I remember walking up to the park in Iowa with a stroller and an excited boy. He was little, not quite two. I was a semi-stay at home mom, and when I wasn’t working my very, very part-time job (a job I got shortly after we moved because I needed some “adult interaction,” regardless of the fact that my dream was to be a full-time stay at home mom), we spent a lot of our day doing busy things: walking the trails, walking to the library, taking a bike ride. As an introvert, sometimes these tasks were hard for me – they still are because I adore being in my own house and following my own schedule – but I throw myself into these situations where I have to be in public and around people because I want my kids to have relationships. I want to have relationships, too. I don’t want to be a total hermit.
I mostly don’t want lonely kids, though, so little Finn and I would walk our seven or eight-mile loop of trails and then end at the park, me sweaty and probably pretty stinky, and him excited to be out of the stroller and running headlong wherever his tiny feet would take him. It was a quiet park, tucked in between a few neighborhoods, but since school was already in session, it was usually fairly deserted during our pre-lunch/post-walk energy release.
On this particular day, we got a late start, or maybe I added a mile to our walk, whatever the reason was, we arrived at the park later than normal, and as we walked up I could see that a large group of moms and small humans had convened on the playground for a picnic and play date. There were babies in strollers and toddlers on swings, there were moms wearing babies and moms catching squealing kids as they slid down the slide. Everyone was talking and laughing and a comfortable mom vibe emanated from them; like they’d done this a thousand times before.
My palms got sweaty. My heart started racing. Thoughts of small talk raced through my head. I’m bad at small talk; I never know what to say and I always feel so awkward. I couldn’t turn around; I’d already told Finn we were going to the park and he could see the actual playground up ahead of us. And he could hear the kids. He was excited because he knew he was about to be freed from the stroller, his feet were already kicking and he was straining against the belt that held him firmly in place. I pushed him across the grass and parked the stroller. I unbuckled him and stood him next to the stroller, but he’d obviously picked up on my own reticence because even when he was finally set free, he hung back a little. He observed the wild group of kids screaming and playing and laughing with each other on the playground. He inched his way toward the sand pit where there was a child-sized digger that he loved to scoop sand with. It was currently empty and he took full advantage of a quiet corner of the playground where he could make a sand pile and still keep an eye on the kids around him. Relieved, I followed him to that quiet corner where I could keep an eye on him and still observe the moms around me.
They obviously knew each other well. They laughed and chatted back and forth and tickled each other’s kids. They shared fruit snacks and tag-teamed pushing the swings. It looked like an easy group of women who got together regularly. I followed Finn to the slides and then to the swing, each time we got near to a group of kids or one of the moms, I smiled slightly, but I didn’t force any interactions and neither did they.
We stayed a few more minutes but the longer we hung out amid that wild, crazy, fun group of kids and their laughing, chatty moms, the lonelier I felt. I didn’t know how to approach them or interact with them or even just say, “Hey, your kid is cute.” Most moms make small talk when you start a conversation by telling them that their kids are cute, but I couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t get past that overwhelming awkwardness I felt to just say, “Hi.” I strapped my tired and hungry boy back into his stroller for the few blocks we had left to walk home. The further we got from the park, the easier my breathing became but the sadder I felt. It’d be nice to have someone to push my kid on the swing for a minute or someone his age to play with on the slide. It’d be nice to have another mom to bounce ideas off of; a fresh set of eyes on a sleeping issue or a food aversion. Someone to talk to about a book we both read or celebrity gossip we’d heard.
We moved out of Iowa shortly after that incident at the park. I had told my husband about my failed attempt to make “mom friends” at the playground, which truthfully, wasn’t even much of an attempt, and that I would try harder in our new town to put myself out there, make conversation even when my insides felt the anxious rush of small talk urged me to retreat. Remembering one of my girlfriends from high school mentioning in passing that she was part of a MOPS group in her town, and having zero idea of what that group was other than it had something to do with preschoolers and nothing to do with cleaning, I searched it out when we moved to Two Harbors. I talked myself out of going to that first meeting a hundred times, even in the parking lot of the church where they met, even walking into that meeting room – I was still talking myself out of staying. My palms were sweaty. My heart was beating fast. And I felt so very, very awkward.
Those women though, they looked past my nervousness and met me right where I was. We bonded over egg bakes and coffee, kids who were the same ages and shared wishes to add more babies to our families. I shoved down my introverted tendencies and invited a few of them to my house – where there were still boxes being unpacked and we didn’t have a couch and there were breakfast dishes on the table. “Come over,” I said. “It’ll be fun.” And it was fun. And it was fine. And nobody noticed the toast on the floor or the piles of discarded boxes in the living room. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything.
These women were the first real “mom friends” that I didn’t go to high school or share an office with. The ones I could say, “You will not believe what just happened!” or “My kids are making me crazy today, let’s have a play date and drink coffee!” And I didn’t feel judged or alone or awkward. I felt accepted. And forging those bonds with other moms seemed to get easier the more I did it; the more I made eye contact and smiled and said, “Hi. Your kid is adorable. My name is Heather, what’s yours?”
There’s so much internet chatter these days about “finding your tribe.” And I love it and hate it at the same time because making friendships – true, deep friendships where you can share the goodness and the badness – takes time and commitment and a willingness to step out of our comfort zones and into the messy life we lead alongside our sisters in the trenches. Real friendships are hard and they take work and commitment, and they force us to show up when it’s inconvenient. Real friendship looks like our kids sharing germs we didn’t know they had and being totally okay with it or the toddler smothering the baby repeatedly and calling it kisses, albeit sticky, yogurt-drool kisses.
And when we get it right, when we sneak past our shield and share our awkward, disjointed, messy hearts? That’s where the real good stuff of friendships start.