Friends for Life? Wait Till Kids Enter the Picture

By Judith Warner, The New York Times

NOTHING can sink a friendship like differences over parenting. Sometimes the areas of disagreement are stark and dramatic, leading to blowups and out-and-out breaks. Most of the time they’re subtle and unstated, a matter of dark looks and long-simmering resentments, that erode, rather than rupture, formerly close relationships. Often they arise from a vague sense of betrayal, a friend’s having changed once he or she has had children, breaking unspoken assumptions about shared values and goals, how to live and who to be.

It’s the sort of relationship-fraying challenge portrayed with much humor in the film “Friends With Kids.” And it’s one that a Washington mother of three found herself forced to confront when a close friend became pregnant, revealing an entirely new side of her personality. “She immediately stopped her temp work because the Xerox machine might be bad for the baby,” said the mother, who, like several others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity so as to not compromise her relationship with the friend. “She changed all her shampoos. We pretty much had to detox the environment whenever we saw her from then on.”

The tensions deepened, she recalled, once the baby was born: “She practiced total attachment parenting. She never let anyone watch her baby. To go to a movie, she and her husband would go one after the other. If it was cold out, she’d bring the car seat into the house and warm it with a blow dryer” before bringing it back to the car. When the child was older, she said, “you weren’t allowed to say no to him. You weren’t allowed to set boundaries. We were at our wits’ end.”

No matter the cause, no matter how well-managed the reaction, the disagreements arising over parenting practices can hit hard and cut deep. Because what’s at stake is much more than different ideas about Ferber versus Sears, or organic versus conventional, or the use of timeouts, or the limits to be put on TV time. What is often triggered, in the divide between what mothers and fathers do or don’t do — whether or not those differences escalate into out-and-out confrontations — are convictions that push all the most basic parent-buttons.

“It’s the judgment: ‘You want to be popular with your kids, you don’t want to say no to your kids,’ ” said Rosalind Wiseman, author of the parenting advice book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” who described herself as a less stringent parent than many of her peers. “The tone of voice conveys: ‘I am a better mother than you. I have control, you don’t.’ We all to a certain extent respond to it.”

In 1975, the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg proposed a theory as to why certain areas of parenting — “feeding, sleep, toilet training or discipline,” she wrote in a greatly influential article for The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — were such emotional flashpoints for parents. There were “ghosts in the nursery,” she argued, residues of the “vulnerabilities of the parental past.”

For the current generation of parents, who tend to ascribe quasi-magical properties to the choices they make in their children’s early years, Dr. Fraiberg’s formulation couldn’t be more resonant.

Breast versus bottle, whole-grain versus white, cloth versus paper diapers — for many mothers now in particular, these decisions take on the weight of “political, moral and ethical stances,” as Claire Dederer put it, describing her cohort of right-thinking, left-leaning, semi-working, highly educated and deeply angst-filled mothers in her 2011 book, “Poser.”

Ms. Dederer believed that many of her generation’s parenting practices stemmed from the fact that they were nursing psychic wounds from the family disruption and disengagement that had swept through their own homes in the 1970s. [Read the rest of this article…]