There are half-empty boxes all over the living room, a gallon of milk and two muffins in our otherwise empty refrigerator, and not a single picture on the walls. We’ve been in Santa Barbara for 36 hours and I need to find two things as soon as possible: my missing underwear and a few girlfriends.
In a woman’s life there are several people who are hard to replace: an appropriately sensitive OB/GYN, a hairstylist who can follow directions, and a loyal friend. The first two can be found somewhat easily with the right Google keywords and Yelp reviews, but the latter is a quest not for the faint of heart. Which is why you should never, ever move to a new city unless you have to, or unless you’re going someplace warmer, sunnier and closer to grandparents. Capiche?
I still remember that first week in our new town—a beach community full of beautifully tan and seemingly confident moms with no obvious need for another female in their lives. Determined to make friends, I showed up at a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) play date at the park near our house. It was a sunny Friday morning and I wore my faded red Toms. They were all wearing Toms too. This was a good sign.
Like me, everyone seemed distracted by their children; many of whom were running in opposite directions and putting foreign objects in their mouths. My little guy was strapped to my chest, in desperate need of a morning nap, while my oldest cautiously climbed the play structure, yelling “WATCH ME!” A group of women congregated near the swings. They had plenty to talk about but I wasn’t sure how to insert myself into the conversation. We all seemed to have a lot in common—babies and toddlers of the same age, wrapped in identical baby carriers, eating the same brands of puffs and baby food pouches—so why, in that moment, did I feel far from belonging?
I wanted Sharon and Tammy and Ashlee and Anna and Dana and Bethie and Kara and Kat and all my people from home who wouldn’t be curious about the ages of my kids, but rather the state of my heart. They’d seen me cry, hysterically at times, and their eyes always lit up when I arrived at the playground. We could jump into faith talk and political banter and occasionally even discuss our sex lives while children mingled at our feet. Small talk? We were long past that.
I left the play date feeling discouraged; not because people were rude—they weren’t—but because no one knew me. They didn’t know that I hate doughnuts, unless they’re the trendy, expensive kind that resemble cake. They didn’t know I’m terrible at board games but a fairly decent skier. They didn’t know I have plates in my left arm or that I love Chinese food. They definitely didn’t know about my recent breastfeeding struggles and how much I want to write a book. They were friendly in all the right ways, but our conversation stayed at surface level. I wanted to feel needed but I worried that I was just another average mom with nothing to offer. They seemed to have enough friends already.
But, along with my feelings of discouragement, I also felt oddly hopeful. Because the girls at the park weren’t gossipy or mean—they were anything but those things. They were gracious to each other and full of kind laughter, connecting in groups of two, others in groups of five or six. They all knew each other’s names and wandered around, striking conversation here and there. I didn’t leave with an invitation for another play date or girls’ night out, but I had to remind myself that they didn’t owe me those invitations. I was a complete stranger, new and on their territory. This could take some time.
A few weeks later, I tried again. We met at the beach for a picnic. It was a gray morning and most of the kids stayed next to their moms on higher and dryer sand. My three year old, new to the beauty of the beach, only wanted to be in the water. To be honest, it felt nice to escape from the group and collect myself. Small talk is hard for an introvert. I sunk my toes into the wet sand and stared out at the islands.
Jill met me there at the water’s edge. She’d chased her three year old to the water with an infant on her own hip. She looked as equally frazzled as I felt but she still offered a huge smile. “You’re new,” she said, and launched into an immediate round of questions. She realized that we lived just a block away from each other and promised to introduce me to Jen, another mom in the neighborhood with similar age kids. “We’ll have you over for dinner,” she promised. And a few weeks later, she did.
It’s not uncommon to hear women lamenting about how cliquey other women can be. And while I know this observation is sometimes true, I also think it’s often a way we protect ourselves. We show up at an event, overhear jokes we don’t understand and stories about the dinner everyone attended last week, and then we feel left out. Fairly quickly it’s decided— there is no more room at the table.
But here’s the thing: there’s definitely room. After starting over a few different times in the last ten years, I still believe in the goodness of women. I still believe that most are kind and lovely and ready to welcome another soul into their fold. But it takes boldness. It takes showing up even when it feels awkward, and it also means inviting people you don’t know very well over for dinner. It takes throwing out insecurities. It takes throwing out the idea that everyone will love you. It takes believing that people don’t always show their best selves on the first try. It takes some unreturned text messages and pushing through a few more times before you decide that maybe a potential friendship just isn’t meant to be. Most of the time, there are beautiful little communities of women everywhere we go, and we want and need each other’s company. More than anything, I believe that loving someone well takes getting to know them—their quirks, coffee preferences and deepest fears—while also being brave enough to share our own stories. Friendship requires trust, and trust takes time.
My friendship with Jill, and with many of the other play date mamas, did not happen overnight. It took a lot of park meetups and chaotic family dinners before I made that longed for shift from stranger to acquaintance to friend. Sure, there are always women with a full life and a full circle, no room for anyone else. But there are also, always, women looking for new friendships. Find the ones who always make a seat at the table. And once you have a seat? Scoot close to the woman next to you so you can make room for another.