Hi there Captain!
I’m a 36 year-old mom of two adorable boys (6 and 2). I also have no friends. I’m not entirely OK with not having friends, but I’ve gotten used to it over the past 30 years or so of not-having-friends-ness. What I’m less OK with is that my Big Guy seems to be following in my footsteps, and it’s making me worry.
A bit of background:
I grew up being *that kid*, the one who is always picked on, outcast, and very lonely (but not bullied, really). Elementary school was *really* tough. By the time I got to high school, I had a regular table I could sit at for lunch, Science Team and Quiz Bowl competitions I could attend and do well in (with said lunch-mates), and excessively high grades and test scores. Still couldn’t really call them “friends”. *They* all hung out and did the usual social stuff that high school nerds do outside of high school. I was just never included.
Those high grades? Came about because of my parents, who prioritized high grades above EVERYTHING ELSE. Including a social life. I mean, I’m sure they were concerned about my social life, but it was always “Studies first, (dance second), and anything that can distract from your studies can come afterwards”. So I complied, because my father’s commitment to making sure I succeeded academically was *really* intense.
As an adult, (as in, many, many years after the fact), I figured out that I had/have ADHD-inattentive type, which led to me not being able to finish my homework/keep track of all my crap. And also makes it hard for me to follow a conversation without spacing out in the middle of someone else’s sentence. And then have a hard time knowing what to say next. So: schoolwork not getting done, leads to me “not having time” for a social life. And in school, my fellow nerds were nice and friendly and let me sit at the lunch table, but I still felt like an outsider, because I was always ten steps behind them conversationally.
College was worse than high school, because my family uprooted their entire lives and moved three whole states so I could live at home in a three bedroom apartment and commute to school. They would make sure I didn’t flunk out (see above re: intense commitment to my academic achievement). And since I was at the most competitive, intense university in the world, you can fill in the blanks about how much of a social life I was able to manage.
So I never had a chance to navigate friendships and relationships as a kid and teenager (and young adult). I got married because Arranged Marriage is a common thing in my culture and I was completely OK with it. My husband is a bit of an introvert who doesn’t feel the need to have many friends, and likes his peace and quiet and political blogs and weird YouTubes of politicians from our country screaming at each other.
So how does this affect my kid? I don’t know how to make mom-friends. I was supposed to “join a playgroup” and “set up playdates” and then socialize with each other while our babies did their baby-stuff. But I didn’t know how to get from “Hi, nice to see you at our monthly breastfeeding support group” to “Hey there friend! Wanna get together for (whatever it is that friends *do* together. Seriously, WHAT?!)”. And now that he’s in Kindergarten, I STILL don’t know. All the other moms somehow know each other already. Their kids go on playdates with each other. They all stand around in their little circles on the blacktop before afternoon pickup and talk about whatever it is they talk about (Seriously, WHAT?!?!?). Big Guy gets the occasional birthday party invitation, but even there, the other moms know each other better than they know me, so I’m the odd one out again. (WHAT DO THEY TALK ABOUT IN THEIR LITTLE CIRCLES? I edged into a circle once, and one of the moms was asking the other where she got her hair done. I get my hair done at Supercuts.)
Also, I’m fairly sure Big Guy has some sort of ADHD/Social anxiety type thing that is holding him back (he’s so much like me as a kid it’s eerie). I’m being flaky about seeing my own therapist to get a handle on my ADHD issues, so having to think about my precious boy seeing a shrink TERRIFIES me. I can SEE that he’s lonely. I can see that he struggles SO MUCH with talking to his little friends. It breaks my heart. He’s not one of those boys who can be described as “All Boy”. He’s terrible at sports — slow, weak, uncoordinated — so there’s one MAJOR avenue for having a normal boyhood that’s not available to him. I think the kid he describes as his “best friend” bullies him a little bit, but nothing I can place my finger on (he just raises my Mama Bear hackles).
I’m not completely incompetent. My ADHD makes it hard for me to follow conversations easily, but if I manage to somehow find myself in a one-on-one conversation with someone nice, friendly, and better at the conversation thing that I am, then I’m pretty good at keeping up.”Best friend’s” mom is really nice, and we might be able to be friends if I can figure out what “being friends” means, but I’m not sure I want to continue cultivating that particular friendship for Big Guy. There’s this mom from my kid’s Tae- Kwon Do class. We meet once a week and talk pretty easily, but she lives far away and seems pretty busy. I don’t know how to go from “chitchat for half an hour a week in an enforced setting” to anything more. I glommed onto a mom who had just immigrated from our country and had a girl in my son’s class (No circle for her to stand in! I can help her navigate America! Our kids like each other!) But she, being better at socializing than me, found her own circle pretty quickly. We still say Hi when we see each other, but still… not quite what I was hoping.
