If summer was the easing-back-into-socializing phase, September is when things officially get real. Will regrouping with our friends be awkward? Are some rifts beyond repair? Perhaps this can be the start of deeper, more fulfilling bonds.

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moms with children having coffee
Credit: Illustration by Kristen Solecki

Moving is never fun, but Shefali Shah and her family suddenly had to relocate early in the pandemic because of her husband's job. The actual move happened so fast—one minute she was in Illinois, and the next she was in Maryland—that many friends who missed her Facebook post didn't even know it had occurred. Newly settled in Baltimore, she found herself without a friend circle ... or a friend, period. She wasn't able to meet anyone, and when she did, she didn't feel comfortable talking about safety protocols. "It's such an awkward conversation to have with someone you don't know at all," she says.

You may not have relocated during the lockdown, but perhaps you, too, felt stranded during social distancing, pulled apart physically and emotionally from your go-to support squad. When we lost our literal face time together—playground chats, workout dates, and shared book-fair shifts—we lost a lot. 

And yet even as we are letting go of our masks, mom friendships are a pandemic casualty that still hasn't been talked about much—in part because we've all been so burned out. "Tired AF and not able to handle one more thing" is how Trisha Pierson Kelly describes it. Teaching kindergarten over Zoom and remote schooling her two daughters last year had left the Montclair, New Jersey, mom with zero energy to put into her friendships. "But not having the time to laugh or vent with my mom friends made everything harder." 

It makes sense that we're excited to spend time with our wider social circle—and yet we may also be kind of dreading it. A survey in March 2021 by the American Psychological Association found that about half of Americans were nervous about resuming normal life. We're going through "reentry anxiety," says therapist Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., who works with moms and children in San Francisco. "After a year of having limited contact, and largely via screens, we're feeling justifiably weird as we're expected to show up in person and navigate a new way of relating that now feels out of our comfort zone." 

woman alone on zoom call drinking wine
Credit: Illustration by Kristen Solecki

Social Lives in Limbo

While video hangouts helped, they were no match for the real thing. "Virtual happy hours didn't replace grabbing coffee together or going to Target and laughing as we added another thing we didn't need to our carts," says Bryana Dunn, a blogger with two daughters, ages 10 and 3, in Jacksonville, Florida. "Reading someone's status on social media wasn't communicating. It just made me realize how much we missed each other." 

There's science to back that up. "Friendships are extremely important for a mother's mental health," says Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., cofounder and chief research officer at Authentic Connections and professor emerita at Columbia University Teachers College. Such ties can protect our emotional state even more than marriage does, according to a study Dr. Luthar published in Developmental Psychology. Close friends often influence your resilience most because they make you feel, as she puts it, "psychologically safe and seen and loved for the person you are at your core." Spending time with more casual "school mom" friends matters, too, as comparing parenting notes reassures you that the process of motherhood isn't easy for anyone, Dr. Kaiser says. 

Adding to this year's general sense of disconnect, some of our friends may have no clue of what we've gone through. Jacqueline Sanchez, an Omaha mom of two, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Mother's Day weekend in 2020, had to quarantine from her kids, ages 7 and 4, and then became the sole breadwinner when her husband was abruptly furloughed. It was a lot, but she didn't confide in even her closest friends until months later. "COVID was still pretty new and there were a lot of unknowns, so I didn't want to scare anyone," she says. When she finally told people, some moms in her social circle made dismissive comments like, "It was probably a false positive." She ended up reconnecting virtually with old college classmates, who were more understanding about what she'd experienced.

Leaning Into Authenticity

It's also possible we've been too busy fuming to be Zooming. Without a forum for face-to-face conversation, our social media parenting groups and school email lists have seen a run of blowups. ("What was she thinking sending her son to hockey after her daughter tested positive?" "She went to Aruba and posted poolside pics?") Even those of us who'd normally never post from the hip have found ourselves rage typing or texting at 1 a.m. 

This was a sign of how much we've been through, Dr. Luthar explains. "Our anxiety, fear, and grief escalated all year, and that could come out as impatience and anger." Differences we might have rolled with in the past pushed our buttons instead. And they often weren't disagreements over minor issues like the best age to send a kid to summer camp or start piano; they were about our family's safety or racial justice.

