Sunday, May 6, 2018

Social capital, adult friendships & childlessness

Gateway Women's Jody Day made a comment during a live webinar as part of last week's "We Are Worthy" summit that stuck with me and got me thinking.  I don't remember her exact words, but it was a comment about how being childless -- and having all your friends become mothers -- wreaked havoc on her friendships, which was something that she did not expect would happen.

Then Mel posted about a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, which I had also read & mulled over, on the subject of social capital/wealth, and the increasing lack thereof in our world, where loneliness and isolation are being acknowledged, even by some governments, as serious issues.

I feel incredibly lucky to have some pretty great friends and relatives. But yes, sometimes I do feel socially isolated -- in part (although not entirely) because of my childlessness, & the lack of social networks that moms/parents seem automatically plugged into through their kids' schools, neighbourhood & activities.

The childless factor aside, making and keeping friends is something I've wrestled with my entire life.  Because of my dad's work, our family was transferred every three to six years when I was growing up. We moved when I was 2, 5, 8 and 13 -- we lived in eight different houses in five different towns in two different provinces before I finished high school -- and we were supposed to move again just before I entered Grade 12/senior year, but my dad thankfully found himself a new job in the same town so my sister & I could finish high school with our friends. The older we got, the longer it seemed to take for us to break into the established social circles and make friends in a new place.  And then, of course, right around the time we were finally feeling comfortably settled and at home, it was time to pack our bags & move on to the next place, leaving our friends behind us.

This was almost 40 years ago now -- long before the Internet, or even cheap long distance -- and many of my friendships did not survive the moves (although a few did & do, to this day). My friends & I kept in touch through handwritten letters, sent by snail mail (I found an entire box stuffed full of them when I helped my mother clean out a closet last summer), and the occasional long-distance telephone call -- with our mothers nearby, tapping their wristwatches to tell us to wrap things up -- "long distance is expensive, you know!" -- and occasional visits.

As a married adult, it's still been difficult to make & keep friends -- and certainly since most of my friends boarded the mommy train, leaving me standing forlornly on the station platform. But there are other factors that have made if difficult to make & keep adult friendships, too.

First, when I first moved here, I knew almost nobody, aside from dh's family -- with a couple of exceptions, I was starting almost from scratch.  And second, while many people in this city, like me, come from elsewhere, there's still a sizeable chunk who grew up here and have family members & long-established social networks.

Third, this is a large urban area, and many of the friends I did/do have live/lived at least 45-60 minutes away by car -- meaning meetups almost always need to take place on the weekends. (Even at work, we had difficulty planning after-hours social activities, because our staff lived all over a very wide area, commuted and had to consider transit schedules, as well as daycare pickup times, for those with children. Thursdays tended to be the big party-after-work night -- Friday after-work gatherings were pretty much verboten, because everyone would be anxious to head home to get the weekend started there after a long week at work.)

Fourth, I don't drive (I have my license but don't drive -- long story...), which has added to the difficulty of getting to places where I can meet new people and getting together with old friends. Either my friends have to come see me, dh has to drive me, or my friends have to meet meet me downtown or somewhere else that I can get to by public transit.

