Dear Dr. Rachel, I’m a divorced working mom of an 8-year-old. I often go to school functions or kids’ birthday parties and try to connect with other parents, but somehow I always feel like I’m on the outside of a clique. It feels like the other moms have had more opportunities to spend time together (either at school pick-up or because they can get their kids together more often than I can). Sometimes I wonder if they treat me differently because I’m divorced. It seems to me the world is still conformist to a nuclear family. How can I make inroads to being friends with these moms?
Your question is about feeling judged and left out. In which case, let me normalize your experience as a divorced, working parent: in the U.S. there is no longer a dominant family form.
The prevalence of a nuclear family (defined as a unit of two parents married to each other with one or more of their own biological children) is over and there is growing complexity and diversity among families. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, today less than half of all children (46 percent) are born to a family with two married parents in their first marriage. Among mothers of children under 18, 70 percent participate in the labor force, with approximately three-fourths working full time.
The world is increasingly nonconformist but your local community might still be following a “Leave It to Beaver” model. I gather from your question that many of these moms either do not work outside the home or if they do have much more flexibility with their schedules. You might live in a neighborhood in which the majority of parents are married to their first spouse and there’s a higher percentage of women who can elect to be homemakers (or family managers, home engineers, home economists or whatever term is least likely to offend — this being an example of how sensitive the topic has become).
Unfortunately, women can be disparaging of one another, particularly when it comes to parenting. Judgement over how you parent, whether you are married versus single, work outside the home, or have your children in daycare can spark comparison, competition, criticism and envy (watch the HBO series “Big Little Lies” to see just how vicious it can be). That being said, it’s understandable you want to befriend these women. Feeling connected to community is essential and it takes a village to raise a child.
For all you know these ladies want nothing more than to have you as their bestie. How much effort have you actually put forth in cultivating friendships? Recognize your own subconscious emotional patterns that may be contributing to these perceptions. Are you perceiving judgement from others where it does not exist? If so, this could be your own insecurities getting projected onto them. This is the result of past experiences in which you were left out, felt misunderstood, abandoned or alone. Ask yourself if you have a heightened sensitivity to being included and if so, speak with a counselor to help you feel more securely attached in relationships.
Observe these women and listen to your intuition to feel out who are “your people” — those who are open minded and would be more likely to get you. You need to be willing to initiate more and do the work to increase connection (sure there’s a Catch-22 here, given that being a working parent limits time for socializing, but some things are worth a little extra effort). Organize play dates at your house or better yet organize a mom’s night out. Gather to watch the comedy “Bad Moms” so you can all find humor in some of the more goofy and grim day-to-day moments as a mama!
Slowly and steadily do the work to initiate conversations and activities together. Give yourself credit for trying, and remember it takes time to build friendships. Be patient and be open, with yourself and others. Beyond that, let go and surrender. Know that you cannot be buddies with everyone. Say “screw it” to the heteronormative model as the only way and embrace your own complicated, beautiful, authentic life.
Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.