Recently I wrote a post about the unexpected ways I’ve found community through my kids. I shared that for me this was not part of my initial plan, that community had happened but was not something I had sought.
That was a bit of an oversimplification, though.
One particular response to that post has echoed in my head, because I heard it several times over and because, initially, it surprised me: “I wish this was the case for me.” These comments left me thinking about how I got to this point – a member of a busy, thriving “village” of friends and families – as well as remembering how it felt before I was here, when I, too, was hungry for a sense of community.
What I didn’t mention in that initial post was the main reason that I, even as an introvert, know to appreciate the benefits of the village: It’s because my first years of parenting were lonely. I had just started to get connected to other local parents when my husband and I decided to move back home, states away from the friends we had made. While the proximity to grandparents was wonderful, we didn’t know anyone else with young kids; there was no one nearby who shared our life stage. There were several months when that felt very, very hard.
When my daughter was about eighteen months old, I started thinking she needed playmates. I was pregnant again, and felt too tired to keep up with her, plus it would be nice if I could make some friends who had kids. I began looking around for groups where we could get connected, and found a local one online which called itself a “Young Moms’ Group.” Perfect, I was a young mom, too – 26 at the time. I emailed them and eagerly awaited a response. Their next get-together was just a day or two away, on a Thursday morning. I blocked off the time on the calendar. Finally, I would connect with some other moms, and Delaney would get to play with kids her own age.
The woman coordinating the group wrote back quickly and told me, not unkindly, that I was too old. She didn’t write, Don’t join us. She didn’t write, We don’t want you here, old lady. But she strongly hinted that I would not fit in. Apparently “Young Moms” meant really young moms. It was a group for women who were 17-21. She didn’t think I would like it.
Needless to say, we didn’t go, and being home that Thursday morning stung more than a morning at home with your toddler should. I was shocked at how rejected I felt, knowing I wouldn’t fit into the only mommy crowd I knew.
When I wrote that post, that experience had all but faded from memory. These days, I fit in with the mommy crowd a little too easily. Yet I was reminded, through the comments and responses of others, that the challenge continues to exist, and it’s a painful one. Worse, community seems to be the hardest to find just when we need it most, in the early years of parenting.
“Friend-dating” is something that we all experience at one time or another. Whether it’s because we move, we change jobs, or when we have kids we all look for new connections at some point in our lives. Even as our kids get older we still look for new friends- friends at the soccer field, friends who can help with carpool, and friends that we can have over for dinner while our kids play. The ever-changing landscape of life calls us to do so. But finding a village or a set of friends that you share things in common with outside of your children can be difficult. Especially as a new mom.
Being a new mom is one of the most lonely experiences. You are never alone but somehow you are always alone. You often stop doing things that you did before that would have brought you that adult connection- going to work, going to the gym, studio classes for yoga or art, or going out to dinner with friends. You start to lose a bit of who you were “before kids” to who you are as a mother. Stay-at-home moms tend to feel this the most, with loneliness being a top issue for mothers who don’t work.
The way we live our lives has changed drastically in that many of us don’t live close to family who can help raise our children. And even if we do live close, we are often subjected to doing it all on our own because society has evolved in a way that we, as mothers, are expected to do most of the child-rearing completely on our own with only our partner (who often works) as our help. The days being inside the house, by yourself, with only a little miniature version of yourself by your side 24/7 is difficult. You aren’t alone but you are lonely.
All moms experience this feeling, though- being lonely even when you aren’t alone. Many say that it’s akin to the cliche of “being alone in a crowded room.” Moms have to leave a dinner party to feed the baby in another room. Moms have to go put the baby to nap while there are friends and family visiting. Moms are forced to pry themselves away from other adults to tend to their babies (obviously this isn’t the case for every person in every situation- but most mothers can relate to these experiences in one way or another). And moms, especially new moms, have all felt the feeling of loneliness. And that feeling of loneliness makes us go out and seek friends who are in similar stages of life as us. Who have similar interests and experiences.
Don’t you wish there was an app for that? Because we all experience it, and we all scour the playground to see if the mom pushing her baby on the swing is someone we might connect with. We try to figure out by the way she dresses and the way she talks to her kids if she is someone we can get along with.
So I thought back to the time when I was longing for connection, before my own community felt quite so well established, and began to analyze what worked and what didn’t. The following suggestions are a product of my own experience as well as the experiences I’ve witnessed among doula clients, friends, and family. If you are a parent hoping to find community, here are some avenues to try:
- Look online, but look local. Social media groups and internet forums are great. They can help foster a sense of connection with people everywhere. It’s nice to know that other parents around the country, or even around the world, have similar experiences. Unfortunately, the majority of those parents live too far away for an afternoon get together. So make it a point to join groups that exist in your immediate area, and start with your areas of interest. Look up your local groups for babywearing or attachment parenting. Introduce yourself, sharing the age(s) of your child(ren) and your town. Offer to host a play date or suggest a playground meetup.
- Look for a community, not just a “group for moms.” The truth is, my village today, the one that actually panned out, didn’t start with me looking to get connected with other mothers. Today it is largely a conglomeration of church friends, doula colleagues, and fellow homeschoolers, with significant overlap between these three categories. The more we have in common, the better our kids get along, the more time we spend together. This is not a group of people I handpicked, nor people I met and said, one at a time, “Oh, we are obviously going to be great friends.” Most of the friends in my village are people I met for a specific, practical reason, then friendship and community blossomed as a result of our continued interaction.
- Skip any preoccupations with age. I have to laugh, knowing that I was essentially turned down for membership within a group due to being five years too old. I would laugh, except that to this day I know people on both ends of the spectrum – those who have felt too old to fit in with a group of parents, and those who have felt too young. You can’t win, it seems. But why, I wonder, are we so concerned with age in the first place? Nearly a decade after being rejected from a group because of age, I have mom friends who are ten years younger than me and others who are more than ten years older. Some of our day to day experience is different, but other elements are remarkably similar. I hate to think of the ways I would lose out if my only friends were born within 2 or 3 years of me.
- Join a local mommy group – but choose carefully. Don’t wait to find a group in which you will agree with everyone on most topics. Diversity is healthy in a community, and we all benefit from a variety of perspectives and approaches. However, it’s helpful to make sure that your fundamental parenting choices and lifestyle will be supported. If you work outside the home but join a group of women who feel it’s crucial to be a stay-at-home mom, it will likely be hard to connect. If you practice co-sleeping and babywearing but connect with a group that mocks attachment parenting, this is not the community you’re looking for. So . . .
- Don’t be afraid to keep looking. Creating a community is not unlike dating, or car shopping. The first one you encounter may not be the right one for you. And that’s okay. It’s easy to feel frustrated when our initials attempts at getting connected are met with resistance. I’ll admit, after feeling rejected by one group, it was a long time before I even thought about trying to make friends again. I was worried the same thing would happen, or that I would realize I didn’t fit in anywhere.
Finding friends as a new parent, when you’re vulnerable and maybe a little unsure of yourself, is a lot like middle school. It looks like everyone has friends but you, that everyone else has figured out where they fit. We’ve all felt, at one time or another, like the kid standing in the middle of the lunchroom alone, looking for an open seat at a crowded table.
But remember what you learned after middle school? No one knows what they’re doing and where they belong yet. We’re all just feeling things out. We’re all just trying to find the right table.
The beauty of adulthood is, we don’t need to find a table where we’re just like everyone else. We don’t need to make sure the clique is right and we’re all the same. Community starts with celebrating our differences, and finding the people who will affirm our choices. Those are the people with whom we build our village.