I’ve got lots of relatives. They all live in the same state (and sometimes the same town) as I do. They are also very busy professionals and have their own friends and relationships and overscheduled kids. We moved here about a year ago from the other coast for many reasons. But one of then was secretly “Hey, family! Who have watched me grow up! INSTANT SOCIAL LIFE!!!” Hasn’t happened. They care about me and wish me well and like my kids, but all that goodwill and memories has resulted in a few family birthday parties and them babysitting Little Guy in an emergency (back when he was still crawling and easier for a couple of infirm senior citizens to handle). Oh, and one AWKWARD conversation when I stormed over to my cousin’s house after a huge fight with my husband and tearfully confided a bunch of stuff about our marriage that I shouldn’t have. Now my husband is naturally wary of socializing with them because he’s afraid they think poorly of him.
Also, I may have insulted my uncle somehow, although he will be too polite to EVER say so. I think they all think I *like* sticking to myself and not hanging out with family. But I WANT to be part of the boundary-less, drop-by-at-inconvenient-times, here-have-a-third-helping-of-veggies-even-though-you’re-a-grown-ass-adult thing that they’re all a part of. Why do they think I moved to their town? And inviting them over formally for dinner seems weird because they’re such a “drop by sometime!” sort of crowd. My parents (who live three states away), are better about “just dropping by” their place than I am. Also, it’s been over a year, the effort seems a bit “too little too late”.
But I also don’t really want to just drop by for no reason, or force my weird self on them, or my weird kid on their kids (who are perfectly sweet, but slightly older than my own). I don’t know how to get myself into those little mom-circles. I don’t know if I’d actually enjoy the mom-circle if I ever get into one. I don’t know how to invite a kid (and the kid’s mom) over for a playdate when my son refuses to tell me who his friends are (or maybe he doesn’t have any friends, which makes me cry).
I feel like I’m missing the manual on “Friendships” that other people are given at birth (Or at least by early elementary school). In some ways I feel like it’s too late for me (I’ve got 30 years of catch-up work to do) , but it doesn’t have to be too late for my kids. But I can’t teach them how to be fully functional people with good social skills if I don’t know what to teach them.
– Awkward Mom
Dear Awkward Mom,
I’ve been mulling your question for a while, and recently hearing a bunch of discussion from my friends who are moms who also feel a bit isolated gave me at least some ideas for unlocking some of the issues here. At very least, the moms gave me a crash course in “Playdate Etiquette” that I will try to pass on as best I can.
First principle: You are not your children, and they are not you.
You are not are not responsible and also don’t have power to make sure they make friends in life, and you are not magically transmitting some family curse down through the generations. You can teach them some social skills, you can make opportunities for them to hang out with others, you can dust them off when their feelings get hurt, you can protect them from known jerks, but they are going to have to learn how to swim in the sea of other people on their own. My mom is pretty unsocial. I had many awkward, unsocial years myself (and the same situation as you did with academics-before-all parents who did not necessarily facilitate a fun social life). But I figured out how to make friends, how to be a friend, how to be okay with being lonely sometimes. My mom didn’t teach me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn. It can be the same for your kids.
Your kids are going to meet kids they like, kids who like them, kids who don’t like them, kids they don’t like, and kids for whom no strong opinions form, just, meh, they’re ok.
You are going to meet parents who fall into all of the above categories. You can’t force someone to like you, and you can’t force someone to like your kids or your children to like someone. But the small, unscientific data sample I polled says:
- If your kids really like each other, parents who are “meh” on you will suck it up and hang out occasionally.
- If you really like the other parents, kids who are “meh” on each other will suck it up and hang out occasionally.
- To have a successful playdate, you don’t need to get to friends!, you just need to get to “meh.”
That takes effort, but it doesn’t take perfection.
The thing about a playdate is that it’s just like any other kind of date: you find out if you want more dates through the process of going on the dates. One of my sources said:
Sometimes a kid just isn’t a good match for yours, and the only way you truly find that out is through a playdate, and it isn’t an indictment of you or the other parent. You just move on.
That is something you could teach your kid about being with others: having just an “okay” time with someone and then being gracious afterwards.
Second Principle: You are most likely not the only one who feels alone and inadequate.
