Making Friends at 40 (Because We Need Them More Than Ever)

I couldn’t explain how afraid I was of new people and this new place. The fact was, I didn’t know how to make friends and I was terrified.

Making friends at 40 is not easy. In my mid-30s, for the first time in my life, I finally developed real relationships with other women – moms who came over just to sit on my couch and drink coffee while the kids played, friends who didn’t need to clean their home before a visit. Prior to my 30s, I had never had real friends because I didn’t know how to make them. Now, at the age of 40, I am once again confronted with the task of making new friends due to relocation. At least now I finally know how.
Of all the times in my life that I moved, changed schools, left people behind, I never felt the pain of saying goodbye. This last time it hurt. My family and I spent several days saying tearful goodbyes to friends that will never know how much they changed me. Our last night we spent at a music gathering in the town park with my son’s best friend and his family. Our seven-year-old boys ran back and forth across the grassy field for hours while we danced and talked and laid on blankets in the warm June dusk.
Finally, it was time to leave and we slowly walked to our cars together. My son was so wound up in exhilaration from the freedom of unfettered play that I think he forgot this was it. We were leaving the next day. When I prompted him to say goodbye, he gave a quick hug and jumped in the car.
It wasn’t until we pulled away from the curb that it suddenly hit him and he screamed from the back seat, an elongated shriek of pain and recognition that scorched the pit of my stomach.
“Mom! When am I going to see him again,” he cried.
I didn’t know. We were moving so far away from our temporary home on the Oregon Coast, back to the Mid-West for my new job. I had to stifle my own tears as I did when I dropped him off at preschool for the first time.
“We’ll see him again,” was all I could mutter. I turned to face the front and reached my hand back to rub his boney little knee while my husband drove home. Both of us silent. My son sobbing.
He was barely seven and he already knew the pain of having to say goodbye to a true friend. This is something I never experienced until I was 40. As a kid, I inherited playmates. Friends of my older sister, kids from the neighborhood, family acquaintances, classmates. None of them I had to “make.”
In the middle of fifth grade, for the first time in my life, I had to attempt making friends on my own. My parents decided to take me out of the neighborhood school and put me in a magnet school for the arts. I was not consulted or prepared. I would be on my own for the first time in my life. No older sister. No neighborhood kids. Not a single acquaintance.
When my mother picked me up at the end of the first day, she stood at the bottom of the stairs as I filed down with my class. Her giant smile in anticipation of the wonderful day I must have had at this amazing school made me want to barf. I scowled, barked a one word response to her question about my day – “terrible” – and huffed as I shoved past her and out the door.
I couldn’t explain why I had had such a terrible day. I couldn’t explain how afraid I was of new people and this new place. The fact was, I didn’t know how to make friends and I was terrified.
Eventually, classmates introduced themselves, sat with me at lunch, pulled me into groups, but I stayed distant. I always felt that I needed to talk about the exact same movies and music and activities, which I never knew anything about, so, instead, I stayed mostly silent. After a while, I found the aloofness comforting. It somehow kept me safe from my imagined embarrassment of not fitting in.
Only a year and a half later, at the age of 12, I moved to a new state at the whim of my mother, began junior high completely friendless, and stayed that way for the entire year. I still didn’t know how to make friends, and this school was way bigger than anything I had experienced. At over a thousand students, you’d think I’d find a place to fit in. But this suburban mecca in Minnesota was different than my art school in the city of Chicago.
I bought the Girbaud jeans and white Keds, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t fit. I didn’t play sports. I didn’t dance or cheer. I didn’t like boys, yet. My mom would never drive me to the mall or the movies and drop me off to “hang out.” We didn’t even have cable TV.
By eighth grade, I finally found a few girls to sit at lunch with, walk the halls with, stand around at our lockers with. But, by the end of ninth grade, I became an avid stoner and moved onto a new group of kids – ones who listened to the Grateful Dead and wore Birkenstocks before they were trendy. We spent all of our time high. Our friendships only went so deep, and by the end of 11th grade, I moved again. Back to my home state to live with my father for my senior year of high school. At this point, I decided not to bother with friends. I was angry and sad and lost. Friends were the least of my worries.
Throughout college, I shared an apartment with my sister and the only friends I had were actually hers. Sure, I made acquaintances in classes, formed study groups, went out for coffee. But, even in my 20s, I never had friends who came over, called just to check-in, showed up on my doorstep with wine.
Being alone was wearing on me.
Graduate school in a new state led me to my husband. I also met other students who were giddy to talk nerdy-graduate-talk about literature and writing, so I managed to fit in, do the bar scene, and hit the parties. but since graduation I’ve only kept in touch with a small handful of those people through Facebook, which, honestly, isn’t really keeping in touch.
So, well into my 30s, I managed to account for my husband as my only long-lasting, meaningful friendship.
It wasn’t until we had a kid that I finally learned to make friends for the first time in my life. We had relocated to a small town on the Oregon Coast for my husband’s job. Once again, I found myself in a strange place completely friendless, but this time I felt a need to connect with people for the sake of my son. If I had an emergency, I had no one to call that was closer than a five hour plane ride away.
I had to make friends. Being alone no longer made sense. This is what took me out of the house every day. Regular trips to the library story-time, the park, the coffee shop. I’d chat with the other parents. Trade commentary on nap time, potty-training. I’d see the same moms around town, all trying to pass the time with their babies and toddlers.
Eventually, we exchanged numbers, made play dates, and ended up on each other’s couches while the kids played in a separate room. Sometimes we’d drink coffee, sometimes box wine. We’d talk about what to make for dinner, how we were going to make it through the rest of the day without any sleep, books we’d love to read if only we had time.
We’d also tell stories. Stories of how we got to this place in our lives. Stories of who we are. And, for the first time in my life, I understood the importance of friends because I needed them. I needed emergency contact numbers to give to my son’s school. I needed other moms who understood what it means to be tired, really fucking tired. I needed other women who understood that sometimes you just can’t take it anymore but you keep on anyway because that’s what moms do. I’ve never kept in contact with anyone from school, childhood, adolescence, because I never made connections that seemed to matter. These friends I intend to keep. And I intend to make more.
Only three months in our new town I’ve collected three phone numbers. A mom from the neighborhood, another family introduced to us by a workmate, a mom my son and I met at a community activity. I don’t know if any of these women will end up on my couch, drinking coffee and bitching about being tired. But I know that this kind of friendship takes time. And it takes effort. It takes honesty, and listening, and asking questions, and offering up personal information.
Friendship is not guarded or awkward or self-conscious. The friendships I made in my 30s were friendships based on who I am and what I needed. They were based on an understanding that those women also needed support and kindness. Being alone sometimes makes sense, but having true friends is worth the effort.
It’s taken me so long to figure this out. But at least I finally know.