How can I know so many people but still feel so lonely? Authentic friends will save your sanity

Parenting expert, journalist and mother of two, Ericka Sóuter, explores in her new book, “How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide,” why moms need close, authentic relationships with other women and shares a clear formula for making new friends as a parent. Read an excerpt of her book below on how authentic friends can save your sanity.

When recalling the early days of motherhood, most women I spoke with lamented the irony of never actually being alone (because of the baby) but feeling so lonesome. One reason many mothers today feel they are “alone in this” has to do with a cultural shift in the way we live out our adult lives.

Once upon a time, generation after generation was raised in the same town, oftentimes on the same block. I grew up in a small midwestern city and had many of the same high school teachers my aunts and uncles did. Family was just a phone call or a short drive away, there to step in if my parents needed help. I didn’t appreciate how sanity saving that must have been until I was parenting hundreds of miles away from them all with only paid babysitters at my disposal. Communities of family members and lifelong friends were essentially a safety net of shared values and goals. Many of us must create the village that once happened organically.

What is happening to moms is actually endemic of a larger problem—the epidemic of feelings of isolation and disconnection the world over. U.S. insurance company Cigna conducted a research study that revealed that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. One in four rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.

How can I know so many people but still feel so damn lonely?

Worse yet, 40% of Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. One in five confessed to having no one to talk to. The effects aren’t just emotional. Studies have shown that loneliness has a damning effect on the body as well. It’s associated with an increased risk of heart disease and obesity and has the same impact on mortality as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

Most parenting books, magazines and blogs offer a deceptively simple solution: Just go out and find moms, any moms.

I have to caution that this is not about finding people. This is about finding the right people.

PHOTO: Ericka Sóuter/"How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide"

Quantity isn’t quality

During a visit with a New Jersey mom group, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear a mom wonder aloud, “How can I know so many people but still feel so damn lonely?” I could tell by the faces of the other women in the room that the comment resonated with them as well. Our inclination may be to go out and meet more people, but that is far from the cure, according to Shasta Nelson, an expert on friendship and healthy relationships.

“Modern-day loneliness isn’t because we need to interact more,” she explained to me. “It’s because we need more intimacy. That lonesomeness is your body saying, ‘I want more connection.'”

Think quality time with a few friends rather than a bunch of meaningless group outings. This is what Nelson defines as “frientimacy” in her book “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.” I love Nelson’s very clear formula for lasting friendship: Positivity, consistency and vulnerability.

We need positivity in order to feel truly accepted. Our relationships should be filled with joy, kindness, empathy, affirmation and, of course, laughter. I am so grateful that my friends get my cynicism and self-deprecating sense of humor. We drop off our kids at school, then meet up for coffee and riff on everything from politics to movies to “The Real Housewives.” And it’s not about having the same opinion, but rather wanting to hear each other’s thoughts.

That doesn’t mean you can’t complain to one another, cry on a friend’s shoulder, or even disagree, but for every negative interaction, there should be five positive ones, according to Nelson. Bottom line, there should be more uplifting moments than destructive ones.

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Your time with friends should leave you feeling good.

The next requirement is consistency. You can meet a person who is a joy to be around, but if you never interact with them in person, on the phone, over text, or even Skype, that’s not much of a relationship. This is another argument for not giving up on a potential mom friend too quickly.

Vulnerability is when we share details about our lives. Countless women I interviewed shared how they grew close to moms they would have never even talked to had they not volunteered for a school fair together, shared a community service project, or if their children didn’t happen to be on the same Little League team. These hours logged is how the history is built. This is how you get to know the other person, understand their behavior and build trust.

We have to be willing to open up about our fears, insecurities, or shame. We also need to reveal the successes, joys, and dreams.

Pandemic Parenting

Of course, meeting up in person isn’t always an option these days. Virtual communities were especially significant during the coronavirus pandemic. The social distancing mandated by officials was devastating for everyone, but more so for expectant and new moms.

Motherhood is already an isolating and anxiety-inducing experience. Muddling your way through those first weeks and months felt like a nightmare with no visits from friends or family, no in-person check-in from a loving doula, no baby showers or Mommy & Me classes or stroller walks through the park.

