Friends, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother all revolve around friendships and romantic relationships. Brothers & Sisters and Parenthood are based on big families that love and like each other. We can see this trend back to the beginning of television, with the Ricardos and Mertzes on I Love Lucy and the Honeymooners' Kramers and Nortons enjoying deep and abiding friendships.
If only life were like tv. It is not, at least not for me. My hair has never been bouncy and shiny. My kids are adorable but do not come with a laugh track. And my family and friends have always been more complicated than I thought they would be.
I grew up as the youngest of 9. My mother came from a family with 6 kids and my father from a family of 11 kids. I should be the most connected person in the world!! But instead, we moved to a small town when I was a baby. The town was at least an hour away from any family, and this made us special occasion visits instead of drop-ins. My grandparents were all dead by the time I was 1. My father worked an hour away and my mom never drove, so we were pretty stationary. We lived in a small town, but as I said we moved there when I was a baby, so we were never fully integrated. We went to church, but it never felt like community, at least not to me. I remember playing outside, and my neighbors' would all stand outside gabbing for a long time. I felt jealous that my own mother wasn't participating. She was plenty social, but never made strong inroads with the ladies in the neighborhood. I never had the experience of running in and out of neighbors' houses, each mother or father accepting us as their own, and families vacationing together.
When I was growing up, I felt quite close to several of my siblings, but one by one, they left, most of them moving across the country or across the world.
I attended a variety of schools growing up, thanks to some moves back and forth between public and private school. I was pretty awkward in school, and never had a big group of friends. I would have a friend or two, but never a clan. In high school, we moved to the southwest, another jolt. It was a city, so easier to break in, but getting there for sophomore year did not leave a long time to get comfortable.
Right after high school I moved far away from my parents. I had a brief stint with one of my sisters, but for the most part was on my own. I did not do college right after high school and I think that is one way that I really missed out. I think that college is a time to learn to navigate roommates and friendships, and also a time to build a tribe. I went into the workforce instead, and it was a workforce with heavy turnover. I remember once being invited to a friend's house for dinner. I thought it was going to be some event, but it was literally just dinner, and a chance to hang out. That was so foreign to me. Unfortunately, she was a good friend but a terrible employee who pilfered just about one of every item from the store where we worked.
During my early 20s, I worked and had work friends, but no true strong bonds that have stood the test of time, or even spilled over very much outside of work. I was fortunate to have a very close and loving mother-in-law that filled many gaps for me. However, one person does not a tribe make. I continually tried churches as a way to find community and feel accepted, but it never worked out. Throughout the year, I have stumbled into some bad groups, and tried to create some bad groups myself.
I have had some off and on success with parenting groups, and I did eventually find a community, although I was never as active and involved as I wanted to be. Then I moved onto new adventures: grad school. Grad school was wonderful for community, even if it is short term. We were all thrown together, with similar work schedules and interests. I had coffee dates, parties to attend, people to drink with, and hiking buddies. It was great. But it was still tricky to balance because I had kids and most people didn't. I like spending lots of time with my husband, and I need uninterrupted study times. But I found a balance I was satisfied with, and it was good.
And then I moved again, this time to an area with very few graduate students. I do have a few friends here, but still lacking real community. I think one problem is that community takes time. I know we probably won't be here for longer than 5 years, if that. But there is also the question of how to meet people. I am homeschooling two boys, so we need to spend a lot of time at home, doing schoolwork (theirs and mine). We are trying to save money, so taking them to things that cost money or will involve buying lunch is tricky. And I am trying to figure out what my interests are so that I can find people who share them. And I still really like spending time with my family. So I am at a place now where I have friends, but no community. Once again we have tried church and, for various reasons, it is not working out. I have friends here in my town, and I have lots of friends spread out around the world that I keep in touch with on Facebook.
My husband, sons, and I are very close and we spend a lot of time together. But I am still far from all of my family, sitting up here in the corner of the country. My awesome mother-in-law resides in the opposite corner. The amazing relationships I used to have with my silbings have eroded over time, due to distance and time constraints. It is at the point now where I can track one-on-one family conversations in terms of years, not weeks or months. Why has it gotten to this point? Busyness on my part and on their part, and fear of rejection. I have been a full-time student for the past 9 years. And I have been a full-time mother for 17 years. For a lot of folks, either of these occupations would create a level of dependence on those around them, strengthening their bonds. For me, it has led me to pull away more, or place people in one box or another-these are my parenting friends and support group, these are my school friends and support group. Family (as in my parents and brothers and sisters) should span the range, but in my reality, it hasn't happened. I am working at rebuilding the bonds, but it takes time.
I think one major hindrance for me has been mobility. Community takes trust, and trust is built over time. I grew up in a town where I was a newbie. I went to K-2 with one group of kids, 3-6 with another, and 7-9 with another. In 10th grade, we moved across the country and I had to start over. Then I graduated and moved and moved and moved again. I had finally found the community where we could lay down roots and settle in, and we moved for grad school. We had pretty good success in our grad school community, but then moved again. And I know there will be another move in the next few years. What I hate about it most is that I am setting my boys up for the same existence-far from extended family, little ties, and high mobility interfering with their groups and friendships.
I know that there are people who can move to a new place and immediately find community. At the same time, I had three separate posts on my facebook wall in the past few days, each addressing a loss or lack of community, and loneliness. I know I am not alone in my loneliness.
Putting on my sociologist's hat and looking at this from a societal point of view: I think there are two major contributors to the lack of community, besides our increased mobility. The first is television.
TV brought us into our homes and entertained us. There are many positive social aspects that come from TV. We are alerted to news quickly, and we have a subject of conversation among strangers and across generations. We have been watching Mad Men as a family. This has spurred so many conversations about history, advertising, sexism, alcoholism, and filmmaking. However, TV is also a device that allows us to feel a part of a community without having to reach out. I think that without TVs, the suburbs would have been a lot more social.
The Internet is another contributor, I believe. Internet connections are odd things. On the one hand, message boards and social media has given us the opportunity to meet people we would never meet, and connect with old friends and family in ways never before possible. We can keep a running Words with Friends game going, just like yesteryear's bridge nights. We know about babies as soon as they are born, and can see their videos almost instantly. People who have social anxiety or different opinions/interests than is the norm in their community can reach out to likeminded people, and feel a little less alone. These are positives of the Internet.
The Internet has also reduced incentives for reaching out to the lady next door, or even talking to the person sitting at the table with you. Why ask for info when you can Google it? I think it reduces are feeling of loneliness, which leads us to reach out less, which ultimately leaves us lonely for real, physically present contact.
Of course, anyone reading my story can see that my issues are not caused by television or the Internet, although I think each one exacerbates my condition. And of course I have chosen a career that is solitary and focused for big chunks of time.
How do we get beyond it and start building real, meaningful community? I have no idea. I am just flailing about it in the dark. Like this, but in the dark: