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?”

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.”

AFTER 12 YEARS of stalking and joining and omm-ing, here was how it finally went down: A mom whose son was in my middle daughter’s kindergarten class posted on Facebook—because we were Facebook friends, of course—that she was looking for a recommendation for a book to read. I posted two. She posted that she’d already read them both. I thought to myself, I think she should be my new best friend. I did not, however, post that.

A few minutes passed, and then she posted again: “We should start a book club!” First, I wept quietly to myself. Second, I called Thad. Third, I watched as other kindergarten moms (because we were all Facebook friends, of course) posted in the comment thread that they wanted to be in the book club, too. Because, you know, there was now a book club. And I was in the book club.

I immediately created a private group page on Facebook and added everyone to it. And then I took a chance: I gave our new book club a name: “Westmont’s Illustrious Novel Enthusiasts, a.k.a. W.I.N.E.” (Too soon?)

Five monthly meetings later, and I was still texting my college friends more than I was anyone in the book club. But. I had all of the book clubbers’ phone numbers in my phone. And who knew where this could go, really? I mean, we fulfilled all the conditions for BFF-forming—seeing each other a lot, living nearby, no one threatening anyone else with sharp objects. We had lots in common—books, kids, school, husbands, wine, kitchens, boots.

It was a promising little petri dish for recruiting no less than four local emergency contacts. And I definitely felt much less pathetic, even though I was well aware that it was pathetic to feel less pathetic because I was in a book club in the suburbs. It was, pretty much, perfect. It was so perfect, in fact, that I didn’t want to chance anything possibly ruining it. And just like that, without even realizing it, I turned the corner, becoming the very thing I’d spent years trying to infiltrate.

After meeting number six, I posted this on our secret Facebook page:

“What would everyone say about capping the book club at the number we’re at?”

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