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 pilates tonight. We’re all going to The Hub to C an indie music jam. SAT! C U next week J.”
I put my phone down and stared numbly around my kitchen. Dirty dishes jammed 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 pilates group shortly after we’d moved to the Gold Coast in an effort to meet new people and at first I felt I’d fitted in. The five or six other women who attended were a bit younger than me but we shared an interest in organic markets, the beach and environmental protection. The one thing we didn’t have in common, however, was kids.
I looked out the window at the busy world outside. Cars and trams passing by. People striding down the bustling street.
What was 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 in Melbourne. 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 over 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 I didn’t have a single real friend in the entire state.
A week went by.
The house became messier. The dirty laundry pile expanded. And when I didn’t go to my pilates class, nobody texted.
I knew I had to do something.
In a precious patch of time, when my daughter was asleep, I picked up my iPhone and googled words like “moving”, “friends” and “loneliness”, and I discovered that the situation I was in was hardly unique.
“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 that we are in relationships with also change. Friendship fulfils needs. So as our needs change, so do our friendships.”
But I didn’t have any local friends. What was I supposed to do? I made myself a cup of tea and googled further.
“My mantra is ‘get out there’,” says clinical psychologist and director of CPConsulting Dr Simon Kinsella. “If you do something you are interested in, then you will 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. 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 Autumn morning, I did just that. I filled a plastic container with warm porridge, another with sliced strawberries, plonked my daughter into her pram, and left the apartment, heading for the beach.
At first, having breakfast on the esplanade was a disaster. With no Peppa Pig playing on the 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 pram, and set out again.
That day was even worse – broken apple sauce 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.
Several weeks in, 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 pram 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. Introducing myself, I placed the container of oatmeal cookies I’d made down amongst the apple slices, juice boxes and little packets of raisins that had been brought out for morning tea.
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 grizzles started, we split up, with plans to meet again 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 had lost them forever.
Last week marked a year since I’ve been going to the park. And what began as a mother’s group has evolved into a bunch of local friends.
Getting out taught me that new friendships can form in any life stage. It also opened my eyes to what was sitting there right in front of me.
“Your daughter has a lovely name,” a mum 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.”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem