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…

Book clubs and making friends in the suburbs

Photograph by Clint Blowers. Styling by Melanie Francis

A year or so after my husband and I moved from 13th and Pine to the quaint South Jersey hamlet where we planned to start a family, I realized that in order to be a happy and fulfilled suburban grown-up, I needed one thing I didn’t have: a book club.

It was odd to yearn for a book club. It was particularly odd since I had never in my life actually been in a book club, though I knew people who were who frequently made offhand remarks like “I went to happy hour with Shannon from book club,” or “When I had a baby, my book club brought dinners for a month!” or “If it weren’t for book club, I’d probably murder my husband in his sleep.” So it was most definitely a yearning, which I felt most intensely when my as-yet-unmurdered husband and I sat having dinner at P.J. Whelihan’s, as we often did, and saw groups of other couples our age laughing and buying rounds as we picked through our Loaded House Nachos, alone. Inevitably, on the car ride home I would announce, “I need a book club.”

“I know, Vicki,” Thad would reply, patting my thigh. “I know.”

What I was really saying, of course, was “I need friends.” But that phrase was just too pathetic to utter aloud, even to my husband, so I substituted “book club” as code. Like, “I get by with a little help from my ‘book club.’” Like, “All you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got a ‘book club.’”

It was a weird place to be. I’d never been so friendless. Sure, I still had college friends I texted almost every day; my oldest pals were girls I met in fifth grade. I met my current besties at my first two “real” jobs. Trouble was, none of my old friends lived anywhere near us. While I did have three very close friends I’d made after I moved to Philly in 2001, they lived in the city, and we lived way over the river in South Jersey, which to them was about as enticing to visit as Novosibirsk, Russia.

On top of that, Thad and I were transplants. Our nearest family was 200 miles away. Being a childless mid-30s transplant wasn’t so unusual in Center City, but out in the ’burbs? It felt like everyone who lived in our town not only grew up here, but still hung out with the kids they shared a limo with to prom. They didn’t need “new” friends. I felt like we weren’t just back in high school—we were that odd foreign exchange student from Finland that people gladly lent their biology notes to but didn’t remember when hosting that kegger at the beach.

I tried lots of activities to meet people, activities that fulfilled specific conditions that actual sociological research studies had actually found to be fundamental to making close friends—being nearby, taking place in a non-threatening environment, involving frequent interactions. I did a play. I took a sewing class. I became a yoga teacher. I had a baby. I dragged my husband and said baby to a Unitarian church. I told a friend who had a book club how much I wanted to be in her book club. I told her again. I had another baby. And then another. While I certainly met nice people being “Miss Join-a-Lot,” nothing clicked in a “Let’s rent a Shore house together next summer” kind of way.

So I got aggressive. Sometime between kids two and three, I made invitations to a Halloween party at our house. I rolled them into cute little scrolls, tied them with cloth ribbon, and walked up and down my street, putting one in every mailbox of every house that had a swing set or a trampoline or other form of kid-evidence. And it worked: Not only did just about everyone come, but we shared all of our numbers and email addresses and vowed to get our “Unofficial Melrose Avenue Parent Association” (in my utter glee at having neighborhood guests in my home, I named us in order to make it all real) together again soon. I was convinced—absolutely 100 percent certain—that Thad and I would be invited to a play date/potluck/cocktail party within the month and be “Friendless in Westmont” no more. We waited and waited—for four years.

Thad and I tried to laugh about it. We joked that apparently our beer wasn’t cold enough. And that my naming of the group must have been “too soon.” It took a long time, a few more lonely dinners at P.J.’s, and zero book club invitations for me to finally ask Thad, for real: “Is there something wrong with us?”

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  • Jen

    This article really comes off as pathetic. Further into the article is a comment about how 30 and 40 year olds typically make less new friends and instead focus on the friendships they already have. I agree with that. I feel embarrassed for this author going around and pathetically trying to attach herself to others. Several questions come to mind, if she has children and a husband when does she have time to “hang out” or see a movie and if she wants to see a movie maybe she should go with her husband. This article does get into another interesting topic…..marriage between people with not enough common interests…..

    • trevsonic

      Wow, clearly you miss the points entirely. What an unhappy grump you are. Next time do everyone a favor, and when you get half-way through something you clearly don’t understand and don’t like, just stop reading and spare us your inane and unqualified opinions. : )

      • Heather Lippincott Fowler

        AMEN! It is mind-boggling to me that people feel the need to make harsh character judgements about a writer who’s just trying to tell it like it is! If you don’t like the article, or feel it doesn’t apply to you, stop reading and zip it sista! All writing is not for all people and variety is the spice of life. I have a great relationship with my husband and plenty of common interests (as I’m sure Vicki does as well) but we all need girlfriends!!!

    • JennyC

      Wow. I hope you never find yourself in a position to want or need new connections in your life.