During the stress of the past year, however, some friendships have managed to grow stronger and more open. "There's been a thinning in the number of connections that people have maintained, but a deepening in those connections," says Dr. Kaiser, herself a mom of two kids, ages 5 and 2. "I think a lot of that came from moms not having the energy to pretend that life is perfect anymore or to put effort into friendships that weren't meaningful or supportive." 

Dunn found that this period crystallized who her true friends were and which qualities mattered. "Empathy and dependability, but also, as a Black mom, I value sincere allyship more than ever," she says. Indeed, many of us are now putting our entire lives through a truth filter, Dr. Kaiser says. "The silver lining of the pandemic is that it is an opportunity to reset and restructure what your social life looks like." 

Expect Awkward Moments

As school restarts and we're running into our wider circle, we may have to find our new comfort zone. Doesn't this, deep down, feel a little like the first day of seventh grade? You're back from summer, and you have no idea whether your friends will want to talk anymore. Or it's like that first day back from maternity leave, when you worry that the lunch alliances shifted and you'll be left to eat your salad alone. 

Even though Dr. Kaiser's job involves helping people get over anxiety, she admits that she felt strange herself this spring when she went to a backyard gathering and realized it was the first time she'd been out after dark in 14 months. "I was like, 'This feels weird—I have no more small talk in me!'" If you aren't quite ready to, say, join karaoke night with the preschool moms, Kat Vellos, author of We Should Get Together, suggests saying something like, "Hey, I'm still getting my sea legs back when it comes to socializing. It's so good to see your faces, and once I'm back up to speed, I'd love to hang out more."

Shah—who has finally been able to meet people in her new hometown—became a fan of putting it all out there. "I was comfortable sharing that I was vaccinated as a way to find out if the other mom was too," she says. That made it easier to suggest meeting up for coffee. After a long, lonely stretch, she's been finding her new crew.

The simple act of putting on a nice outfit to go to an event can still feel like a herculean effort after a year-plus of wearing sweatpants and no makeup. It's helpful to remember that your good friends couldn't care less if your eyeliner game is off and you've put on a few pounds. And if you go in for a hug at Back-to-School Night and the other mom backs away? Ellen Vora, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City, suggests laughing at yourself, with a line like, "Oof, looks like I forgot how to 'people!'" But running into mom friends after not seeing them for so many months may also feel surreal—in a wonderful way, Dunn says. "You don't know what to do first! Should we hug, laugh, cry—or do all three?" 

So You Want to Keep Your Social Circle Small …

Perhaps you relate a little too much to the "Fully vaccinated; going to start over with new people" memes. No worries. It's healthy to want to use this transition as a reset, Dr. Nina Kaiser says. It all comes down to asking yourself: Who and what makes me happy? Here are a few ways to keep boundaries in place and decide which interactions you genuinely want.

Have a ready comeback

When you get a call or a text from a casual friend you'd rather cut loose, Dr. Kaiser suggests saying, "We're actually still easing back into socializing. Thanks for asking, but I'm going to say no for now." Don't feel obligated to make an excuse or overexplain, she adds, because "no is a complete answer, in and of itself." You might have to do this multiple times, but sooner or later, most people will get the message.

Tweak your script for vague invites

While it's much easier to decline an invitation for a specific time and date, you can also get out of those "Let's have coffee sometime" ones. Dr. Kaiser's advice: Go with a noncommittal "I've got a lot going on at the moment, but I appreciate the invitation."

Skip the big parties

If you're an introvert and not into large events, own it. "You can feel emboldened to say to yourself, 'You know what? No, not going, that's not my true yes,'" Dr. Ellen Vora says. If there's an event you'd feel bad about missing (like a good friend's birthday), "do an hour and go home," Dr. Kaiser says. No big goodbyes needed.

See them on the side

If you don't love a few moms in the book club/soccer moms group/PTA committee, it's perfectly fine to permanently bail on the big drinks things and meet up with your one or two favorites.

Say yes to the good stuff

The whole point of not overextending yourself with social obligations is that it frees you up for what you'd rather be doing. "This is a perfect time to think with intention about which social interactions genuinely bring you joy or offer some other benefit that's valuable to you," Dr. Kaiser says.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2021 issue as "Mom Friends Make Their Comeback." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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