My iPhone buzzed. I looked down at the text message on the glowing blue screen. The words took a moment to sink in. It was like being back in primary school and discovering you hadn’t been invited to your friend’s sleepover, only worse.
“Hi,” the text began. “Just letting you know there’s no aerobics class tonight. We’re all going to The Hub to C an indie music jam. SAT [sorry about that]! C U next week.”
I put my phone down and stared numbly around my kitchen. Dirty dishes filled the sink. My toddler’s banana was smeared all over the fridge door, but I couldn’t gather the energy to wipe it clean. The monotony of life as a stay-at-home mum was starting to get to me. And while I knew I was lucky to have everything I’d worked for—family, a new apartment, financial stability—I also knew that I had never felt so lonely.
“C U next week.”
I’d joined the aerobics group in an effort to meet new people after moving to another state, and at first I felt I’d fitted in. The five or six other women who attended the class were a bit younger than I, but we shared an interest in organic food markets, the beach and environmental protection. The thing we didn’t have in common, however, was children.
I looked out the window at the busy world. Cars and buses passing by. People hurrying down the bustling street. What’s wrong with me? After living in a city of more than half a million people for the past six months, I still hadn’t made any friends—at least not close ones. Not like the friends I’d left behind. The pre-marriage friends. The pre-baby friends.
Sure, I was “connected” on social media. But every time I checked my Facebook account to read a pithy update from a high school friend I hadn’t spoken to in more than a decade or to see a selfie from a university acquaintance holidaying in some exotic location, I came away feeling surprisingly empty. As I mashed some pumpkin and peas and settled my daughter in her highchair for lunch, I realised that I didn’t have one real friend in the entire state.
My situation was hardly unique however. Dr Marny Lishman, a health and community psychologist, says, “One in three people consider themselves lonely, and this has profound effects on our physical and psychological health.” She says many of her clients come to see her because of depression, stress or anxiety. When she delves further, she finds that most of them have limited or no social support.
“We’re wired to have people around us,” she says. “It makes us feel protected and we thrive when we have social support.”
Psychologist Sharon Draper agrees. “There’s a growing body of evidence that proves how loneliness impacts us negatively on a physical and emotional level,” she says.
If social connectedness is so vital for our health and wellbeing, then why are so many of us lonely?
“Life is transitional,” says relationships counsellor and psychotherapist Charmaine Roth. “We change and mature as we navigate different stages of our lives. And the people who we are in relationships with also change. Friendship fulfils needs. So as our needs change, so do our friendships.”
This is exactly what happened to Terriane Palmer-Peacock, an entrepreneurs’ lifestyle coach and professional speaker. When her best friend married and had children, she had to adjust to her friend’s new lifestyle.
“But I valued our friendship and made time to fit in with her now hectic life,” Palmer-Peacock, now 44, recalls. “Six years later I got married and had a child. Because her children were much older than mine, she was doing different things. As a result, we drifted apart.”
In his work as a specialist adult mental health practitioner and relationships counsellor, psychologist Mark Korduba has observed that things begin to change for people after about the age of 25. “Essentially, we just don’t value friendships like we did when we were younger,” he says. “What we value is family and getting ahead in our careers.
“As familiar structures such as high school and university drop away, it becomes harder to make new friends,” he says. “This is especially true if we move. People living in your new area already have a circle of friends, so it can be difficult to know how to join in.”
“Technology only exacerbates this problem,” notes Sam Van Meurs, a clinical and forensic psychologist. “These days, instead of going shopping with a friend, we’re more likely to purchase items online. Internet banking and online gaming have all reduced the number of face-to-face contacts we have.” And Google maps and GPS systems mean we don’t even need to ask local people for directions.
“People count their friends on Facebook. However these ‘friendships’ are superficial,” Roth says. “We can invent an image and persona on social media that’s far different from the person we are. Friendship is about connection and being known to another. To be known, people need to see and value us for who we really are so as to develop a trusting intimacy. This requires face-to-face interaction.”
Yet how do we develop new friendships when our life circumstances have changed?
“Friendship starts with commonality,” advises Roth. “Find like-minded people who share your values and once you connect, be prepared to invest time and energy.”
At the end of the day, being pro-active works best. “My mantra is ‘get out there,’ ” says clinical psychologist and director of CPConsulting, Dr Simon Kinsella. “Do something you enjoy doing, whether it be a sport or going to art exhibitions or learning a new language or skill. If you do something you’re interested in, then you’ll meet like-minded people. If you don’t know what you would like, try lots of things. And if you are moving to a new city, get involved in lots of things quickly and meet lots of people. That way, you’ll soon get to know the people you like the most. Then you can reduce the amount of activity and focus on doing the things you love the most with people you really connect with.”
On a sunny morning, eight months after our move, I did just that. I filled a plastic container with warm porridge, another with sliced strawberries, plonked my daughter into her pram, left our apartment and headed for the beach.
At first, having breakfast on the boardwalk was a disaster. With no Peppa Pig screening on TV in the background, I had a riot on my hands. I had to deal with spat-out food, porridge all over our clothes, screaming (her) and red faces (both of us).
The next day I was sorely tempted to remain in the safety of our apartment, but I forced myself to pack my daughter’s breakfast, put her in the stroller and set out again. That day was even worse: broken apple purée jar, punctured pram tyre. But I persisted and in the days that followed, things gradually got easier.
We got to know the locals. Café owners, dog walkers, council workers . . . many of whom started smiling and waving to us as we passed. Then other mums pushing prams began to stop and say hello. After months of reading parenting blogs on the internet, I was happy to swap stories with other mothers face-to-face. Every sleepless night, tantrum and nappy disaster: we were open to venting about anything.
After several weeks, one of the mums mentioned that a group of mothers with toddlers met every Wednesday in the park. Did I want to join them?
The lawn was spread with tartan picnic blankets, the play area teeming with squealing toddlers. Parking the stroller in the shade of a tree, I hung back for a second. Did they really want me there? For all I knew, the other mum was just being polite. There was a knot in my stomach and I felt like going home.
But after a moment I took my daughter from the pram and we walked over and joined them. A circle of smiling faces squinted up at us. I introducing myself and placed a container of oatmeal biscuits I’d made among the apple slices, muffins and little packets of raisins that had been brought out for the morning get-together.
Over the next hour we talked and laughed. We swapped phone numbers. We fed our children and played on the swings and slides. Finally, when the whimpering and crying started, we split up with plans to meet again at the same time the next Wednesday. As I headed home I thought of my old friends and it occurred to me that even though they were less available to me during this stage of my life, it didn’t mean that I’d lost them forever.
Last week marked a year since I’ve been going to the park. And what began as a mothers’ group has evolved into a bunch of local friends. Getting out taught me that new friendships can form at any stage of life. It also opened my eyes to what was sitting there right in front of me.
“Your daughter has a lovely name,” a mother of twin boys said to me on that first morning in the park. “Amity. What does it mean?”
I looked down at my daughter. She’d twisted around in my lap at the sound of her name. I brushed the curls from her forehead and she giggled, burying her face in my yellow dress.
“It’s Latin,” I said. “It means friendship.”