Better Together

Finding Community Takes Effort, But Is So Worthwhile

By Jen Holman

 

Neither my husband nor I grew up in central Arkansas. We were raised on cattle and chicken farms in separate but equally rural parts of the state. We both moved to Little Rock for work more than 15 years ago and met here through mutual friends.

We lived a fun, childless lifestyle for several years. You remember those days, right? The memories may be dim. Think, though. Really concentrate. Can you recall the days when you could go out to dinner on a whim? When you could sleep past 7 a.m. on weekends without a dog’s cold nose or a child’s cold feet jolting you awake? How about coffee and the paper as you eat breakfast at your own pace. “Leisurely,” I believe it was called. You know, when you aren’t scrambling to find a shin guard for the soccer game starting in 15 minutes.

When our daughter came nine years ago, life changed. Dramatically. It was a good change that affected our lives in more ways than we ever expected. We had never quite been successful in finding a church home. Our friends didn’t have children, and our families lived several hours away. For a while, we felt very much on an island. To a new mom, that feeling of isolation can be terrifying—hopeless, even.

My husband worked a lot at the time, and I was alone with the baby nearly 12 hours a day many days. I remember thinking I needed help. I needed a friend who understood, someone to talk to besides the poor Target employees. I needed to commiserate with another mom before I went (even more) crazy.

But how do you do that? How do you make new parent friends? How do you find community?

I have heard a lot of women my age say the thing they’re enjoying most about the aging process (because we have to find something, right?) is greater self-confidence. The older we get, the more at peace we become with who we are. If we can learn to be compassionate to ourselves, we can accept and embrace our flaws. We know our strengths, our weaknesses, and we move about our lives—and the world—accordingly.

But it’s so hard to see this in the new parent phase. It’s so hard to find the confidence to join a group or a discussion because self-doubt gets in the way. We think, “These people are already friends. I won’t fit into their group,” or “I’m screwing up this nursing/sleeping/parenting thing and they’ll all see right through me.” But we’ve all been there. Every one of us has been the odd man out, the one fidgeting on the outskirts of the groups at the children’s library or church or La Leche League thinking, “I should just go.”

A COMMUNITY OF JEFFERSON ELEMENTARY DADS GRILLS OUT!

A COMMUNITY OF JEFFERSON ELEMENTARY DADS GRILLS OUT!

You know what I’ve noticed? One person makes all the difference. If one person in a group welcomes a newcomer, everyone else does the same. If one newcomer introduces themselves to the group, the entire dynamic changes—suddenly they’re part of the group. Looking back, I wish I had been better not just about introducing myself, but to welcoming others once I was “in.” How quickly we forget what it’s like to be the new guy.

My kids are 9, 5 and 3, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I have felt well and truly in the firm embrace of the community around me. It wasn’t easy. Making an effort to get to know the people on our street has helped. Staying off my phone and actively engaging other parents at school events has facilitated deeper conversations and relationships, which I cherish. And carpooling and helping other parents when they’re in time crunches has been returned three-fold.

One fairly easy and effective tool to facilitate community has been a school Facebook group, in which we share homework woes and make plans for nights out. And even though sometimes I would rather sink into the couch until I can crawl to bed, I go.

I go because those parents are the ones who help tie shoes at soccer and dance. They are the ones I will see at middle and high school fundraisers and musicals. They’re the ones that might someday catch my child in a dangerous situation, and I want them to be confident in acting as my parenting proxy. The parents of my kids’ friends are my friends, sharing a common goal. We are a team now, working together to form the village it takes to raise our children.

Community can be daunting and difficult to find. Forming your own is even more challenging. It’s important to know we’re not alone. We’re all looking for a better way, we’re all just parenting as we go. If you’ve found your community, good for you! You’re lucky. If not, keep looking, and don’t be afraid to make the first move.

Jen Holman is often irreverent and frequently imperfect. But she’s happy, by God, and that’s what matters. A former Congressional press secretary and executive director of Arkansas Literacy Councils, Jen has also published three fiction novels. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im)perfect children.