Why parents – especially new parents – need to nurture their friendships

Cara Strickland

THE WASHINGTON POST – We’ve all heard parenthood, especially the early days, can be isolating, and our friendships change after we have kids, sometimes forever. Everyone brings their individual personalities and preferences to that experience, though. That’s why introverts and extroverts, while facing similar situations, don’t always need or seek the same kinds of support.

Though there are differences in the frequency and type of interaction introverts and extroverts crave, one thing is clear: All parents need friendship in those exhausting and overwhelming years when they are raising tiny humans.

As part of her research as a therapist, Molly Millwood, author of To Have and To Hold: Motherhood, Marriage & the Modern Dilemma, came across Susan Pinker’s work on The Female Effect (in her book The Village Effect), which shows face-to-face interaction is beneficial for mental and physical health, especially for women.

“When two women who care about each other get together face-to-face and interact, oxytocin starts flowing through both of their bodies, which not only increases empathy and fond feelings for each other but also counters stress and could be thought of as basically an anti-inflammatory,” said Millwood.

Millwood, who identifies as an introvert, told herself it was OK that she withdrew from much of her social life after having her child, but now she wishes she’d known about these benefits and prioritised in-person friendship. “I think that I justified my deprioritising of [face-to-face interaction]. I thought to myself, ‘This is just not important to me. I don’t need to get out and spend time with people.’ It probably would have alleviated a lot of my suffering early on.”

Regardless of whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert, the research is clear: everyone derives health benefits from social connection. “We have this idea that socialising is a luxury,” rather than a necessity said Rachel Bertsche, author of The Kids Are in Bed: Finding Time For Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting. “All the research says that’s not the case.”

In many ways, the challenges of maintaining friendships during parenthood are common to both introverts and extroverts. There is less time and energy to spare, it’s harder to make plans around a more stringent schedule, and priorities often shift away from self-care to caring for others. But not everything changes. “We cross that threshold into motherhood with our unique personalities, said Millwood. “People need to determine what within the social realm really works for them and feeds them.”

While Jamie Martin, author of Introverted Mom, found she needed quiet time and space on her own to process the changes she’d experienced – something she described as getting to know the “mom version” of herself – she still wanted meaningful connection.

“What I needed most was one friend on the couch across from me telling me ‘you’re going to be able to do this,'” she said. “I really needed to connect on a deep heart level one-to-one or maybe just with a couple of friends as opposed to a large group.” This was very similar to how she’d engaged in friendship before parenthood. After becoming a mom, she felt pressured to join mother-focussed groups, which didn’t appeal to her.

Large groups aren’t a natural fit for many people, even some extroverts.

“I’m an extrovert and I find it hard to be in a group of people I don’t know that well,” Bertsche said. She was surprised to find that after becoming a parent, she enjoyed alone time more than she had before.

“One part of self-care is grabbing that alone time when you can, even if you’re someone who gets energy from being around a lot of people, because once you have kids you’re around a lot of people. It’s a very loud experience,” she said. “I joke that I used to listen to shower radio and now I just need quiet.”

For both introverts and extroverts, the key is paying attention to what you’re craving so you’re ready when your next pocket of child-free time occurs. Ideally, Millwood suggests there should be a balance between time with people and time alone – regardless of personality type.

Parents who are extroverts may be more comfortable starting a conversation and connecting with other parents than those who are more introverted, though a child can definitely make things easier for everyone.

“I was constantly looking around trying to court people,” said Bertsche of life after kids. “When you meet someone who seems lovely before you have kids it can feel more awkward to just be like: ‘You seem great, can we be friends?’ It feels a lot less uncomfortable to say: ‘Do you want to get together and go for a walk with the kids?’ Your kid can basically be your wing man.”

For Rachana Black, an introverted mom in Dallas, it’s a different story. “If I see another mom at the park, I’ll smile but it’s just not my personality to go over there and start chatting. There’s always that worry about being awkward or not knowing what to say. It’s like dating. It’s really hard to stick your neck out there.” Still, Black always appreciates when others initiate.

Technology can be useful for both extroverted and introverted parents, for different reasons, allowing them to play to their strengths with longer acceptable response times or video and audio options.

For extroverted mom Amanda Martinez Beck in Longview, Texas, the answer is an app called Marco Polo, which allows her to video chat with friends on her own time table.

Renee Ronicka, an extroverted mom in Phoenix, swears by an app called Voxer, which works like a long form walkie-talkie. Each day, she uses her commute time to listen to and answer messages.

For others, an active group chat is part of the answer. Bertsche will log on to a mom’s Facebook group when she has a few minutes for social interaction. Extroverts I spoke with were more likely to favour options like video or voice calls or chats, while the introverts I interviewed preferred text-based chats. Millwood said she found it helpful to write long emails to a few close friends (and her mother), a format that allowed her to reflect, but also to connect.

Kourtney Kraus, an introverted mom in Virginia Beach, Virginia, had a close-knit group of friends before her daughter was born several years ago (she credits her extroverted husband for forming the group of three couples). While being around other people could often be draining, Kraus referred to this group as “family” and said she could be with them without getting worn out. After her baby was born, she didn’t want anyone to come over, not even her best friend, who had been with her in the delivery room.

“I just thought it was part of being a new mom,” she said. She missed her friends desperately, but was overwhelmed by the thought of seeing or talking with them.

When her daughter was about eight months old, Kraus was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. “I got on medication and started seeing a therapist regularly and I was able to talk to my friends. It was this deeper level of connection that we had, this whole new area of life.”

Kraus is pregnant with her second child, and is planning to lean on her friends through whatever emotional challenges come after delivery. “I just keep telling myself: ‘Your friends are your friends and you’re not crazy, it’s OK for you to be frustrated. It’s OK for you to be sad, but it’s not OK to lock yourself up. You need them just like you needed them last time.'”