You know how when you were a little kid you just played with anybody? And then as you got into different activities you found yourself playing more with the other kids who were in those activities with you and less with the kids who weren't in those same activities. And then maybe you went to college and found yourself hanging out mostly with the people who were also studying the same major as you, and were from the same kind of background as you, and also lived in the same part of campus as you. And so on until you reproduce, and then suddenly all those other filters have to fit into yet another filter of “mom.”
I've lived in five different places, so I know a little bit about building community, or at least a group of friends who care about each other. But as I've gotten older and had more life experiences, and had my first child, I have found community building to be more and more difficult.
We've all been there. Being a new mom is incredibly lonely for most of us. I had the extra challenge of being a new transplant from the East Coast to the West Coast when I had my first kiddo. Luckily our neighbors were very close and helpful, but if I wanted “mom” friends I would have had to drive vast distances at impossibly early times to attend classes I actually had no interest in whatsoever. I just did not have time to build another new community with a baby.
Here in Portland, I've had much better luck finding friends. There was a play cafe I started taking my kid to frequently, and after a while of sitting with my head in a book or my smart phone, I decided it would be better to actually TALK to the person next to me. Novel idea, right? I'm not really an extrovert, but sometimes I can reach out to a stranger and start up a conversation about whatever our kids are doing to each other or the weather or some hobby they seem to be working on. Usually it didn't go very far. Sometimes I could talk to a new person all afternoon and then never see them again. That was sad. On a few occasions I had the good fortune to connect with someone truly inspiring, and then I would say, “you want to be friends on Facebook?”
Why Facebook? My kid always gets loud when I'm on the phone. And email doesn't work well because it takes weeks to set up a get-together, and by the time you actually come to an arrangement somebody's kid gets sick, and we have to start from scratch! I have lost potential friends that way. Meetups haven't panned out because they're always at some time that doesn't work well for us. I've actually had the most amazing luck, for example, connecting to our awesome Airbnb host from before we moved here because I met a different awesome lady at the play cafe who just happened to be in the same band as the first awesome lady, and she invited me to their show on Facebook. So, while I get that some people might be nervous about letting a stranger into their friends list on social media, that's really the fastest way to get to know each other and share events where we might bump into each other.
Luckily this has worked out pretty well for me despite a major setback here and there. I still feel the pain of losing some people, but try to remember some friends are there for a season, some are there for a reason, and only some are there for a lifetime. And I can be pretty annoying on social media because of our political climate and our actual climate. But the fastest way to find your true friends is to be completely yourself. Take chances. If you lose somebody because they dislike your environmentalism rants, then maybe you weren't meant to be close friends in the first place. If your new friend moves back across the country, well at least you had a good time while they were near.
But back to hanging out and talking to complete strangers. This year one of my new friends decided to start a project in earnest with the goal of creating a place that can foster community-building. She asked me to be on her board! I've never been asked to help with something so concrete, unless you count the networking group I helped start in Pennsylvania, with respect to community-building, or anything else. (That's funny because I'm an architect.) And during our initial stages of getting to know each other, specifically avoiding “business” mode, I've gained a lot of friends from that board. All we did was agree to this goal, which we may or may not reach, and set up regular get-togethers just as ourselves without the kids in tow. Because, lets face it, it is difficult enough to make friends these days without adding in the stress about whether our kids are going to like each other, too.
That's the point of the project I just mentioned. So we can make friends in a place with child care, without having to watch the kids at the same time as carrying on an adult conversation, and maybe have a room people can rent for events, or a coworking space. It seems like a need in our fair city, and from my limited experience in different cities around the country, Portland is actually doing it better than most. If you're a mom you know what I'm talking about. We need a way to remove some of the filters we've put on our lives with the intention of attracting like-minded people, which are actually making it much harder to build communities. Even in our group when we're cognizant that our goal is to get to know each other as people first rather than moms, we still talk about our kids all the time. That's okay. But it's okay because we've agreed before that we're going to try to focus on friendships. It's the process of going back to that child-like way of playing with everyone that's important.
I'm not the philosopher behind the idea or the method, but I would recommend that any mom struggling to find their community might consider starting with themselves first, and leaving their kids with dad or a sitter. And do it regularly. Just find one or two people to hang out regularly with, and see where it goes – like dating. I found that in our group our kids are all young enough that when we bring the rest of the families together they play well, and everyone seems to have a good time.
And if you're too squeamish for anything so formal, then maybe just go to the same place frequently and talk to the person next to you. You really never know how awesome that person is until you talk to them.
Hollie is an architect, and one of the major minds behind Green Rascal, a company that teaches sustainability and planning for food forests. You can find out more about it here.