How parents can forge unlikely friendships

Kylie Ladd considers the impact of parenthood on friendships.

It was the seagulls that clinched it. I was holidaying with a relatively new friend, someone I’d met through our children’s creche. We’d been chatting together at the creche Christmas party, discussing our plans for the summer, when I impulsively invited her to spend a few days with us at the family beach house.

At the time, it had seemed like a great idea – her twin boys were the same age as my son, we both had toddler daughters, and all five children got on as well as could be expected of a mixed group of under-fives. But, as the time approached, I started getting nervous.

Four days is a long time to spend with someone else’s children. I’d only ever seen them at creche pick-ups and the odd morning tea. What if they were actually brats who demanded nuggets and chips for breakfast and a steady stream of videos? What if their mother and I had completely different views on discipline, bedtimes and swimming straight after meals? Worst of all, what if we found out that we didn’t really have anything to say to each other after the first afternoon?

By day two, though, it was a case of so far, so good. The weather was overcast, so in an attempt to cheer up our beach-mad children, we took them to a local park for a lunch of fish and chips. But no sooner had the steaming, vinegar-scented bundles been placed on the picnic table than a hungry seagull appeared. And another, and another, until before long, it seemed as if every winged creature in the area had descended upon us.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Jodie’s children were terrified of seagulls, and their fear was infectious. As our immediate environs took on the atmosphere of a Hitchcock film – with birds perched, hungry and expectant, on the play equipment, in the trees above, on the prams, even on the table – Jodie’s daughter began to scream. She was quickly joined by her siblings and then by my children, their five little voices united in a shrill chorus of fear. This frightened the birds, which took off from their perches in a sudden cloud of squawking and feathers and more than one or two dives at the fish.

In the midst of all this, Jodie and I madly tried to get the kids – now rigid with terror – into the car while simultaneously salvaging our lunch. But even when we were all safely inside the car, the seagulls continued their demented attack, swooping at the doors and windscreen until we had no choice but to make a dash for home, leaving a trail of disgruntled birds in our wake.

It was the sort of incident that – once it’s over – forges friendships, giving you an instant shared history, a tale to giggle over together.

But that wasn’t where it ended. Two afternoons later, on the last day of our holiday, one of Jodie’s sons refused to leave the beach and get into the car. She tried everything – asking nicely, asking irately, bribing, ordering – all to no avail. Just when I thought we were going to have to physically manhandle him into his car seat, inspiration struck. Jodie suddenly looked up, pretending to scan the sky. “Mitchell!” she shrieked rather convincingly. “Get in the car! The seagulls are coming!” He was there in a trice.

It’s not a particularly PC story, and I’m sure she’s not proud of it, but it’s one that still makes me smile, and I suspect I’ll be telling it at her 40th birthday a few years hence. At that moment on the beach, I knew – for better or worse – that Jodie subscribed to one of my central tenets of parenting: desperate times call for desperate measures. Our friendship was cemented.

In her wonderful recent novel Sunnyside, Joanna Murray-Smith has one of her characters observe: “When she was young she had believed that friendships would always be made with the velocity of youth. It had surprised her, in her thirties, to find that the ability to make friends slackened along with bodies.” I think she’s right, and that the reason for this is children.

Pre-children friendships are based on shared interests and personalities. We choose our friends for no other reason than that we like them and enjoy being with them. But something changes when the babies start arriving. Your friends no longer just have to like you – they have to like (or at least accommodate) your offspring too, and vice versa.

Post-childbirth, your focus changes. Friendships become less about what you like and more about who you are. Issues that had never previously arisen become central. I know of long-term friends who stopped seeing each other because one didn’t approve of the way the other apparently spoiled her children. Others fell out because of a personality clash between their progeny.

In contrast, when your parenting styles do align, the friendship is strengthened, often tenfold. Jodie and I started talking because our kids were the same ages and genders, but our friendship is now based on so much more than that. We share the same parenting values (though not necessarily perfect ones – another of our central tenets is to put the video on and have a glass of wine at 5 pm), the same half-hour tolerance of giggling after lights-out at sleepovers, and the same determination to let our older children sort it out for themselves when they fight. When we’re together, my daughter goes to whoever is closer for a cuddle and sometimes calls Jodie ‘Mum’ by mistake. When necessary, we are both utterly comfortable leaving the other to bathe, feed, dress or even discipline our children.

Such a friend becomes family. I’m proud to say that we continue to pass the ultimate litmus test: that of holidaying together at close quarters and still wanting to do it all again afterwards. Just as long as there aren’t any seagulls.