Here is a disturbing and creepy short film about the desire to fit in and the pain of cruel rejection, or, your worst fears re-enacted through doll-on-doll violence. It’s easy to see the other parents, or the people in your family, as a monolithic group, like the Barbies, who will close ranks against an outsider and to see your efforts as an audition for their approval, something you can pass or fail.
From an anonymous source in my unscientific survey:
“I always hated meeting other parents because most of them suck so bad. However, my advice is to aim to meet ONE parent/kid that won’t make them want to scream. Not several, just one.“
I don’t know how many kids are in your son’s school, but I predict that there is somebody who feels pretty much as you do. Their child is a bit introverted and struggling with friendships, they don’t understand the mom circles, they dread the whole process of asking someone for a playdate and stilted, forced socializing with someone they have nothing in common with. Maybe they are a little better than you at faking it, but they feel just as at sea as you do. There are probably more than one of these somebodies. Wanting your children to have a fun social life is a common sort of parenting problem to have, and you are not the only one concerned with this. Your mission is to find these folks and one-by-one invite them to do something with you and your kids.
Who does your older child like hanging out with? Who are some kids in the class that also hang back a little bit from the social whirl? At 6, he’s old enough to have opinions on who he’d like to invite on a trip to the zoo or over to play Legos. Also, don’t think it has to be only other boys.
Third Principle: Perception is a mirror.
You say of your family: “I think they all think I *like* sticking to myself and not hanging out.”
I say: Yup.
The easiest explanation for why someone doesn’t come around so much, why someone hangs back from the circles at parties, why someone isn’t part of the social whirl of birthday parties and playdates, is that they don’t want to be. It’s easy because it requires people to make no particular effort to include you or exclude you, and it absolves them of feeling guilty about it if they don’t, in fact, like you much or haven’t made the effort. People are complacent and mostly way too tied up in their own problems to be thinking about you that much for good or ill. So your “I’m being excluded!” can look like “She’s standoffish and/or likes being by herself” to others and both of these things can be equally true.
This is the self-fulfilling feedback loop of loneliness and rejection. “I could go talk to them, but they’ll probably just reject me, so I won’t.” ==> The desired social group keeps on doing what they are doing without breaking stride. ==> The lonely person keeps not approaching them ==> The lonely person gets more anxious and angry ==> The lonely person finally approaches the others, but with a giant chip on their shoulder, in a way that makes the other person have to do a lot of emotional work right out of the gate, i.e., “You’ll probably never be friends with a loser like me” ==> The others react predictably, with “Whoa, I just met you, do I really have to comfort you about that? You’re right, maybe I DON’T want to hang out with you if you’re going to turn it into a dare.“==> Rejection confirmed! ==> More lonelies.
Which leads me to Fourth Principle: You want it? Then you have to make the effort.
People really balk at this idea, for some reason. Maybe it’s an as-yet-identified Geek Social Fallacy, “Social Energy & Planning Should Be Distributed Fairly.” People who are already good at social interactions should spread that around to others who are not! With great social power comes great social responsibility! You have a duty to your fellow geeks, who have been excluded, to make sure they are not excluded anymore!
So when someone complains that they are never invited to anything, and I or Commander Logic say, “Cool, have you tried planning something of your own then?” we get a lot of angry pushback. Why should they have to put in the effort? Why should they have to risk rejection, after facing so much already in their lives? They tried once and it didn’t go well. Probably nobody will come anyway, and everything will just be worse, and now it will be All Our Fault for suggesting they do it in the first place. What do we know, anyway? What we know, the good Commander and I, is moving to a city where we don’t know anybody and making friends from scratch over the course of the several years of sustained effort that it took.
Having a social life takes work. Some people make it look easy, or find that it comes more naturally, but there is emotional and mental work involved in planning events, researching them, being the one who takes the lead on inviting people places, remembering their birthdays and what foods they can’t eat, keeping the cabinet stocked with snacks in case people drop by, asking how their day was, showing up to things when you have limited time and energy, etc. Doing the work does not guarantee you’ll have a busy social calendar and close friendships, but avoiding the work because it’s too hard or because you are scared means that it is unlikely these things will spontaneously grow on their own.
You cannot control: Whether other people will like you.
You can control: Whether you make an effort to meet and spend time with other people.
You can learn to control: Making that effort in a way that doesn’t instantly make people have to do a lot of emotional work to have to be around you. This involves:
1) Removing assumptions about what will happen and what the other person wants
2) Making direct, reasonable invitations.
