Making Friends in the Suburbs

When you live in the city, making new friends is as easy as opening the door. But in the burbs...

AS IT TURNED OUT, there wasn’t something wrong with us. There was something wrong with just about every person we knew who was like us—i.e., an over-30 adult. Married or not. Kids or not. Suburbs or not. Transplants or not. It seemed like anyone we talked to in our age bracket who wanted to “join a book club” couldn’t make it happen, either.

Actually, that wasn’t altogether true. One woman I knew had great friend-making success when she started playing ice hockey. Another made a slew of multi-generational BFFs when he joined a dragon boat team. But generally, the
joiners—whether joining mommy groups, running groups, writing groups, farmers’ market boards, bowling leagues, newcomers’ clubs, biking clubs, churches, Zumba, even a clutch for “women who own five cats”—found that the relationships they made rarely carried over to the “Wanna go to a movie” stage. It seemed so much like dating because … it was so much like dating. “I just gave up in despair after a while, frankly,” confided one former grad-school pal for whom even a book club was a big fat fail.

She and I weren’t the only people I knew (casually, head-noddily, not even slightly familiarly enough to call if I, say, needed someone to drive me to the ER to have a limb reattached) who kept trying and trying, and failing and failing, like lepers with a short-term memory disorder.

Kacy in Moorestown was eight months pregnant and desperate for “young parent friends” when she trudged through the overgrown brush behind her house to introduce herself to a new neighbor she’d been told had three young kids. The entire family watched her and her belly approach, smiled politely, and looked quite relieved when she left. Their relationship progressed to “Wave through the weeds,” but no further. (“I’m still annoyed I scratched my legs for her,” Kacy admits.)

When Tina started a new job in King of Prussia, she met a co-worker she knew could be more than just a “work friend.” So Tina invited the woman and her husband out to dinner with her and her husband, never considering how much harder it is to make “couple friends,” since not two but four personalities have to get along. “All her husband did was make anti-Semitic jokes all through dinner,” Tina said. “My husband is Jewish. It was so bad. I had to say something the following day. It got awkward. Luckily, she stopped working there shortly thereafter.”

One outdoorsy couple I knew from college thought they’d made couple friends at first sight when they met another outdoorsy pair who had boys exactly the same age as their boys, and lived right around the corner. But when Stephanie, the wife, went out for drinks with another girlfriend, the other wife freaked. “She was jealous,” Steph said. “She thought I should only be mommy friends with her.” The two women had dinner together to try and make up, a dozen pink roses were offered as an apology, but they could never get back that platonic-ing feeling.

“Thank God for Facebook,” reasoned Stephanie, still basically friendless, “so we can all hang onto friendships we made years ago and reassure ourselves that we’re not hopeless social fuckups.”

Except for the fact that we kinda are. Last fall, a friend—an old friend from grade school, to be clear—forwarded me an article from the New York Times about making friends in your 30s and 40s. It felt strangely reassuring to read about a psychology professor at Stanford who found that “people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.” Ohhhh. So that was why we couldn’t make friends.

“Do you really feel like you have time for new cast members?” asked my neighbor, Tricia, the person who broke our four-year drought by inviting us to a Christmas party two years ago, at which my six-year-old threw up all over her living room rug. “Kids, work, family, house, trying to keep up with Philly friends from pre-kid life … I feel like any time I can find should be for me, my husband and the kids to reconnect. Uh-oh. Does this mean I’m one of the assholes running to and fro and not stopping to make friends?” (Tricia and her husband were once so uninterested in new friend requests that they would quip to each other, “Sorry, but we are not accepting applications at this time.”)

I couldn’t deny this made me hate Tricia a little, in the same way I hate people who have naturally curly hair or can play the piano by ear. But I also didn’t entirely believe her. I’d so often tried to convince myself that I was too busy for a “book club” that I did more to be busier, so that it might actually be true. When my girls hit school age, I joined the PTA, directed the school’s talent show, and joined the choir at the Unitarian church. I took on more writing assignments from more magazines. I tiled the kitchen backsplash all by myself. I have no time for new friends, I’d lie to the new people I was meeting in the alto section and at drop-off in the morning at school, not wanting to appear desperate.

Then, it would happen. I’d meet someone. We’d click. I’d start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I’d made a genuine, bona fide new friend. And then I’d get the form. It always came. Always. It came from the school and from the township athletic association during soccer sign-up. I’d get one at the karate studio and the art camp and in the office of any new doctor we went to: the “In Case of Emergency” contact form.

At the start of last school year—11 years after we moved to this town—when I flipped the page on our first-ever registration for the school district’s after-care program and saw the form, I nearly cried. There were not one, not two, not three, but four lines on which we were supposed to list four people who could be called to “act on behalf of parents” if “parents couldn’t be reached.” The main requirement was plain: All four of these people needed to have local phone numbers. The extent of my “local phone number” supply was the digits of three other second-grade moms.

I had never felt more isolated in my life. Because that was it. Right there. It was the real, true defining line of friendship—who would you be able to ask, be able to count on, be able to trust, to take care of one of your kids in a crisis? I wouldn’t have hesitated to write down the numbers of any of my old friends. I wouldn’t even have had to ask them first. But they weren’t here. Who was?

“Thad, I need a book club.”

“I know, Vicki. I know.”