“I already feel so alone. This makes it worse.”
“I just want to be in a room with a friend. Have a face-to-face conversation.”
“What if my baby gets sick?”
“When will this end?”

Facing an unusual situation like this, it’s more important than ever to vent and share struggles. You have to find an outlet, a place to get a pat on the back and hear, “You got this, mom. You will get through this.”

The first step in identifying the right virtual support group for you is to do a web search. Among the most popular websites are Meetup, CircleMoms, CafeMom, Mamapedia and BabyCenter.

One thing I’ve learned from my own experience is that friends feed an emotional need that is different from what we get from a spouse or our children.

A small group of my closest mom friends set up a standing video call every night at 5 p.m. Each day we helped each other navigate this new normal. From the mundane — What’s everyone making for dinner? — to the consequential — How will we keep our spirits up and marriages intact? It’s a life lesson we never imagined enduring, but we’re glad we have each other to turn to.

Whether it’s a global crisis or a move away from everything and everyone that is familiar, we need to maintain those connections, especially if we are worried, frightened, and unsure. Ultimately, experiences like this strengthen you in ways you never imagined. It’s critical to remember that we are all alone together.

Beware of the Toxic Mom Friend

Just as we have to learn to cultivate friendships, we have to know when to let them go. When people think of toxic moms, they envision a grown-up version of the high school mean girl who sets the standard for cool and ices out anyone she deems unworthy. It’s not always so obvious in real life. Often we ignore the signs because we are so needy for a connection, a crew. Though, over time, you may find that this friendship you so desperately wanted causes more harm than good. It’s not easy to cut off any relationship, but ask yourself the following:

Are you starting to feel excluded on purpose?

Does she say hurtful things?

Is she overly critical of you?

Is she sharing things you told her in confidence?

Does she say nasty things about other friends when they are not around?

It’s important to take stock of how you feel after you are with that friend. Think about your relationships with each woman in your life. Are you encouraged by her words and actions? Do you feel supported? Do you leave get-togethers feeling uplifted or more depleted than when you arrived?

Your goal is to focus on and build upon those relationships that lift you up, feed your soul and, when it’s called for, keep you sane.

Grown-up rules of friendships

Your friends don’t all have to be BFFs. We have this tendency to feel that we have to befriend entire groups. It’s fine to have confidantes who don’t know or even like each other. Our friends can feed different parts of our soul and serve different purposes in our lives.

It’s OK for friends to be critical of one another. It’s human. You just have to ask yourself where it comes from. A friend who is concerned about your marriage may sound critical of your spouse, but it could be because she wants you to feel supported. However, a person who is always shooting down your ideas or making put-downs masked in humor is not a friend.

Time together doesn’t always have to be a grand event. Quality time can also be watching “The Real Housewives” together or even sitting in silence. Sometime we just need the presence of someone who cares.

Your kids do not have to be besties. They don’t even have to be friends. If your friendship is reliant on this requirement, what happens when your kids grow apart or start to dislike each other? A good foundation has more to do with you than with your children.

You should feel heard. Good friends listen. You never want to feel as though the person you are sharing with is trying to one-up your story or compare triumphs or defeats.

Making plans with your friend should bring a smile to your face. If you dread hanging out, that’s a clear sign of a problem.

Compatibility Test

Does this person have a similar sense of humor?

Do we share a similar parenting philosophy?

Is she a good listener?

Do we look forward to time together?

Do we have shared values?

Does she flinch when I reveal the parts of myself that don’t match those perfectly posed Instagram shots?

Is she comforting?

Do we have a shared experience?

Is she supportive?

Can we disagree with one another without causing a major rift?

Can we offer constructive criticism to each other without anger?

Excerpted from “How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide” by Ericka Souter. Copyright ©2021 Ericka Souter. To be published by Sounds True in August 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ericka Sóuter is a parenting expert featured on “Good Morning America” and other national network shows, and the author of “How to Have a Kid and a Life: A Survival Guide” (Sounds True, August 2021). Her work appears on CafeMom, Mom.com, and additional sites that reach millions of parents monthly. A former staff writer for People magazine and Us Weekly, Ericka’s work has also been featured in Essence, Cosmopolitan, Self, HuffPost, and WebMD. She received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, she currently lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. For more, visit erickasouter.com.

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