You get a lot of advice when you become a parent. Most of it involves poop. But seldom are you warned that you’re about to become a friendless shell of your former self.
OK, that’s extreme. But new parents spend the first six months or so in a state of perpetual, sleepless shellshock. After the old friend crew does the required meal-train drop-off, things can shift. After months of ignoring RSVP requests, your childless buddies move on and keep doing their thing without you. That’s no knock on them—not everyone gets honorary aunt or uncle status.
But when you finally shake off the post-birth catatonia and somnambulistic survivalism, you’ll realize it’s time to make new friends. That is, friends with kids. And most of the time, parents don’t get to pick those friends—their kids do.
But there’s hope. Yes, by the time your kid is ready to socialize, you’re going to be socially awkward from the isolation and exhaustion, but so is everybody else rocking a Baby Björn. Some will be casual acquaintances. Others will emerge as co-families—they’ll be the ones at sleepovers, potential vacations and countless playdates.
That makes it essential to at least try to get close with some parents. Here’s how to make it work.
Stake out your territory.
There are a lot of places you’re likely to encounter other parents of similarly aged kids. Many will tell you that pickup and drop-off at day care is the best place to find adults who are DTF—down to friend. But the chaos of morning hustle and evening chaos means you’ll be harried ships passing in a Crayola-hued night.
The better bet is to keep it close to home. Take the kid to the same park or kid-friendly cafe near home—or, if they’re in day care, near the school. Kids love routine, and you’ll start seeing the same faces. If you keep it in the neighborhood, you’re likely to find friends who live nearby. Mississippi Pizza (3552 N Mississippi Ave., mississippipizza.com), for example, has regular kid-friendly concerts, so you can start making small talk with likely neighbor friends you see every Wednesday as the tots spazz to kindie rock. Regardless of location, keep it neutral in the early going and start remembering faces and names.
Welcome back to junior high, midlife-crisis edition. Starting a conversation with, “How old is your little one?” is great and all, but that doesn’t get into shared interests. Try wearing a shirt of a favorite band or sports team or brewery. If you’re into, say, sewing—you’re in Portland, so of course you are—having a couple needles popping out of your back pocket will ignite conversation. Come straight from yoga with a mat in tow. Step in peacocking, and like-minded people desperate to find common ground will immediately flock to you.
Meet up outside your mutual haunts.
Time to get some prescribed one-on-one time outside of the normal meeting place, preferably one where adults can actually talk. Places like Smartypants and Playdate allow kids to go a little wild, but expect conversations to be interrupted when you have to remove scissors from a kid’s mouth or go crawling through a playscape to retrieve a screaming child.
Better bets are ultra-kid-friendly spots like North Mississippi’s Poa Cafe (4025 N Williams Ave., poacafe.com), which has drinks, pastries and a play area. Kid-friendly breweries or restaurants like Laughing Planet, where feral children thrive, are also good choices. Give yourself a hard out for an end time, just in case you find out the other parent kind of sucks.
Initiate a playdate at home.
You’ve done the park date. You’ve exchanged numbers. You’ve probably stalked Instagram to make sure you’re not befriending somebody who spends weekends holed up in a shack in the woods writing technophobic manifestos. Time to invite them over. Make sure there’s enough stuff for the kids to do—secure Goldfish and organic juice boxes, but make sure to ask if that’s cool, since it’s Portland in 2019. Then just let the kids do their thing while you actually get to talk in a natural environment. Provide wine, coffee or tea. Kids love playing with other kids’ toys, so you should be set to actually engage in real conversations. It’s going to be awkward, but you’re in your sanctuary. More importantly, you’re one step closer to making the ultimate power move…
Kick it without the kids.
It’s impossible to overstate how hard it is to make this move. It’s like asking for a date. If the invitation is accepted, expect for plans to flit in and out of the calendar, because stuff always comes up, be it a sick kid, lack of a baby sitter or the fact that this person is also likely to be socially awkward from living in a very loud echo chamber where “Baby Shark” plays on repeat and everything smells like spoiled milk.
Eventually, it will happen. Find a place that caters to the interests you’ve both established. Everybody needs to eat, but if they drink, a bar is a great move. If they don’t, coffee or some sort of shared experience is key, like a bike ride or a museum. During this encounter, let your guard down. Talk like a grown-up. Share stories. Minimize kid talk. Get weird, if that’s your thing. Put yourself out there. Doing so will help you bridge the gap between acquaintance and potential bestie. Remember to have a contingency plan in case it’s a disaster. But be willing keep going if you find yourselves connecting over a shared love of Jell-O shots, Nic Cage movies, or the joy of fleeting childlessness.
Know when to walk away, and when to compromise.
There’s a strong likelihood you’re going to be forced to interact with this person regularly, especially if it’s a school or day care acquaintance. But it’s also time to establish deal breakers and compromises for extracurricular friendship. Kids don’t give a shit about politics, religion or status. Maybe you do—or maybe the friend-in-waiting really does. If the person constantly yammers on about making anything great again, or the socialist agenda of DuckTales, it’s unlikely you’re going camping together. But maybe some light cross-aisle banter is acceptable. Maybe they like terrible music, but you can deal with it because you’re still stuck listening to goddamn “Let It Go” on repeat together. Perhaps they’re anti-vaccination, in which case you can find common ground in…actually, maybe ask that one before you invite them over.
Point is, we’ve all got deal breakers. You don’t want to steer your child away from a friendship just because you found out that Other Dad is super into Ed Sheeran, but you also don’t want to keep showing up at somebody’s house who loves to show off their highly specific World War II memorabilia. Know when to walk away, and let the kids stay friends at school or the park. You can always restart these steps with the next suitor. And who knows, your next family trip might be with your new best friends/built-in baby sitters/surrogate families. The hardest part is trying. And asking about vaccinations.