The Great Divide: How Motherhood Fractures Friendships And Why We Should Work To Repair Them

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After welcoming my first child in 2019, a theme the algorithm frequently splayed across my Instagram feed was “Motherhood showed me who my true friends are.” In one content form or another, I came across women who expressed anger and angst over the ways that becoming a parent either strained their friendships or left them feeling forgotten and isolated.

Similarly, childless women shared experiences where their friends pulled away from them after having children, forming entirely new friendship circles. I wasn’t surprised to see the algorithm unearth similar themes when I was pregnant with my second daughter in 2023. It became clear to me that we, as women, are struggling in our friendships—hard.

“There is research that shows a woman’s physical makeup changes when she has a baby. Even your brain changes. I’m different, so that’s going to change the way that I interact with people, the time I have available, and my priorities,” female friendship coach Danielle Bayard-Jackson tells ESSENCE. “It doesn’t diminish the friendships that I had, but they are going to change. We have to stop seeing change as a sign that it wasn’t real, or they were fake.”

In other words, it’s normal for some relationships to endure growing pains with time, space, and life milestones as significant as becoming someone’s mama. What may not be so healthful, however, is how we’re handling ourselves and the women in our lives when we experience these transitions.

“Friendships are dynamic. They will change. They’re always changing. But we often make sense of it by vilifying the person. They were fake friends. I guess it wasn’t real. But maybe you were friends under certain circumstances, and that circumstance no longer exists,” Jackson explains. “You have to give yourselves some grace. Y’all have never experienced being friends like this. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been my friend for 10 years, 20 years, or since high school. We have never done it like this. We have to give ourselves permission to renegotiate the terms of the contract of friendship we set 20 years ago. It’s time to update the terms.”

But if we’re honest, we didn’t begin struggling with our friendships the moment motherhood entered the equation. Many of our interfemale relational challenges date back to puberty and, in some instances, even earlier than that. Jackson, who served as a high school English teacher and academic chair before launching the Friend Forward coaching practice, received a first-hand look at the challenges that threaten female bonds early on.

“I had a front-row seat to see how issues of connection and belonging directly impacted everything else: [female students’] confidence, their attitude, their academic performance, down to whether or not they came to school,” shares Jackson of her time in the classroom. “I saw the differences between how the boys and the girls tended to congregate. They would get upset about something the boys wouldn’t even think twice about. When they would argue, it was silent. It was the little stuff, but we [the faculty] knew they were in a fight. With the boys, it was louder. It was explicit. It made me curious.”

Jackson’s observations of the complexity of female bonds didn’t end when her time in Floridian classrooms did. After a career change, her work in public relations yielded a similar impression: She encountered “high-achieving charismatic women who also struggled with friendship issues” and were “deeply dissatisfied” in their relationships. But why are female friendships so damn complicated? For starters, the principles that define their values are not always explicit.

“Many express that female friendship feels elusive,” she states. “There’s a lot of unspoken girl code.” “She should know that’s not okay. But does she know that’s not okay?”

Further, it’s difficult to be better at something if you don’t know that you’re doing it wrong in the first place. Additionally, the elective nature of friendships makes us quick to dismiss each other in the presence of conflict and discomfort. “We anticipate conflict in every other relationship. I’ve read enough books and listened to enough podcasts to know I’m going to have tension with my husband, but we’re going to work through it – obviously. Or my mom, we’re going to fuss, but that’s my mom.” But there’s something about friendship, Jackson says. “We almost see conflict as evidence that we’re not as close as we thought. But why is it a staple in every other relationship?”

Thankfully, that’s where she comes in to help. In her new book, Fighting for Our Friendships: The Science and Art of Conflict and Connection in Women’s Relationships, she uses her educational background to study and explain what her research says about women’s relationships, including the “cooperation, communication, and conflict.”

“The first part of the book shows the mechanics of women’s friendships: what brings us together and what pulls us apart,” she says. “We’re taking an aerial view, like from a helicopter. We’re understanding the operations of friendship. Then, we look at tangible strategies to navigate the day-to-day business of being friends. Why do we perceive violations the way that we do? How do I bond more with other women? This book offers tangible ways to receive more depth in connection with the women in your life or [and strategies on how] to find them if you don’t have them.”

But why should we fight for friendships? Why invest in something like friendship coaching or spend time indulging in a book about friendships with so many other things going on in our lives as mothers, partners, and professionals that demand our attention? Well, here’s what the research says.

The Great Divide: How Motherhood Fractures Friendships And Why We Should Work To Repair Them
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Friendships significantly influence your overall happiness.

Jackson points to a Harvard-run study on happiness, which is the longest-running study on the subject. “The main factor that influences how long you live and how happy you are is the quality of your relationships—not income, not marital status,” she explains.

Our friendships help us manage stress.

“A follow-up to the fight or flight study found that women have two additional responses: tend and befriend. In the face of being distressed, we either go and tend to groups that are more vulnerable or we go gather with friends. When we do, it reduces our stress cortisol and releases oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone. Quite literally, going and gathering with other women when I’m stressed helps to regulate me. For that reason alone, it’s helpful to have other women to [navigate life with].”

Moms model friendships for their kids.

“The research shows that moms who have friendships that are hostile and negative and volatile and antagonistic, their kids do too,” explains Jackson. “For the woman who is struggling in friendship, you might not intend it, but if you don’t get that together, the research shows that they will also have conflict-filled antagonistic friendships. They are looking to you to learn how to navigate issues with their friends. That’s worth sitting down and figuring out how to get that together.” She goes on, “Our kids need to see us model friendship.”

We need each other for emotional support.

“The research shows that the number one thing women look for in their same-sex friendships is emotional support. This is a time when we definitely need it. There’s something about a woman showing up for you during a time when you’re very tender that does bond you.”

If we’ve sold you on why you need to invest in your female friendships, you may be wondering how to start reinforcing some of those weakened bonds in your circle. For starters, it may take simply being vulnerable with your friends about how you’re feeling and where you’re struggling.

“We get sucked into motherhood and our friendships get pushed to the margins of our lives because it’s so demanding – psychologically, physically, emotionally – to tend to and raise a child. I think that’s one of the reasons it can be really lonely because it takes so much energy,” says Jackson. “Simply being vulnerable and saying, ‘Girl, I’m going through it. I don’t know the next time that I am going to see you, but I am feeling a lot of FOMO, and I miss you. I feel really isolated and lonely. Don’t forget about me, and I know when things ease up a little bit, we’re having that brunch or we’re taking that trip.’”

It could also look like admitting that you need help cultivating or sustaining your friendships through this challenging time. Help could look like reading, podcasts, or even coaching. “People feel friendship should come naturally and feel something is wrong if you need support with that,” shares Jackson. “In every other domain of life, totally normal, but in friendship, we see it as something that should just be natural. But that’s totally untrue.” It also takes understanding that the presence of conflict does not equal the demise of a friendship and that developing a level of self-awareness is important. “You need to be aware of your experience while holding space for her experience,” Jackson admonishes.

With so many demands on us as women and to-do lists a mile long, repairing a broken friendship or nurturing a fractured one may feel like the last thing you have time for. However, slowing down to tend to these bonds could turn out to be the very thing you need to reinvigorate and empower you in your motherhood journey.

“If the number one factor in happiness is the quality of your relationships, my hope is that this book will show you how to have the healthiest friendships possible,” says Jackson.

To learn more about Fighting for Our Friendships and Danielle Bayard-Jackson, click here.

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