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How do I make friends as a grown up?

*This originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times State of Mind column*

Dear Elisheva,

What I’m struggling with feels more appropriate for a middle schooler than a middle-aged mom, but I find

myself stuck and would love some advice.

The background is: I’m in my late 30s (I know, not really middle-aged, but it feels too old for this), married, with four kids. We moved here a few years ago, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t really have any friends. I was pretty busy for the last decade and change, raising my family, caring for our home and basic needs. I worked on and off part time, but more like small jobs than a real career, so I don’t have a social life from work.

I get along with people- my neighbors, relatives, the other parents in my kids’ classes, but I just never really got to know anyone at more than an acquaintance level. I didn’t have a ton of friends growing up, but I always had a few, enough so that I wasn’t lonely.

After I graduated college and got married, I mostly lost touch with the people I used to hang out with. We’ll text each other happy birthday and mazal tov on simchas but we’re not really in each other’s lives- I get the feeling most of them have moved on. I’m close with my husband, thank G-d, but he has a work life and a social life, so I don’t want him to be my only “friend.” I’m also close with my sister- we talk almost daily, but she lives in Israel, so we don’t get to see each other often.

I realize this is really my own fault- I’m a quieter person by nature, and I just didn’t make it priority to get to know people. I had been content just going about my routine. But now I’m finding myself feeling lonely, sad, and a little bored, as my youngest kid starts preschool, and my days feel too quiet. I don’t feel snubbed; the people in our shul and area seem very nice and friendly. But I feel like by this stage in the game, most women my age have already made their friends; they’re not looking for new close relationships. Is there anything I can do to change this for myself?

-Lonely in New York

Dear Lonely,

Years ago, my daughter was in 9th grade, and one of the principals was leading an icebreaker game. She’d asked them to anonymously submit their concerns about high school. She shared with the group that every single one of them had written some variation of: “I’m nervous I won’t have friends.” This was a group of seemingly confident, well-adjusted kids in a school full of similar peers, yet it was a unanimous sentiment. I imagine it was comforting for them to hear they were all in a similar boat. Now, as you said, it’s not exactly the same.

With adults, it’s true that many have established friendships and groups. But I hear many people at your stage of life describe a similar dilemma. It makes a lot of sense- you moved here at a time when you were preoccupied with little ones. Yes, more extroverted moms might have socialized regardless, but it’s not unusual for some to get lost in the hectic maze of early parenthood life for years, only to emerge and feel left behind- personally, socially, or professionally. When you finally come up for air as your youngest is no longer a full-time job, it’s very normal to experience a sense of “what now?”

It might feel as though everyone else kept up their social lives better than you did, and it’s too late to “break in,” but I can tell you that relationships are not static. Throughout a lifetime, most people evolve, pick up new friends, and sometimes grow apart from old ones. A happy development for me personally when I came out of parents-of-young-kids treadmill stage of life was reconnecting with some old friends I hadn’t spoken to in many years, and some of us shared the same realization: “Wow- we finally have some time to catch up! This is so nice!”

If you find it difficult to make a “cold call” effort to befriend people, here are some practical ways to start:

1. Scope out the neighborhood for people you’d like to get to know better. Then consider inviting them for a Shabbos meal, if you think your families would get along well, or a cup of coffee one on one. It may feel “random” or out of left field, but in most communities, this is a culturally appropriate, gentle bid for friendship. Worst case is they turn you down, and best case, you have a great time, and then can follow up afterwards to stay in touch. Many wonderful friendships begin this way.

2. Join a group - ideally one that appeals to your own interests. This is particularly helpful if you struggle to make conversation. People gather for all sorts of reasons. It can be intellectual, like a book club or a local lecture or class. It can be physical, like a gym, dance class, yoga, or other sport or exercise activity. It can be religious or spiritual, like a shiur/ chabura/ chavrusa, a Tefilla or Tehillim group, a shul Neshei event, or a volunteer organization. It can be creative- art, music, photography, or writing class. With groups like this, maybe choose one that meets regularly rather than just once, so you can get to know people there over time and build connection. Another benefit of this option is that it can fulfill your need for meeting new friends and also alleviate some of your boredom through wholesome outlets and hobbies.

