Parenting is an exercise in contradictions: managing/guiding an exhausted little human who refuses to sleep, satisfying a picky yet unending appetite, and trying to cherish every moment that I can’t wait to end. And this: I’m terribly overstimulated by the ideas, demands, and cuddles of my child. All I want is to be alone, in a quiet room by myself.

And I’m starved for community, desperate for adult company and conversation. All I want is to be with a friend, to talk with someone over the age of 21, and maybe enjoy a drink or a snack without getting up from the table 13 times.

In summary: all I want is to be alone and with my friends.

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Parents, we have a friendship problem

One of the (many, many) surprises of parenting is that, while I’m so rarely alone, I’m often so very lonely.

"There's nothing wrong with you if you don't have friends or a village right now. Parenting changes friendships and it takes time to find your people.

This resonated with me, and with the tens of thousands of people who liked this post. If you’re like me, you also have assumed everyone else found their people easily, making you feel unwanted or left out.

Congratulations, your group hangout is canceled

Have you experienced this: the friend group—perhaps established before anyone had children—that used to connect with ease and regularity, reduced to a group text thread. It takes months to find a mutually-makeable time and date. When that date arrives, two friends’ kids are sick, one accidentally double-booked, another had a particularly grueling week at work. Everyone else is too tired for all the ridiculous, mundane reasons parents are always tired. When someone suggests you push the hangout back a month, the replies are instant and unanimous. It’s canceled.

If it’s harder to get together with friends than to schedule a dermatologist appointment, something isn’t working.

COVID didn’t cause this

But it sure hasn’t helped.

Opportunities for connection—pickup or dropoff from school, birthday parties, museums, parks, etc. have been closed or socially distanced. Anything you can do with your children comes with an extra barrier of fear and/or awkwardness, as every parent tries to figure out what they’re comfortable with and what’s safe for their family. While the Delta variant made everyone’s summer more fraught than anticipated, parents of children too young to get vaccinated have felt its impact more than most, stuck in limbo while much of society tried to find some form of normalcy.

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A dad poses for a picture with his daughter while sitting outside at a park.While I’m alone, I reflect on community

One of my most uplifting COVID hobbies has been thinking about loneliness. The past 18 months or so have given me and my partner lots of time to reflect (or avoid reflecting) on why we’re watching TV by ourselves, wishing we had friends inviting us to do something. (If and when we could do something, without catching or spreading a deadly virus.)

I know that lots of the people I’d like to spend time with are probably at home, doing very much the same thing as I am, wishing for much the same things as I am.

So why is it so hard to find one another? Why aren’t we making the connections so many of us yearn for? And why do I accept the truism that “it takes a village to raise a child,” all the while living in a city of strangers?

It turns out, loneliness and depression (frequent co-conspirators) breed self-defeating thoughts. As highlighted in a 2021 report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, if you’re lonely, you’re more likely to anticipate rejection or perceive interactions with others negatively. And that makes you—yep, you guessed it—more likely to actually be alone.

Our expectations for friendship are neither too high nor too low

They’re just wrong. Mangled, misguided. And our society doesn’t support connection and meaningful relationships in ways that it should. Our institutions and our choices should make space for and even prioritize connection and community. Convenience and independence—those most American of ‘values’—both run contrary to community and relationships. Without intentionality, we can’t overcome our cultural inertia in this area.

The same 2021 report, entitled “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It,” lays out a few suggestions for addressing this crisis. You can read the report or its summarized recommendations yourself, but I’m applying some of them by asking myself these questions:

  • How can my child care solution(s) better make space for community?
  • What is one thing I can change about my life or my routine to prioritize community?
  • What am I missing within my own household?

Child care solutions

How could this important choice better make space for community? Maybe you can afford a nanny yourself, but opt for a nanny-share instead. Or maybe you pick a care provider in your neighborhood with 4.9 stars instead of the 5.0 option across town. You cut down commute time, and get exponentially greater chances of connections with classmates and families –– and ones that don’t require an executive assistant to coordinate your schedules.

Banner saying, Banner saying,

Make one choice that prioritizes community

Overhauling my entire way of operating feels a bit unsustainable right now. Let’s be honest, I can’t say the last time I had an empty dishwasher, a fresh trash can, and a recent shower all on the same day. But I can make one choice. I can stop in the same coffee shop, sit outside my building at the same time each evening, or cancel one weekly appointment that hasn’t yielded any opportunity for personal connection.

Try making one choice that prioritizes community and relationships over convenience, independence, or excellence. Then try one more.

A father poses for a picture with his daughter outside.Finding friends (very) close to home

Lastly, I’ve been honest in this piece, but I’ve also honestly whined a bit. My children are pretty great. We’re healthy and have gotten to spend more time together in the past year or two than I could have ever anticipated. That brings with it lots of challenges and lots of exhaustion. But that’s not all it brings. Especially last summer, when our family was quarantining more strictly than most while my wife was about to give birth. My 4 y/o (then a fiery, newly-minted threenager) was my best friend and basically the only person I did anything outside the house with.

That’s not the only relationship I need to thrive (nor is it sufficient for her). But there is beauty in it, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t appreciate this too. Yes, even as I’m looking for more fulfilling and life-giving relationships outside my own household, I’m also trying to recognize what I am so lucky to have right here at home.

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