3) That allow space for the other person to reciprocate or refuse.
4) If a particular invitation is refused, learning to process your disappointment gracefully and in private.
5) Trying again another time, another way, with another person.
6) Repeat all of the above.
7) Until somewhere in there there is the flash of mutual “You!” recognition you get when you make friends with someone else.
Let’s go through some of these in detail.
1. Remove assumptions. You don’t know whether someone will want to hang out until you ask. This person standing in front of you is not every threatening popular kid who ever rejected you growing up. This person is not part of the Barbie Borg ready to shred your unfit doll-body into pieces. This person is just a human that you think you might want to spend time with, maybe for their own sake, maybe for the sake of both of your kids. They will not take kindly to being cast in a role in a drama they don’t know they are participating in.
Every now and then I get a question that starts with “You probably won’t answer this, but…” or an invitation to an event that starts with “You probably won’t come to this, but…” and those people are correct: I won’t. Because while I know that the little shame-dance is coming from a place of low self-esteem, I also know that it is manipulative as fuck. “Sure, I’ll come to that thing you guilted me into, should be fun! Should I bring a bottle of wine, or will my guilt be enough? Do you have a favorite flavor of shame-cake?” By assuming what I will and won’t do the person has written my part for me. Why would I want to get closer? When you are shy and anxious about social interactions, it’s okay to feel those things, but not okay to put someone you just met in a position of having to manage those things.
2. Make the invitation specific and 3. Easy to say yes or no to.
As we’ve said before many times on the blog, “would you like to get together sometime?” does not equal making plans, because “sometime” is not real. Specific Thing at Specific Time on Specific Day is real.
My suggested Play Date for Introverts was for you to invite one of the parents of the kids your son likes over after school one day. “Kids can play videogames or color, feel free to bring your laptop or a book or knitting, I’ve got coffee and wi-fi, we can be very low-key.”
Polling my introvert mom friends I learned that a “everyone quietly reads while the kids play” date might be great for when you know someone a little better, but the pressure of hosting or going to someone’s house was too awkward for a first time excursion. Their suggestions:
“If it involves meeting new kids/moms, I think it’s easier on neutral territory, like a playground or park. The downside is that the target kids won’t necessarily play with one another… but they won’t always play with one another in someone’s home, either.”
Parks are free and hopefully the weather where you are is not heinous right now.
“I would also take advantage of things that the other parent/child might be doing anyway out and about in the neighborhood (crafts at the library sort of thing) and adding an element of “meeting up”, which sometimes avoids the awkwardness of potentially being trapped in someone else’s house.”
Or, as another friend put it,
“Neutral place, set time, something to talk about, something to watch/pretend to watch if conversation gets awkward. It’s like a first date at a sporting event.”
Maybe you can become the mom who scours the local paper and library, etc. for kid-friendly events and suggests meeting up. The script for doing this is easy, btw. “We’re heading to the library after school tomorrow for a fingerpainting/storytime event. It’s free from 3:30-5, maybe you and Kid can meet us there?” Then, go to the thing without any expectations that the other family will meet you there. If they do, great, if not, you had a fun time out of your house and there were probably some other moms at the thing that you could talk to and some other kids your children could interact with. It might not be a deep “we’ll be best friends” interaction, but you can check off the “created opportunity for my child to socialize” of the giant parenting checklist of “keep child alive for another year” duties you can celebrate on his birthday. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a friend’s 10-year-old to the Children’s Museum here in Chicago and watching her make instant, temporary friends with kids of all ages without ceremony or worry.
Other friends sing the praises of mom’s groups, which you can probably find through something MeetUp.com. Moms! Who want to hang out! In a somewhat structured way, without anyone needing to penetrate the inscrutable playground gossip circles!
“…when I was a SAHM, my moms group did a huge range of play dates around town, at a variety of price points. Many were free, many included lunch (either picnic or in a restaurant), others were at local attractions (story time, free trolley ride, splash pad, zoo, museums). We tried to mix it up so that there was something that appealed to everyone in our group of 25-30. That would be my other advice: check MeetUp to see if there’s a moms group that appeals, and go into it knowing that you may need to sample a few different groups before you find a good fit.”
