The week before moving into our new house, I scoped out the town by visiting the local coffee shop. At least, that's what I told myself. Otherwise, I would've had to admit I was having a breakdown.
Why? My husband was suffering home-buyer's remorse. My older kids were whining about changing schools, and my youngest had decided that sleep was boring.
Luckily, the coffee shop was nearly empty and the sleepy teen at the counter didn't care that my youngest son, then 4, was making a train out of chairs. Within seconds, the only other child in the place joined him. That little boy's mom, a freckled redhead in jeans, looked as exhausted as I felt.
It took a bit of courage, but at last I said, "Hey. Want to sit with me? Misery loves company, right?" When she agreed, the prospect of moving to a new house suddenly seemed like a thrilling new adventure instead of an endless litany of chores and complaints.
That redhead became my new best friend. Now, years later, we still play tennis and hike with our dogs. She has been there to support me when my husband lost his job, when my father died, and when my son was struggling in kindergarten.
Friends enrich every stage of our life, but friendships during motherhood are a life jacket that keeps your head above water. "After you have a child, your life seems to revolve around your kitchen and bathtub," says Susanna Sonnenberg, author of She Matters: A Life in Friendships. "Just getting a meal on the table can be a big deal." Friends can remind you that you once biked across Ireland and convince you that you won't always be a walking zombie covered in banana pulp.
In fact, studies have shown how important friendships are to our mental as well as our physical health. UCLA researchers, for example, have found that in times of stress women don't simply opt for "fight or flight," as decades of research on men had suggested; instead, women lean heavily on social support from friends. Another study of participants from Harvard Medical School's long-running Nurses' Health Study suggested that women who are socially isolated have an increased risk of dying after a breast-cancer diagnosis.
Unfortunately, though, nurturing the friendships you have and making new friends can seem like more of a challenge now than ever -- no matter how frequently you check your Facebook feed. "Social media let us communicate with friends even when we're miles apart, but there's no substitute for spending time together in person," points out Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever. Whether you're a brand-new mom or life has thrown you into a different neighborhood or situation, you can learn from the way other mothers have tackled these common friendship hurdles.
It's normal to feel isolated when your old friends can't understand what your life is like, as Meredith Steele discovered when she got pregnant during her last year of college. After graduation, Steele moved from Cape Cod to Bath, Maine, for her husband's job and stayed home with their daughter for the first 18 months.
Steele says she would have "lost her mind" if she hadn't joined a breastfeeding group and made a friend there. That friend invited her to a playgroup that met in different houses around town. "We'd put our babies on the floor to roll around while we talked, and it was so cool to be with people who could admit motherhood wasn't fun all the time." She also started enjoying herself socially, thanks to weekly evening outings with the friends from her playgroup. "There's a lot of mommy guilt associated with saying, 'I'm going out for a drink,'" notes Steele, who gave birth to her son two years after her daughter was born. "Having other mom friends makes you realize you don't love your kids less just because you don't want to be with them every second."
Laura Nelson, of San Francisco, had her first child when she was 23, and four years later she's still the only one of her college friends who has kids. Even though she's made an effort to meet other moms, she is grateful that her old friends have been curious and sensitive to her transition into motherhood. "Treasure your friends and treat them like gold," says Nelson. "I try to show real interest in their professional goals and struggles, and to be a good listener."
You won't necessarily click with every mother you meet, but the key to making new friends is to just keep putting yourself out there.
Connecting with others may be easier if you have a regular hangout like a bookstore or a coffee shop, where you can chat casually with another mom whom you often see there. "Don't be afraid to make conversation," says Nelson. "Chances are good that you have a lot in common with that mom in the pediatrician's office or at the playground." Ask for the woman's number once you get talking; don't rely on another chance encounter.
If this all sounds too much like dating and you're too shy to make the first move, pursue your own interests and then mingle with the people who share them. Sign up for a Saturday cycling club or Tuesday-night knitting classes. It's always easier to talk about the activity at hand than it is to manufacture small talk with a random stranger.
When you're employed outside the home, making an effort to get to know one of your fellow moms at work better can have a double benefit. Invite her to join you for coffee or to meet for a mid-morning walk. You'll have a new friend who gets what it's like to juggle a job and motherhood. You can also see if there's a working-moms group in your area, on Facebook or off.
Getting together with friends can seem like a luxury, but in truth it's an emotional necessity. Steele convinced her husband that she needed regular nights out with friends by comparing this time to the hours her husband spends at the gym. "He has his way of staying sane, and so do I," she says.
Brenda Salvi, of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, says the competing demands of her full-time job, her part-time singing gigs, and her two children, now ages 3 and 11, led her to lose touch with friends. "Between kids and work, I felt like I had no life. When would I even see friends without my kids?" says Salvi. Eventually, she decided to give up her Sunday job at church to make time for socializing, even though it meant more penny-pinching.
Certainly, social media can help you feel connected to close friends whose schedules conflict with yours. Kay Van Wyk, a nurse in Pella, Iowa, says her mom friends, many of whom are also nurses with odd hours, have a Facebook page. "If someone has an idea for an activity, we can suggest it that way," she says, "and everyone feels like part of the conversation, even if some of us can't make a particular activity because we're working or too broke."
However, Van Wyk still tries to get creative about finding face time. Her best friend from college lives two hours away, but the two of them discovered a hotel halfway between them that has an indoor water park where the kids can play. With other moms in her own neighborhood, they often order takeout lunches on their days off and bring them to someone's house, "so the kids can run around while we visit, and nobody has to cook or clean up."
We all have the same number of hours in a day, so tell yourself that you are in charge of your own schedule, even if it often seems otherwise. Finding time may also be a matter of choosing the friendships you want to nurture and letting others slide for now. "Says Mary Carlomagno, a mom of a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old and author of Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better With Less. "I've come to pass on a lot of things that are not fulfilling for me and my kids. Your time is limited, so you should devote it to finding kindred spirits who really speak your language and support you."