Why do we sometimes hate new parents? Your entire Facebook feed is hijacked by indistinguishable, jelly-eyed newborns all wearing the same hospital hat, the 100-percent-sober ponderings between moms and dads over who the baby sneezes like, and their blatant attempts at radicalizing new members during 4:30 p.m. dinners. Every smug, “I didn’t really know what happiness was until I had Boston” or “The things I cared about before seem so inconsequential now that we have Pensacola” is another rip in the seam holding the tenuous relationship together between new parents and their childless friends. Many expectant parents promise themselves they’ll never do any of these things, then do all of them anyway.
Let’s explore why this phenomenon happens, and hopefully salvage a few friendships. There are four really good reasons why new parents are suddenly intolerable.
The Life Story Has A New Hero
Everyone is the hero of their own narrative. Most people have a vague idea of a story ending they are working toward (finding mutual love, some semblance of career fulfillment, drunkenly beating an enemy with a bowling pin, etc.). When we do bad things, we think we’re completing the wayward Act Two of a coming-of-age story we have read about. What a lot of new parents don’t anticipate is how quickly and completely those goals shift as soon as a child erupts into the world. Something instinctual flips in the brain of a new parent, causing them to willingly demote themselves to ancillary characters who only want to advance the story of this new protagonist.
Unfortunately for your friendships, that means a lot of what you probably liked about your friends vanishes, at least for a while. They aren’t up for new adventures or building new memories with you because that’s a weird B-plot now that would probably get cut in editing. In those first two years of a child’s life, parents will mentally fast forward through anything that isn’t directly related to their role as a parent. New moms and dads regularly set aside time for themselves every day to just look at pictures of their kid on their phone. They spend most of their downtime while the beast sleeps, sitting in the silent ruins of what used to be their apartment saying, “I just love him so much” or “She’s so great, right?” Not even fiction is so bold as to build a scene where supporting characters do that about the hero.
Part of that is because parents are habituated to the oxytocin their baby’s presence pumps through their brain, but mostly it’s because they are terrified that if they aren’t always thinking of the baby, they will get distracted and screw up irrevocably.
New Parents Are Constantly Afraid Of The World (And Themselves)
This is going to get dark so bear with me. While you may look at a baby and think, “Fine, whatever. Another one that’s just like the millions of others,” you likely don’t even realize that you are tacitly acknowledging that this is “another normal healthy one like all the other normal healthy ones you’ve seen.” New parents are not living by the same baseline. They are still privately calculating the probabilities of this tiny thing’s non-existence. While someone in love may obsess over all the situations in which the other person might leave them, parents know that the only way the baby stops being their baby is through death.
Having a healthy child makes you feel lucky in a sickening way, a way that seems cosmically undeserved, like at any moment the world will take notice and set itself right again. As a result, new parents think about death a lot. They watch the baby die a thousand times based on everything that can poke him, fall on him, electrocute him, or lodge itself in his trachea. Then, despite all of it, they must turn him loose to explore for himself. They wake up in the middle of the night certain he is in our bed and that he’s suffocating under the sheets somewhere near our feet. These situations play with such clarity that it’s like It’s felt in some non-linear time, already practiced in losing him. If you can remember the feeling you’d get as a child watching a scary movie and being unable to emotionally divorce yourself from the fiction, it’s the same feeling; the barrier is gone again and you are suddenly vulnerable to your own emotional Killer Klowns From Outer Space movie.
So if new parents seem like they are never fully present when you’re together or like they’re just not as fun, understand they are regularly weighing death, regardless of how irrational it is. The fear passes, but it takes time for irrational fears to give way to rational because they all look the same at the start.
Now, if you’re thinking, “You’re being over-dramatic, I’ve had pets that I love like a child. I can still step outside of that love and live a normal life,” well …
The Love Is All-Consuming
I’m always impressed and bewildered by childless friends who tell new parents that, in a lot of ways, having a new puppy is harder than having an infant. While they might be right, the love for a child doesn’t actually feel like love, it feels deeply unhealthy.
It’s not just that parents love their child more than anything, they love their child more than everything combined. It’s an overpowering, throttling love that has to be tempered just to get through the day. Sure, certain moments help douse the flame, like when a child in your lap spontaneously rears back with their head and pushes your incisors up into your skull. Or when babies throw up in your mouth, or throw up in your eye, or pee in their own mouth while throwing up in their eyes. But during the quiet moments with an infant where you allow yourself to bend to the love completely, hugging your baby is like hugging a lost love you would give anything just to see again, and then you got your wish.
There’s just no room for anything else. It’s why strong/healthy relationships can teeter on the verge of collapse in the sudden presence of a newborn; you have to intentionally carve out and set aside love for the other person, or the human larva just absorbs everything.
So if you are a friend to a new parent, the reason they lose their social priorities or context for what’s interesting is because they’ve temporarily lost context for everything. They are so singularly obsessed it’s easier to think of them as addicts. They may go to the movies with you, or dinner, or sit through meetings at work like a normal person, but they are never entirely there because they always know that this is just a detour to that wondrous, beautiful sack of heroin waiting at home. And like addicts, you can’t just give up on them, because …
They’re Trying Not To Lose You
This may seem completely intuitive, but new parents don’t want to be this way. They aren’t dragging their baby to your birthday at a bar as an excuse to bail early. They aren’t spinning every conversation toward parenthood because they are narcissists. They’re not posting 100 photos of the same trip to the aquarium to be malicious. It’s a desperate bid to keep you in the loop of their life.
It’s so hard to talk to someone you haven’t seen in years and then run into again in a grocery store because you can’t possibly fill them in on everything, and all those unshared moments separate you. New parents try to make sure that never happens. They hold the door for you to what’s most important in their lives and hope you’ll follow them in. In the same way someone who starts running regularly won’t shut up about it, parents are so excited about this new thing and they hope that they can say or do the right thing to make you excited about it too. They just can’t help themselves. You need to love our baby, you need to see what this feels like.
When they invite you to children’s first birthdays or ask if they can bring babies to your bachelorette party, they know these asks are huge inconveniences and will make any social situation objectively less fun.
But they also know this isn’t forever. They’re trying to do just enough to maintain relationships through the hard part until the children become more autonomous and their continuing existence helps calibrate parents’ fears. They know that when they abandon everything in our lives other than parenting, it actually makes them worse parents in the long run. So, go to the birthday party. Spend some time around him, smell his head. Smell it. He’s great, right? Man, wouldn’t it be crazy if you just decided to have one? Have one.