When her son was a baby, Molly* made friends with a group of moms whose children were the same age. One of them, she remembered, “was really outgoing and loud and was always trying to gather the group to go out partying at night. She was friendly and cool and definitely seemed like a fun mom friend to have.”
Parenting, especially when you’re spending all day with an infant or toddler, can be lonely and isolating. Most new parents are eager to meet others in the same situation, both to commiserate and to break up the monotony of their days. It helps to keep alive the identity you had as an individual adult before you became a primary caregiver.
But instead of sustaining you, some mom friends bring toxic energy to the relationship.
Molly’s new mom friend made her desire to party a priority and ended up destroying the dynamic of the whole group.
“She started mom-shaming those who didn’t want to go out and party at night. She made fun of me for not wanting to get drunk when I had an infant still feeding two times overnight,” said Molly.
In Molly’s case, the group of friends divided, and Molly lost touch with the toxic friend. Looking back, Molly feels disappointed because the two lived close to each other, and their children got along well. But Molly also wishes she had reached out to others and made friends who shared her priorities at that stage in her life.
“I wish I had joined a music class or some other group so that I could meet other moms,” Molly said.
Suchot Sunday, a business coach in Toronto, also had an experience being mom-shamed by a toxic friend.
“I took my daughter to a library program with a mom friend and her daughter for story time,” said Sunday. When Sunday’s “high-energy, spirited” 3-year-old struggled to sit still and listen, the mom friend “was very judgmental about how I should ‘make her sit and be quiet,’” she remembered. The friend also pointed out how well-behaved her own daughter was.
“We can all have off days where we say something we don’t intend,” explained Sunday. “But if it’s a pattern, that’s not someone I want in my life.”
“Toxic behavior is a pattern, not a one-time slip-up.”
How To Know If The Friendship Is Toxic
Other parents with children around the same age are perfectly positioned to empathize with your struggles and relieve some of the pressure and the self-doubt you may feel. But if they’re interested in building themselves up by tearing you down, take note.
“Toxicity might look like a friend who is always putting down your choices as a parent, asking questions about your child that imply there is something ‘less than’ about your child, or talking about your mothering choices to others in a derogatory way,” explained Suzanne Degges-White, a professor at Northern Illinois University and author of “Toxic Friendships,” told HuffPost.
Other signs of a toxic friend are sharing with others something that you told them in confidence or minimizing good things that happen to you.
If you find that you are hesitant to make plans to spend time with this person, or seem to be “forgetting” to return their text messages, it may be worth examining the dynamic of your friendship.
Spending time with a friend is supposed to leave you feeling better about yourself, not worse. You might even notice that your own behavior is out-of-character or toxic.
“What we tend to see in toxic friendships is one person getting all their needs met and the other none,” Marisa D. Franco, a professor and author of “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make―and Keep―Friends,” told HuffPost.
If time with this person leaves you feeling drained, or it seems like you’re always accommodating their needs when making plans, those are also warning signs. Franco describes this failure to recognize both people’s needs as “a breakdown in mutuality.”
When To Repair And When To Walk Away
Everyone has their bad days and makes mistakes, and it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing when you’re exhausted and stressed out by the drudgery of child care. But toxic behavior is a pattern, not a one-time slip-up.
In deciding whether or not you want to talk things through, Franco suggests that you “take a step back and look at the pros and cons of the friendship.”
Ask yourself if this is a person who generally has your best interests at heart and gives you things you need and value.
“Ask yourself, who are the people who leave you feeling uplifted instead of drained?”
Samantha Rodman Whiten, a psychologist in Maryland who said she prefers to use the word “unhealthy” when talking about these types of friendships, told HuffPost that “it’s a good idea to confront a friend if you have an issue with her behavior — if you feel she has overstepped your boundaries, betrayed your trust or is unkind to you.”
Degges-White agrees that it makes sense to say something right away if you want to salvage the relationship.
“Sometimes, people don’t realize the consequences their actions have on others, and if it’s a friendship that feels like it’s worth saving, letting the other person know how you’re feeling or how you’re perceiving things can be the impetus for a ‘toxic friendship de-tox,’” she said.
You can set a boundary and see if your friend values the relationship enough to respect it. If they’re constantly criticizing your parenting, for example, Franco suggests saying something like, “We don’t need advice in that regard.”
If you need to limit engagement with this person, they’ll probably get the hint from a few ignored texts or explanations that you’re busy or have other plans. But with mom friends, it’s likely that there is a group of you and you don’t want to cut yourself off from everyone. You might try, “I think I’m just going to have time to meet up as a group,” Franco suggested.
“There’s sometimes a tightrope that needs to be walked if your kids are friends with their kids or your partner gets along with them or their partner. In that case, sometimes you need to have clear boundaries and engage only to the extent that is absolutely necessary,” said Degges-White.
Rodman Whiten said you might turn to what she calls the “gray rock method”: “Be boring and bland, and don’t give them drama to hook into and start conflict about.”
How To Nurture Strong Friendships With Other Parents
If there is one person you need to distance yourself from, try not to let it affect your friendships with others in the group. At the same time, put more energy into positive relationships among other groups of friends.
Ask yourself, who are the people who leave you feeling uplifted instead of drained? Be proactive in building up those friendships.
“Don’t assume that friendship happens organically,” Franco said. “That’s associated with loneliness over time.”
She recommends that you “assume people like you and then initiate.” Gatherings that repeat over time, like a monthly coffee or playgroup, can help strengthen friendships.
“Women thrive when their friends bolster them up,” said Rodman Whiten.
“Finding a ‘tribe’ of other moms can be an emotional lifesaver for women who may feel out-of-step with their non-parenting friends,” said Degges-White.
With all the responsibilities that you’re juggling, it’s easy to let friendships slide down low on your list of priorities. But the benefit of these relationships is real.
Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., a professor and founder of AC Groups, has researched the impact of “authentic connections” groups for new moms. These supportive peer groups, which Luthar has run in health care institutions and other settings, have been found to have a significant impact on moms’ well-being.
“In our research, we have found that closeness with friends is significantly linked with many aspects of mothers’ well-being — even after considering the quality of their marriages,” Luthar told HuffPost.
On measures of burnout, stress, depression and even blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, women who received group support with other moms fared better than those who didn’t.
“Support in concrete forms like carpooling and pitching in for child care [is] helpful, but what really makes the difference is being able to say, ‘I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core’ when you think about your friends,” said Luthar.
If the friends you have right now don’t reach that bar, it might be time to seek out others who do.
*Not her real name.