3. I often suggest to young parents to socialize through their kids. If you invite a kid for a playdate, you can invite the mom to come in and hang out with you for a bit too. (But don’t be insulted if she declines; some parents rely on playdates to get things done themselves.) You could also specifically invite another mom and kids to join you for an outing, activity, or come over for family playdate or pizza dinner.

4. You mention that you’ve worked outside the house in the past, and it sounds like that’s not necessary for financial reasons now. Yet some moms find that once their kids are in school, it can be an enjoyable challenge to take on some part time work. Not only for the income, but for the sense of motivation to get moving daily, get dressed, perhaps learn a new skill, and socialize with a new group of coworkers. It doesn’t necessarily require going back to school or signing a serious contract; you could look for something low-key and flexible but with the kind of environment that provides warm interpersonal camaraderie. Preschools, senior living homes, nonprofits, small businesses, and administrative offices often have pleasant work culture, and the work itself can yield a sense of accomplishment.

5. Look up some old friends. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to get a call or message like: “Hey- it’s been a while, but I was just thinking about you the other day (or you can reference something that reminded you of a memory with them) and wondering how you’re doing. I’d love to meet for lunch and catch up one of these days, if you’re interested!” You might be surprised to find how many others at your stage of life might also be craving some more adult conversation and welcome the opportunity.

6. Family can be friends too. If you have relatives, cousins, sisters-in-law, aunts, that you’d like to be more in touch with, now is a great time to try. You can start by calling to say hello, or inviting them for a brunch. Family doesn’t always click this way, but if you feel there is potential, it doesn’t hurt to try.

7. This one is a little heavier, but you could reach out to people who seem like they could use a friend. Someone who’s going through a tough time, a loss, a sick relative, a recent divorcee, a new mom, or someone who just moved into the neighborhood. Try sending or bringing over an appropriate gift, food item, offering a favor, or letting them know you’re there if they’d like to talk. Some of the most beautiful friendships start by someone choosing to show up when another person needs it most.

8. Social media gets a bad rap, but it can actually be a great segue for authentic connection, when used well. Online common interest groups and long-distance friendships can offer virtual access to wider pool of potential friends than your limited geographic reach.

Making friends can feel a little like dating sometimes, including the vulnerability and emotional risk. You make plans to get together once, or strike up a conversation, and if it goes nicely, they may reciprocate, or you can reach out again. Sometimes, it can go well, but the other person doesn’t seem interested in pursuing the relationship. Try not to take it too personally; none of us is for everyone, and it’s entirely possible that the person liked you a lot but just isn’t in the headspace or life stage for new friends. A good MO is that if you’ve invited someone twice and they either declined or they joined, but haven’t reciprocated, replied, or followed up, it’s probably worth moving on to someone else.

It’s also possible that you’ll spend time with someone and then decide you’re not interested in following up- that’s fine too. Friendships are about chemistry and compatibility. If any of the above ideas lead to new potential friends, and you want to invite them to go beyond the initial context, you can send a text acknowledging your interest in something you discussed like:

“Here’s that article I was telling you about,” or “I’d love to try that recipe you mentioned- would you mind sending me a picture of it?” Showing people that you’re still thinking about conversations you had with them later is a great way to stay in touch, if they seem receptive.

Making friends as an adult can be intimidating at first, but hopefully once you dip your foot into the pool, over time, you’ll build more confidence and connections.

I love self-help books for personal endeavors; reading books such as People Skills by Robert Bolton might offer you more ideas and inspiration along the way.

*Note: If you struggle with social anxiety or social skills to the point that it truly inhibits making these efforts, perhaps consider working with a mental health professional to get help more specific to your own needs.

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