Finally, nevermind the mommy train -- many of the friends that I have managed to make here over the past 30-35 years almost literally boarded a train -- they moved and left me behind, which was a  new (and unpleasant) experience for me. Among the good friends I've said goodbye to over the years:
  • My college roomie (whom I've written about before) is from Ontario & was living & working here when I got married. We used to socialize with her & her husband (whom we also knew in college -- I introduced them!). We both worked downtown, and so even after they got divorced (& dh & I moved out of the city), we still had lunch together regularly, once a month or so. Then she had a baby -- and I didn't -- her work life got busy, her personal life got complicated, and I started seeing less and less of her -- until, about 10 years ago, until she disappeared from my life entirely, much to my bewilderment and sadness. Happily, we are back in touch again -- but she has moved to the west coast to be with her new partner, and I have not seen her in some years.
  • One of my friends from high school -- not a close-close friend, but someone I knew fairly well -- also moved to this area after her marriage, and we used to get together with them occasionally. They moved to the States 15+ years ago, although we still see them once a year or so when they come back to visit friends & relatives in the area.
  • I was good friends with a coworker who joined my department a few months after I did. We had a lot in common -- her mother even grew up in the same small town as my best friend's mother did. But she left, first the department, and then the company altogether, a few years later, when she & her husband moved to the States to pursue career opportunities there. I've only seen her once in the 25+ years since then, but we are still in touch via social media & Christmas cards -- and she actually called me in response to the mass email I sent out to let people know about Katie's stillbirth, with words of comfort and sharing about her own miscarriage, which I (in my pre-loss innocence) had completely forgotten about. 
  • After we lost Katie, we became close to a number of our clients and co-facilitators from our "real life" pregnancy loss support group -- and one couple in particular with whom we had a lot in common.  She & I loved to scrapbook together, and she would call me up out of the blue and say, "I'm making a Michaels run after dinner tonight, want to come?" and off we'd go, stopping off at a coffee shop for tea & sweets afterwards. Dh & her husband got along well too -- he even took dh to a basketball game once when he lucked into some good tickets. She would often ask me how we were managing a life without children -- steeling herself for the possibility that they, too, might eventually call it quits on ttc.  But they eventually did have a baby -- and then moved away, 10 years ago now, about an hour & a half away. We went to visit them a couple of times in their lovely new home, and we still email occasionally and exchange Christmas cards -- but she does not "do" social media, and has been busier with her son's activities (of course), so I am feeling a bit out of the loop with them these days. But I still miss her. :( 
  • I had another good friend, also childless, whom I met when I was living with my parents for a year, post-school but pre-marriage.  She wound up getting married & moving to this area herself a few years after I did, and while she lived some distance away from me, north of the city, we still managed to get together a couple of times a year -- she's meet me at my office for lunch if she happened to be downtown, or I'd take an afternoon off work and we'd get tickets to a theatre matinee or take in a local craft show. Last year, we bought season's tickets for Unique Lives & Experiences lecture series downtown, and would have dinner together and catch up, before attending the event.  She was a welcome taste of "home," one of the few people hereabouts who knew me from before my marriage. But her much-older husband passed away a couple of years ago, and she decided to move back to our home province to be closer to her sister and cousins. I miss her too. :(
  • Cousin/Neighbour's Wife, whom I've written about before, doesn't quite fall into this category -- she did not move away -- but her disappearance from our lives nevertheless left a notable void.  She's the one who was so wildly enthusiastic about my pregnancy -- and who began to withdraw after our daughter was stillborn -- or so it seemed to me. I have not seen her in well over five years, even though she lived just a few blocks away from us, when we had our house, and she'd been distancing herself from us for quite a few years before that. I've since come to realize that while Katie & subsequent childlessness may (or may not) have had something to do with the breakdown in our relationship, it wasn't the whole story and we definitely weren't the only ones she had withdrawn from. I still feel sad about the loss of that relationship, though. :( 
Dh, of course, grew up in Toronto -- but he has not maintained much contact with any of his buddies from the old neighbourhood, and while he keeps up with some of his former coworkers on social media, he hasn't made any effort to see them since leaving work either.  He is close to a couple of his cousins, but of course, they've been busy over the past 20-30 years raising their families -- although happily, the guys have started trying to book semi-regular nights out together over this past year. For the most part, dh has been happy to rely on me for pretty much all of his companionship needs. There is no doubt he is my best friend, but I have to be honest:  I miss having girlfriends. I miss having a more active social life.

Most of our social life these days tends to revolve around BIL, SIL & their family.  We also get together several times a year with dh's cousins, individually, in small groups and/or at family functions. There's the distance factor, of course (while BIL & several cousins live within a 15-minute drive of us, others are spread out across the area), and of course, most of them are still working and involved with their kids -- not to mention tending to aging parents.  I actually have one cousin who moved to this area 5-10 years ago -- but he's quite a bit younger than me, they have two kids, they live a good 45-60 minute drive from here, and his wife grew up in this area & has tons of friends here, and so...

I still get together with my coworker/office bestie of some 16 years (before her retirement), and while she doesn't "do" social media, we email & talk occasionally on the phone. She lived about a half hour further out from the city than we did, and used to come pick me up at the house for an outing... or we'd arrange an outing in the city, and meet on a certain car of the commuter train we both used to ride from work. Since we moved away, though, further in the opposite direction, we haven't seen quite as much of each other.

