You guys all remember middle school? I know, I know. You wish you could forget. The crowded cafeteria. The first day in that big, new building. The changes in your body, your hormones, your brain and your emotions. You were so sensitive about everything. The new responsibilities felt overwhelming and the need to exchange childish interests for more teenage pursuits felt pressing. There are parental pressures, peer pressures, and media pressures to be, look and act a certain way. It is such an incredible in-between period as we are plunged directly into a whole new world. This is the requisite hazing that begins our journey from childhood to adulthood. And man, it sucks.
Thankfully things start to get a bit better as puberty progresses and brains develop, hormones balance out and emotions are tempered. We learn how to navigate a teenage world with increased independence and pressure from peers. We gradually mature into adulthood and pursue education, careers, family. Finally we feel like we are becoming our true selves. I personally never anticipated that I would ever have to re-visit the emotional and social realm of middle school as an adult.
I enjoyed success and confidence in my endeavors throughout young adulthood. When I met and married my husband, we were both thrilled at the thought of starting our family together. And so, one of the first things we accomplished together was the creation of our son. At the time I was in a career where I felt that I was both challenged and thriving, but I had always known that I wanted to stay home to raise my children. So when we moved for my husband’s job, shortly before our son’s birth, I did not embark on the search for a new job.
I began to pour all of my energies into preparing for the transition to mommyhood. And that preparation proved wholly insufficient. This new full-time job was not one in which I felt I was challenged and thriving. It was job I felt that I was loving and drowning in at the same time. The early months with a newborn were so intense and yet so exhilarating. Sleep deprivation had an unfathomable effect on me. I felt alternately super-human and half-dead. And the changes in my body were unbelievable: my physical appearance was altered, my hormone levels experiencing a Space Mountain of their own, and my mental and emotional state was, well let’s just say—different.
And then there were the voices. Of BabyCenter, parenting books, friends, strangers and ladies at church or at the store. Everyone had their opinion on how I should be caring for my newborn and on what the answers were for some of the medical questions that arose with him. There were the show-downs between the co-sleepers and the “separate space” people, the baby wearers and the stroller pushers, the cloth diaper and disposable diaper camps. Oh, it was enough to make my head spin. And that’s not even getting started on organic baby food, the best baby products (toys, hygiene products, etc.) and superior parenting styles. Some people were genuine and kind when offering their tidbits, others were pushy and self-righteous about it.
I felt a desperate desire to transition well into motherhood. I wanted to do the right things for my baby, and also seem to the other moms around me that I was doing a good job of it. I felt a deep need for friendship with other young mothers who could help me get through this and with that came a desire to please. Not to mention I was riding the wave of all the hormonal changes in my body—which causes a lot of ups and downs. Several medical sources I have read assert that the hormonal changes women experience during and after pregnancy can only be likened to puberty and are often more drastic.
After some time I felt that I got my head on straight and became really good at listening to my intuition. I would hear people’s opinions or advice and then do with it what I felt appropriate for me and my son. Sometimes that was the mental trash bin, other times it was same day application. I learned not to feel too cowed by other moms or some peoples’ efforts to make me feel small. I began to hit my stride with motherhood, or so I thought.
And then came baby #2. Our little girl arrived and we moved just a few weeks later across the country. It felt like I had been picked up by a tornado and dropped somewhere in northern Indiana with two babies and a husband who was gone most of the time. And I knew NO ONE. All the physical, emotional, mental and hormonal changes swirled around me along with all the questions about how to care for two kids under two. This time I was surrounded, however, by other young moms in the community we lived in and I felt relieved. These women would help me. I would have friends in this strange place, and in this transition I would belong.
I wish I could say that is how it all went down, but it wasn’t that simple. I was surprised by how hard it was for me to make friends here. I had never had a hard time making friends in the past, but here I was truly struggling to connect on a deeper level with other women. Not only that, but it felt like the other women did not want to be my friend. And that hurt.
At one point I felt desperate for friends for both me and my son. I reached out with invites to several women who seemed to get together often—contacting them via text, email, and phone call to arrange play dates. But they would not answer or respond. A few of them made it a point to make sure I heard about their get-togethers and the parties that I was not at. I was sure there was something wrong with me. For some reason I had been stamped with the “loser” sign straight across my forehead, and was never going to be accepted.
Suddenly I was flung back in time, to the cafeteria at East Avenue Middle School– the new girl in 7th grade who felt so insecure. Why had we come here anyways? Everything was so good before we moved. Was there something wrong with me that caused these women to avoid engaging with me or getting to know me?