  • Irene

    Wow what a judgmental narrow-minded person you are – instead of taking time to write an insulting reply to the writers honest brave article maybe you should go spend some more time with your only friend your husband – the man forced to hang out with you because of a ring on finger – I feel sorry for him but at least he’s the only person who has to listen to you so therefore I’m grateful to him

    • Me

      Hope you don’t move any soon to a not nice neighbors place some day!! Or you kids? ;)

  • Irene

    Thank you so much for putting on paper how I’ve felt for so long – I live in a suburb of Illinois, transplanted here from the east coast (still get Philadelphia magazine!) & have been in the Friend of the Friendless Club for years – so grateful to you for letting me know I’m not alone & that to never give up hope – if I found you then I bet there’s someone fun looking just like we are hopefully just a little closer

    • Pam

      I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs for years and have had the same experience many times over. Thank goodness for Facebook so i can keep in touch with old friends. So many people have the “not taking new applications” attitude.

      • Irene

        omg Pam what suburb do you live in? lol

        • Pam

          I live in Glen Ellyn, so we’re nearly neighbors! We should have coffee.

          • Pam

            But, of course, Irene never responded when I suggested something as innocuous as coffee. Nevermind…

  • Ella

    I moved to the west coast. Tried to make “mommy” friends. Threw a huge birthday party for my son and people came. But, I was appalled by the lack of manners. We asked for no gifts- but a few insisted and brought obviously used items. One husband asked the event space manager the cost of the party – in front of me. I had brought prizes for all the children but a few moms hoarded them all. I could have these people as friends…. I feel the author’s pain. Just someone to pal around with after you drop the kids at preschool….

  • christine

    Great article. I had the same experience living in South Jersey, but thought it was because I didn’t have any children. It was extremely isolating. My husband is my best friend and soul mate, but you still need girlfriends, and mine we’re also scattered about the country. So I started joining meetups in Philadelphia, found a great bunch of women, and 8 years later, we’re still besties. Oh, and years ago, this country girl gave up on the suburbs and moved to Philly, and hasn’t looked back.

  • Yes!

    I think it is pretty funny that someone actually breaks down what occurs. . . .it definitely is a struggle when one moves to a new town. I remember my neighbor looking at us like we were crazy when we asked if they wanted some clams we were cooking on the barbecue…as if a yes would be a commitment to lifelong obligations too scary to contemplate!! I found that my very social kids didn’t know or understand all the boundaries the adults were throwing out and actually made friends. . .whose parents (many but not all) started to see us differently. I cried the whole first year I was in my new New Jersey town (from Philly) and thought who are these people? Why did I have friends in Philly but not now? My husband was a little worried for me because I lost all my juju for awhile but looking back, I think it was when I could laugh a little at the situation, my kids made connections, and I decided it wasn’t me, it was a group of very unhappy neighbors (who eventually moved) that it came together. I empathize with the writer who spelled out what so clearly happens sometimes. . .I actually loved my town and neighbors in the end. . .but we still laugh at the Twilight Zone experience in the beginning.

  • The nice neighbor here

    I know!! Happens!!! Is just so stupid to do something like a book club…is nice if everybody welcome a new neighbor is hard enough to change you life and start again in other new place…. Very bad example for their own kids! Some ladies are very crazy about a stupid “exclusive club”

  • Rachel

    What a great article! My husband and I are transplants from NC (home
    of the passing hello to every stranger) and were really surprised by the shut
    out up here. We live in Delaware County
    (where people taut their child’s elementary school as their Alma Mater) and
    have experienced a very similar tale as Vicki’s. About 6 months after we moved here we met our
    first friends in our baby birthing class, and through them made a few
    others. We all have one significant
    thing in common, we aren’t originally from here. I have found that the majority of people who
    have been born and raised in the Philly area are good with their own circles
    and aren’t open to new experiences. One of my good friends, a neighbor whose
    child is involved in all the same activities as mine and whom I see and talk to
    every single day, is almost never available for a weekend dinner or outing. She is booked months in advance because of
    how many friends/family she has locally!
    She actually told me she wasn’t
    into making new friends because she isn’t available for more in her life. (We don’t have that in common,
    obviously.) In the past 7 years I have
    done the same things as Vicki: joined everything, volunteered, said yes to
    every invite, and eventually even formed my own group (it was a Book Club but
    turned into “Ladies’ Night” because only 2 of us actually wanted to
    read). The friends I have are not friends in which I have a lot in common with,
    more so friends that want to be involved with other people and are open to saying
    yes. I am beginning to think that this is just the way of “adulting.” No one is coming up to us (at either of the 2
    concerts we can get out to a year) to invite us to hang with them. So I introduce myself and try to make
    connections regularly; we’re cool people, I know there is hope for us. Maybe as more people choose to move here that old
    school environment will be more welcoming.
    Until then, yes we are available for your barbecue, book club, and
    Easter dinner…we have no other plans.

  • Jenn McKee

    I believe I’m the one who “gave up in despair.” :) It’s crazy. Just recently, I tried to launch a book group, reaching out to many women I’ve gotten to know a little bit since moving to this town 8 years ago. We had one inaugural, awesomely fun night out with drinks – I came home full of hope – but then, over the course of just about 5 months, it’s already pretty much dwindled to nothing. I’ve been racking my brain lately, thinking that adults are now as “over-programmed,” if not more, than their children. Leaving me languishing for a close friend or 2 yet again. Sigh. Been thinking, too, about how all those lists of what makes happy people happy list things that are often pretty near impossible for parents of young children: time with close friends, travel, plenty of sleep, etc. But I’m still going to try and keep trying. I already grieved losing the close friends with whom I used to spend much of my time.

  • Amy

    You hit the nail on the head; it’s hard to make friends as weird..