Memberships to organizations also help, as one friend described:
“I read something in an advice column years ago that always stuck with me, which was along the lines of “you can’t buy friendships for children … but spending a little money can sometimes help” and the point was that (recognizing that people have different financial realities) it’s nice if you can get a zoo membership (aquarium, art space, nature center, pool, etc) that lets you bring a guest so that when you invite someone on a play date you can frame it right up front with ‘would you like to be OUR GUESTS at the zoo next Saturday? We have a membership, and they’re having a DinoRock concert.'”
This friend also added a helpful tidbit about accepting invitations:
“…you really must try to accept every invitation even if it sounds hideous to you, like if you believe Chuck E. Cheese sucks the IQ points right out of kids’ heads, and someone invites you there … if you don’t go, you have burned that bridge. I’m being a little dramatic but the point is you really can’t be very choosy or the invites quickly dry up.”
This last one pinged my hrmmm…..interesting meter. You want to know why? Because other parents also feel constantly judged, and awkward, and geeky about inviting other people to stuff. So if you turn down their invitation, they also might be skittish about issuing another one to you because nobody likes being rejected or risking rejection. So if you do have to decline an invitation for scheduling purposes, or whatever, make sure you follow it up as soon as possible with one of your own. “We have another commitment that day, but I do want to get together. How does x event on y day sound to you?” Give some of the same reassurance that you would like in their shoes.
4) If an invitation is refused, be graceful.
Showing disappointment that you weren’t invited somewhere or that someone isn’t coming to your event can be okay, rarely, in an extremely limited way among close friends and family members. If you are close to someone there is room to say “We were sorry to miss you Saturday, any chance you can come next time?” but I’d leave it there and not engage in stronger social coercion. Your feelings might be hurt when you find out someone had a party and didn’t invite you, but please trust me, the way to get invited to the next party is not to complain about how you weren’t invited to the last one or fish for invitations.
For a not-close relationship, like, say, a fellow mom you vaguely know from your kid’s school? Smile, say “Another time, maybe! Have a great week.” And then go to whatever event it is with your kids yourself and have a good time.
5) Try again another time.
My rule for all things social is invite twice, and if both invitations are refused, stop inviting until the other person makes a move in my direction. That limits the mental energy I put out there and limits the worry that I’m being a pest.
One person turned you down? Ask someone else.
Moms from school don’t seem open to hanging out? Find a mom’s group, or another mom from where your kid takes art classes or does sports, and try again.
Asking people for playdates isn’t working? Keep going to kid-friendly events at the library, at local playgrounds and attractions. You can create opportunities for your kids to socialize without it having to be a one-on-one, best friends kind of thing.
This time of making playdates isn’t going to last forever. Your kids are going to get older, make their own friends, and hang out with them without you needing to be there making small talk with their parents. So try lots of different ways, forgive yourself, take breaks. There are lots of people like you and around you who are trying to figure out the same stuff.
So, I want to move away from discussing social interactions for the sake of your children and talk more about social interactions for you.
If your family has a “drop by sometime” culture, then start dropping by sometime. “Relative, are you around tomorrow afternoon? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, I’d love to drop by for some tea and bring the kids to see you for a bit.” Bring plenty of stuff to amuse the kids, stop by for max an hour or two, and catch up with your relative of choice. Make it a goal to drop in on every single household in your family over a two-month period, and as you get more comfortable, extend the invitations in return. Remember when I said perception is a mirror? Your perception is that they don’t ever drop by, but their perception is probably that they’ve told you to drop by and then you didn’t, so you must not want to. Drop by and see what happens. Ask them to babysit again and see what happens. Offer to babysit the cousins and see what happens. Offer to help older relatives with errands or other tasks they don’t manage so well anymore and see what happens. Do the work of being an adult member of the family and getting to know these people again.
And if they are your family, it is never “too late” to invite them over for dinner or whatever. And it doesn’t have to be formal. What if once a month you put out an invitation like this? “Sunday we thought we’d put out a bunch of art supplies for the kids and order pizza. Would you like to drop by between (time) and (time)? We’d love to see you.” Make Art + Pizza at your house a monthly event and see if it doesn’t grow over time. Do not panic if it takes a few invitations for a thing to really come together. It doesn’t mean everyone hates you, it means they are figuring out how to include you in their routines.
Finally, I think it would be good for you to do social stuff for you. More like the thing where you hang out with your nice Tae Kwon Do friend. More where it’s about doing an activity you like with people you like, less about setting an example for the next generation.
Your kids are going to be fine. You are going to be fine. You need to have some courage, and do some work, and be really nice to yourself. The rest will work itself out.
Captain Awkward (+ the cadre of awesome mom friends who feel like giant dorks when socializing with other parents)