Here’s a quick summary of what happened when I tried to launch a casual, monthly lunchtime book group in Ann Arbor: on the first day we were scheduled to meet, the city declared a snow day, so many of us suddenly found ourselves housebound with kiddos; the night before our second meeting, Lily was up vomiting all night, so I postponed in order to nurse her back to health the next day; and after re-scheduling, all except one woman had work meetings, a sick kid, or was sick herself.
So is it any wonder that – for many of us now in the throes of parenting young kids – close, fulfilling friendships feel like a luxury of youth that we can no longer afford?
This is why, when reading a New York Times article titled, “Friends of a Certain Age: Why is it Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” I was nodding my head a lot.
“As external conditions change,” wrote Alex Williams, “it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.”
Indeed. So where does that leave us? Isolated and stressed.
And while I’d hardly describe myself as a “go getter,” I will say this: when I can’t find something I want – like, in this case, a regular gathering of smart, funny, empathetic women – I often do what I can to create it; and when others make this same kind of effort, I respond.
I benefitted from the latter when a neighbor announced, on Facebook, her desire to start a women’s running group. I responded immediately. (Joe and I spent years running together before we had Lily, but these days, we obviously have to run separately; and while I enjoy listening to podcasts – I’ve already burned through “Radiolab”’s archives – I’ve missed having company on my runs.)
Though one other woman expressed interest in running together, it quickly boiled down to me running with my neighbor, Jessica, on two mornings a week at 6:30 a.m.
And while there are all kinds of subtle things being worked out when you enter into this kind of arrangement – my anxiety about running a slower pace than she would otherwise go; about what routes we should use and how far we should go; about how unguarded I could be in our conversations, etc. – this is, of course, how acquaintances become friends.
It had been so long that I’d nearly forgotten.
But late last year, with each early morning run, as the weather got colder and my clothing layers got thicker, I kept showing up at her house’s side entrance, where Jessica awaited my arrival. We’d decide on a route and start running in the dark, tentatively sidestepping freezing puddles, or patches of dark ice, while also cautiously gauging how much we could trust, and share with, each other.
Now, months into this arrangement, I can say Jessica’s a friend. And it all started with saying “yes” to someone putting herself out there; to someone who turned toward the wider world and said, “I want more connection” – something we all feel.
I’ve been on the other side of this, too; for long before I attempted the Ann Arbor-based lunch group, I started trying to pull together a monthly, nighttime women’s book group in the town where I live.
At first, I reached out to people I knew in the area: my sister-in-law; old friends from college or high school who live in the area; and neighbors and local moms. Experience had taught me that waiting for consensus on meeting dates, books, etc. just led to nothing happening at all, so I picked a day, picked a title, and moved forward.
We had a handful of people at the first few get-togethers, and I’d stressed that reading the book wasn’t a must – that if you wanted to just come out and have a drink, that was fine, too.
But then the fledgling group, pretty quickly, shrunk down to me and one or maybe two others – which was fine, because I still enjoyed myself, and I had a night out with friends, which is really what I was after. I would tell those that came, “I’ll send something out about the next get-together. I’m going to keep being stubborn about this, because I need this.”
Though spoken to others, this pronouncement was something important I was telling myself, too. Because I did need this, and because it was important to me, I decided to re-think my approach.
I did, and the last two meetings have drawn about 8 people each (some new to me), with wonderful, lively conversations that led to us closing the local Mexican restaurant down.
What’s the secret I finally uncovered, after much experimentation? I’ll lay it out for you, my sisters. If you’re stubborn and need more women in your life, too, try launching your own group with these things in mind.
1. Open up the field – a lot. So the whole beginning of this post was about how ridiculously busy ALL women are these days. How do you get around that? By opening things up to a much broader range of people. At some point, I created a group Facebook page for the people I already knew and had personally invited, just for the ease of communication it provides; but after I put the page together, I thought, why don’t I invite women from the local Buy Nothing page, which is, at its root, all about community building? And Lily’s school has a FB page for moms. Why not ask if anyone on that page wants to join? It finally dawned on me that the way to get a good-sized group of busy women out for a night was to open up the gathering to five times as many people. (There are now nearly 50 women subscribing to the FB page.) It’s worked, and it’s introduced me to new, wonderful women in my community. Win-win.
2. Camaraderie (and drinks) trumps books. After opening up the group, I made a point of repeatedly emphasizing the idea that reading the book wasn’t mandatory – that if you just needed a night out, you were welcome to come. Why? Because I remember having a newborn, and then a toddler, at home, and feeling frustrated by the fact that on the rare occasion I got the chance to read, I usually passed out on top of the book. And even when you’re not in those circumstances, you sometimes are so swamped with everything else life throws at you that you can’t carve out time to read. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from a night out. So while many of us do talk about the book throughout the evening, we also talk about plenty of other things. And that’s just fine by me. In fact, I named the group’s page “Monthly Margaritas (and books)” to underline my intentions.
3. Pick a book with broad appeal. I’m still the only consistent link in this group – people come and go as their schedule demands – so I throw out a couple of book options and get feedback, but I’m ultimately the one making the call. In the past, I’ve made missteps by picking books that I have a personal interest in versus books that most women – with very little time to read – will be drawn to. The big hit recently was Liane Moriarty’s “The Husband’s Secret,” which many of us kept posting about on the FB page while reading it (taking care not to include spoilers). The choice of that book taught me to think about what others will enjoy, not just me.
4. Stick with it. The bottom line is, it’s hard to build something from nothing. You’ll find out what works and what doesn’t along the way – but you’ve got to be tenacious to make it happen.
That having been said, I haven’t yet re-scheduled the Ann Arbor lunch group. But this is reminding me that I should.
Good luck and godspeed, blog-friends. Let me know what’s worked for you.