I felt sad and self-pitying for a while. Perhaps a bit angry. And then I began to wonder why the heck I cared so much. Hadn’t I stopped caring what people thought about me way back in 8th grade? I recalled that life changing moment. It had come like an epiphany, a great huge light bulb. I remember calling up a friend on our home phone and practically shouting “IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT PEOPLE THINK!!!” with a crazy looking grin on my face. That realization in my early teenage years helped me stay true to myself in high school and college and not get lost in the search for acceptance.
The more I reflected about overcoming my teenage insecurities, the more parallels I saw between life as a new mom and life as a new teen. The similarities seem so obvious to me now. During both phases of life our hormones and bodies change drastically. These changes greatly affect our minds and emotions. Our relationships are constantly changing. We are new at what we are doing and we feel immense pressure to succeed, to do it this way or that way. When we enter motherhood, we enter a new social circle. We find we need friends who are moms too and who experiencing the same things we are. All of these changes plus the steep learning curve we are on can make us extremely vulnerable. No wonder I had felt so insecure.
I began to realize that most of the women I had been interacting with in mommy circles had either 1) recently had a baby, 2) were expecting a baby or 3) were still nursing or had recently weaned. It became obvious to me that nearly all the women around me were experiencing the same biological changes I was. Who knows what kinds of struggles they were facing in dealing with all of this? These realizations helped me not to take it as personally when I felt excluded.
While these social concerns ate at me, I had much bigger worries on my mind. Like survival. So, most of my energy went into keeping our little family diapered, fed and engaged with life. In the process, I slowly began to make social connections with neighbors and others who seemed comfortable with me and I with them. I also began to seek out other women who seemed to feel alone. My friends were few and I was not invited to all the events, parties and play dates that the “in” moms spoke of on the playground. But I gradually became OK with that. I knew that it was important for me to be true to myself, kind to everyone and not base my opinions of me on the actions of others.
Moms obviously need friendship with other moms. What can we do to keep ourselves socially anchored during these busy years? How do we find friends we can relate to without compromising who we are to fit in and how do we cope with loneliness? These are some things that have really helped me.
1) Invest the bulk of your social energy into your family. Hey, remember that hot guy you were dying to go out with 5 years or 10 years ago? The one who you eventually married and made these babies with? Well why did you stop dating him?! I have found that investing the bulk of my social energy and discretionary time into my marriage and family has been more rewarding than any outside friendships I have had. Make time to recreate together—go on dates, have fun, be goofy without your kids sometimes. If you have time to go hang out with “the girls,” then you definitely have time to spend out with your husband. Make him the priority if you can’t do both.
2) Reach out to others that you feel drawn to and also others who are on the fringes. Get to know those people and invest in them. Do not waste time or emotional energy in gossip and negativity, it will distort your views of other people and of your relationships. Reaching out to other moms takes your mind off of yourself and your insecurities as you focus on others.
3) Remember the friendships you do have. You may want to make a written list of women in your life whom you trust or who have influenced you in a meaningful way. The people on that list are true friends. Call them on the phone and catch up with them. Revitalizing some of those meaningful friendships will be invigorating and can remind you that you do have great friends.
4) Don’t think for others. My mother always referred to this as “the 11th commandment.” We never can truly know what another is thinking or what motivates their actions. We grossly misjudge someone’s motives if we get into the business of trying to dissect their thoughts from the outside. It’s just not possible to do and attempting it will always leave you feeling dissatisfied. You also have no idea what someone else may be struggling with and how their own struggles may affect their interactions with you.
5) Be “OK” not fitting in. Cliques always require some kind of conformity or compromise in order to be “in.” It might be having a common interest, changing some of your mannerisms or viewpoints to adapt to the clique culture, or proving your loyalty by putting the group first. This may mean spending time with them on a regular basis at the cost of recreational time spent with your family. If you decided you are not willing to make yourself over or realign your priorities in order to gain acceptance from a group, you will have to be OK with not fitting in because you simply will not. But I personally am much happier feeling left out and true to myself than included and faking it or giving up something that is important to me.
6) Try to love everyone. I know it sounds touchy feely, but if you can manage to love others who might not love you back, there will be no room left in you for the negative and dark feelings you had before. If you are a praying person, pray for love for those people; pray for them by name. If loving those people feels like too much of a stretch then focus first on letting go. Let go of hurt, anger, and resentment. Accept the way that things are and respect the right others have to choose whether or not to accept your friendship.
I have learned that it is not as easy to make mommy friends as I had once hoped. But in my efforts to be genuine and kind with others and true to myself I have forged meaningful friendships and found great satisfaction in my relationships. Hopefully, when my own daughter hits middle school, I will be prepared to help her get through it and to love herself regardless of how others may treat her.
How have you dealt with feelings of loneliness or being an outsider as an adult? What have you learned from these experiences?