We lived in our previous location for 26 years (& in a midtown apartment for five years before that).  We had cordial relationships with our most immediate neighbours, but not the kind where we'd drop by each others' houses for coffee or wine or do things together, if you know what I mean. We did join a church, where we met some nice people and attended some classes and small group activities, which we enjoyed -- but we weren't entirely comfortable with  all aspects of the ministry there -- and of course things got really painful after we lost our daughter. We'd joined in part because we wanted to bring our kids up to know something about God & religion and the Bible -- and then that reason disappeared. I watched the women who'd been pregnant around the same time as me show up one day, baby carrier in tow, then baptize their babies (something I tried to avoid attending, when at all possible) -- and then their second, and sometimes their third. Watching the children -- my daughter's peers -- file out behind the cross to attend Sunday school every week, singing the same children's hymn we'd sung when I was a kid -- was torture.  I would sit in the pew, quietly sobbing. Our attendance became more & more sporadic, until finally, we just stopped going.

We've been living here two years now -- and we really haven't met a lot of new people here either.  There are neighbours & other people who live in the building that we know by name & exchange pleasant chit-chat with, but nothing deeper. None of dh's cousins, local or otherwise, have come to visit & inspect our condo (which surprises me -- we're the first in the family to get a condo & I though the novelty/curiosity factor would bring them over, if nothing else...!). His aunt has been here, but only because we took her out for dinner and then back here later for coffee.

Not surprisingly, I do a lot of my "socializing" online these days. :p  Which is great, of course -- the Internet has been a lifeline for me these past 20 years, in coping with stillbirth, infertility and involuntary childlessness. Y'all are amazing -- but sometimes, online just doesn't quite cut it, you know?  ;)

(As an aside: I have about 240 friends on Facebook.  I have them organized into "friend lists" so it's kind of easy to figure out how many I know from which parts of my life. About 70 are my relatives and 55 are dh's relatives ( = a little over half are family members).  I'm in touch with 10 people from my high school days, 8 from university (both undergrad & graduate school), and 10 people I knew from work.  About 20 are people we met through our "real life" pg loss support group.  About 45 are online friends from the infertility/loss/CNBC world (through blogging & other online forums) and 20-25 are friends from my scrapbooking days (also mostly online) -- so, a little under 1/3 are friends I've made online over the past 20 years.  That's a pretty substantial chunk. There's another 10 or so in a group I've labelled "Miscellaneous," which includes, for example, some childhood friends I've stayed in touch with over the years (or rediscovered through Facebook) and some friends of my mother's. Anyone else ever done an analysis like this?)

I keep saying I'm going to join a yoga class -- mostly because I need & want the exercise & the relaxation/mindfulness benefits it promotes -- but also because it would get me out of the house. I've researched a few places but haven't tried any out yet. Likewise, I would love to find a book club. Even if I didn't make any real friends there, I would love to discover new books and talk about them with other people. I went on in search of one hereabouts, but most of the ones listed there meet in the city proper and would be difficult to get to. I've even considered going back to church in an attempt to meet people (if not with an eye to my eternal salvation, as I sometimes joke).

I have investigated the local Gateway Women chapter (I know I would definitely have something in common with them!!) -- but getting to their monthly coffee & chat meetup would involve dh driving me 15 minutes to the local subway station, a 45-minute subway ride downtown, and then about a 30 minute walk or streetcar ride -- on a Sunday morning, which is usually a "sleep in & then go to the movies" day for us. There is a local GW Reignite Weekend planned for this fall -- it's expensive, but I'm considering a splurge. ;)  I am probably further down the road of acceptance of my childlessness than many of the attendees would be, I think -- and I don't want to take a spot away from someone who could really, really use it -- but I still sometimes feel a bit adrift in this post-loss& infertility, post-employment, post-move life. I could use a bit of a kick in the rear. ;)

What do you think? Have you found it more difficult to make & keep friends as an adult? Has having children -- or not having children -- improved or wreaked havoc on your social life?


  1. The combination of not having children, and having left my full-time job around the same time (for self-employment), has been pretty disastrous for my social life. I do need to do something too, and I'm not ruling anything out, but I am an online creature too, and a lot of my social interactions are online. I'm even doing a photography course online!

    I have a small group of core friends, though they generally aren't friends with each other, as I've acquired them at different times of my life. One good friend keeps coming and going - she's a diplomat, and has just left suddenly (when I was just thinking that we would have a year in the same city together) again on another posting. Another friend has just announced she's moving overseas for at least six months - though I shouldn't complain, because I did that to a good friend a few years ago! And I have a couple of "book club" friends, though our formal bookclub has disintegrated. Two of my closest friends will, once they stop working, live at least an hour away, out of the city (in opposite directions). So I try to take advantage of their presence for the occasional coffee or lunch or drinks after work in the city.

    Other than the ageing in-laws, we have no relatives closer than an eight hour drive. Sigh. So I understand. And I have it on my to-do list to join groups and make more friends. I'm good at making friends once I get to know people - but I'm not so good at joining things!

