme, I once met a woman at O’Hare Airport who I still miss, even though we only knew each other for 90 minutes. We were both waiting for flights to different places, and our kids–I had two by then–were racing around the terminal, sharing shrieks, Goldfish crackers and Matchbox cars. Her son was being especially loud and rambunctious, and I half-jokingly offered her some children’s Benadryl for the flight. “Never mind that,” she said. “Do you have a Thorazine pen?” In that instant, I knew that if we lived in the same place, we would be friends forever.
As my children and I have gotten older, I’ve developed a set of guidelines to help me determine who’s got true-friend potential and who doesn’t. (Of course, in the end it’s all about my steering clear of people who I fear will judge the way I parent.) These are my red flags, though–dear friends, rest assured–none on its own is a deal-breaker:
2. Lily Pulitzer. This may not be fair, but those pink, orange and lime green prints scream “country club” to me, and in my [admittedly limited] experience, country clubs are slickly varnished bastions of artificiality and oneupsmanship.
3. Boasting. Do NOT tell me your kid is “bored” in math class. You might as well stamp his IQ on his forehead. No one cares.
4. Over-protection. I know the world is a dangerous place, full of drunk drivers, pedophiles and deer ticks. But beyond taking ordinary precautions–like wearing seat belts and bike helmets–I am not willing to let fear guide my life or the lives of my children.
5. Unavailability. If you or your kids are so busy with sports that we can never get together, what’s the point? Friendship takes time.
6. Technophobia. Responding to an email three days later is not acceptable. (See #5.) Do they even make phones that aren’t smart anymore? Get with it.
7. Coddling. Your family will be just fine if you go out for drinks or to the movies. (Again, see #5.) It’s good for them to make their own damn dinner once in awhile.
8. Health Nazism. If you want to feed your kids seaweed wraps and soy milk, that’s fine–but I’m not going to hide the Cheez-Its when they come to my house. By the same token, don’t be insulted if my kids don’t eat your sodium-free vegan tempeh wafers. They’re just used to Cheez-Its.