Needing friends

Picture of Suvi Mahonen

Suvi Mahonen

Suvi is a writer and mother

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.

“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.

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 only 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. The situation I was in is hardly unique. “One in three people consider themselves lonely and this has profound effects on our physical and psychological health,” says Dr Marny Lishman, a health and community psychologist and columnist for PerthNow Sunday Times. She says many of her clients come to see her because of depression, stress or anxiety. When she delves further, she finds most of them have limited or no social support.

“We are wired to have people around us,” she says. “It makes us feel protected and we thrive when we have social support.”

Sydney-based psychologist Sharon Draper agrees. “There is a growing body of evidence that proves how loneliness impacts us negatively on a physical and emotional level,” she says.

If social connectedness is so vital for our health and well-being, then, why are so many of us lonely?

“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.”

This is exactly what happened to Terriane Palmer-Peacock, an entrepreneurs’ lifestyle coach and professional speaker on the Gold Coast. When her best friend got married and had children, she had to adjust to her friend’s new lifestyle.

“But I valued our friendship and made time to fit in with her now hectic life,” Palmer-Peacock, 44, recalls. “Six years later I got married and had a child. Because her children were much older than mine, she was doing different things. As a result we drifted apart.”

In his work as a specialist adult mental health practitioner and relationships counsellor, Brisbane psychologist Mark Korduba has observed that things begin to change for people after about the age of 25. “Essentially, we just don’t value friendships like we did when we were younger,” he says. “What we value is family and getting ahead in our careers.”

As familiar structures such as school and university drop away, it becomes harder to make new friends, he says. This is especially true if we move. People living in your new area already have a circle of friends, so it can be difficult to know how to join in.

Technology only exacerbates this problem, notes Sam Van Meurs, a Canberra-based clinical and forensic psychologist. These days, instead of going shopping with a friend, we’re more likely to purchase items online. Internet banking and online gaming have all reduced the volume of face-to-face contact we experience, he says. And Google maps and GPS systems mean we now never have to ask local people for directions.  

“People count their friends on Facebook, however these ‘friendships’ are superficial,” Roth says. “We can invent an image and persona on social media that is far from the person we are. Friendship is about connection and being known to another. To be known people need to see and value us for who we really are so as to develop a trusting intimacy. This requires face-to-face interaction.”

Yet how do we develop new friendships when our life circumstances have changed?

“Friendship starts with commonality,” advises Roth. “Find like-minded people who share your values and, once you connect, be prepared to invest time and energy.”

At the end of the day, being proactive works best. “My mantra is ‘get out there’,” says clinical psychologist and director of CPConsulting Dr Simon Kinsella. “Do something you enjoy doing, whether it be sport or going to art exhibitions or learning a new language or skill. 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. That way, you will soon get to know the people you like the most. 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 October morning, eight months after our move, 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?

Did I!

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, muffins 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.”

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