Do you remember that feeling of standing alone among groups of people who all seem to know one another except for you? You know there are probably others who don’t know a single person, but it feels like you’re on your own. It’s probably happened several times – maybe as a child, starting kindy. Or as a pre-teen, starting at high school. At a work function, at a cocktail party, at a friend of a friend’s birthday or engagement party.
When I was 13, I changed to a new high school. I knew there would be one girl there I went to primary school with, and I figured she would be my “in”. I found her on my first day and she told me where to meet her and her friends at recess.
All of a sudden, you’re back in the middle of that school yard surrounded by people you don’t know.
When the bell rang, I went to meet her. There was no one there. I started wandering the school, looking for her, wondering if I’d got it wrong. I spotted her and her two friends at the end of a corridor. They saw me, turned and ran. I got the message.
There are other instances after you leave school, other places where you need to meet new people and find new circles – such as university or new jobs.
But there’s a point where you start to think you’re done. You have your network. You have your comfy relationships.
You know which friend to invite to a horror flick. Which friend to turn to for cookie-dough ice-cream and hugs when you get dumped. You know who won’t care if you get blind drunk and swear like a trooper, and which friend would take offence.
They’re your peeps! Your squad. Your crew. Your fam. They were in the bridal party at your wedding and they were among the early arrivals at the hospital when you had your first baby. When it comes to friends, you’re pretty much set up for life.
Then your kids start school. And all of a sudden, you’re back in the middle of that school yard surrounded by people you don’t know.
Some of the mums already know each other. They stand in groups, laughing, chatting. You check your hair – should you have made more of an effort this morning? You’re in your gym gear and worry your leggings are too tight; dressed for work and feel too corporate.
Maybe you barely made it out of your PJs and there’s a toddler clinging to your leg and Vegemite smeared on your T-shirt. You’re terrified you’re not going to fit in.
But there’s something else as well. You’re not sure if you really want to fit in because, well, you’re not sure if you actually want to make any new friends. Because you thought you were finished with the terrifying awkwardness of making them.
And then your five-year-old comes running over, breathless and excited: “I met a girl named Olivia, and she has the same Beanie Boo as me, and she’s my NEW BEST FRIEND!” And you realise two things: first, right now, it’s not really about you.
And second: oh god, why can’t it be as easy as that for grown-ups? “No way! You’re wearing hoop earrings? I’m wearing hoop earrings! Let’s be besties!”
It might seem absurd, but that would be so much simpler. Skip the small talk and decide to be friends.
So for a little while you think that maybe you can just get away with exchanging friendly smiles and polite pleasantries. That maybe you don’t need to start over with someone new – because it feels like such a lot of effort.
Eventually, after a few days of flying solo at the morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups, you get sick of pretending to check important emails on your phone and you want someone to talk to. You need to feel that human connection.
For me? One day, it just happened. Another mum introduced herself. She was inviting my daughter for a play date. She knew a few of the other mums and already had an older daughter there. We started chatting, and it turned out she was my kind of person.
It was almost just as easy as two small children connecting over a shared interest. But for us, the interest was our two small children. That mum introduced me to more mums. Later, someone in the class organised a dinner for the parents to get to know one another.
I met more new people. Two years later, my second daughter started school and this time, I was the one who knew what was going on.
It turned out I had friends that I cared about just as much as my old school friends whom I’d known for more than 20 years. And now it was my turn to offer the brand-new parents a friendly smile and a warm hello. In the end, there’s always room for new friends, there’s always space and there’s always time.
Nicola Moriarty’s new book, The Fifth Letter (HarperCollins Australia), is out now.