  2. We have a program at church that my husband has dubbed the forced friendship program. You are assigned to different women you become friendly with them but those assigned women change sometimes as much as 4 times a year. I was with one woman for years and years...the TTC years....and I thought we were friends and she gave great advice. She had TTC for years was a great person to lean on during that time and she had miscarriages and ended up with one child in the end. However we were reassigned and I hardly speak to her anymore. That one child keeps her pretty busy. I've learned to not get attached to these people. It is, as my husband and rightly called it, forced friendships.

  3. Once again, you have me thinking and reflecting.

    Years ago, I read an article about “Urban Tribes” and how those in their late teens, early twenties were establishing their tribe separate from their family units in order to help them navigate their new settings. What’s been interesting is no one has followed up on what has happened with those tribes, particularly as these people (my subset of late Gen-Xers) have aged. But what I suspect is that the tribes have deteriorated as community is fairly decimated. A lot of it due to a breakdown of previous social roles that haven’t been replaced.

    Having children does make it easier to be social, specifically because the Beats do the work for me with finding other children to socialize with and insistence of being a part of activities. That said, I’ve also been learning to push myself outside my comfort zone and pursuing activities and functions I enjoy. When I was in graduate school, organizing a ski trip, rock climbing trip or hiking trip always brought people out of the woodwork. Knitting circles were always initially awkward, but gave me something to work on while trying to find connections. Most recently it’s been networking for jobs and attempting to do a container garden.

    I agree with Mali, it’s hard to get that in. Especially when you’re doing it on your own. But I’ve also been finding that FOMO tends to attract people, meaning that I suspect if you and dh started branching out, having people over to your condo who aren’t your relatives, your relatives would likely start showing up on your doorstep (funny how that works, huh?).

    I wondering if you talked with your local GW group if they would be willing to move the monthly coffee chat to someplace closer? Or maybe it’s a sign for starting a new branch of the chapter?

  4. Honestly, I think it is so hard for adults to make friends, kids or no kids. I think Mel wrote about this relatively recently with a link to a study on the whole issue.

    I very much feel the lack of close female friends. My intimate friends are not in the same city (or even the same country in some cases) and my local 'friends' are still mostly acquaintances, despite having lived in the city now for a decade.

    IME, kids hasn't helped things. We have some friends in the city who we are slowly losing touch with because our kids are at such different ages (infertility made us fall behind). And at school it seems that my kid never gets friendly with the kids whose parents I know and like. But this is perhaps also because E doesn't make friends easily and as an introvert I don't know how to help him or make it easier.

    I am sure some people find that having kids means they develop this great social network through school, but what it's done for us is weaken our pre-kid friendships by making our schedules so difficult or by making us out of sync with our friends, all without offering up new friends made through our kids.

    I feel very lonely sometimes, especially because E is a challenge to raise and I feel like I can't talk about it on my blog or with women I know through school. It's a source of both sadness and stress.

  5. Difficulty making friends is something that has followed me through my life (and if I'm honest, something I'd hoped that having kids of my own would cure). As of right now my closest friends are a plane ride away. Sure, I have work friends, but they aren't people that I can cry on their shoulders. Sometimes I think I can be hard to be friends with and add to it that I'm a homebody.

    Like you, I've thought about church as a means to meet new people, but religion is the downside of that (for me). Thankfully I left the church a number of years before infertility so I didn't have to endure the pain you experienced.

    I've also thought about the GW meetups, but the closest is a four hour drive and meets on Thursday evenings.

    I don't have a solution. Ugh. But I do crave having a girlfriend or two that I can have coffee with.

    I find it very interesting that you've categorized all of your facebook friends! This thought hasn't even crossed my mind, though it is a great idea. I can at least tell you how I know all of my friends (and oddly enough, some of my closest social media friends are people I've never met in person).

  6. Yeah, it’s hard, and I blame myself for not always making the effort, though I’m trying to be more consistent. Having children makes it sort of easier to meet people but I don’t necessarily like mom talk that much either, so it’s not like I make instant mom friends. I have lots of childfree long term friends but they are easy to neglect too, especially since I lack the time and energy to commit to shared leisure activities. I love my kids but I do sometimes feel like a more boring person now and it makes it too easy to mosey along in my mom role. Anyway that sounds negative but I am making an effort. Seeing how isolated my mom is after my dad passed has been an eye opener. No matter how much you might rely on one or two people you can’t count on them being there forever and at some point that network is essential.