An old friend I haven't seen in months called me recently. Even though she lives in another state, when we do connect, the affection is instantaneous and familiar. The time and space melt away. After catching up for a few minutes, she said hesitantly, "I actually called to get some advice about a social issue."
I switched into professional mode, asking, "Is one of the kids having a hard time with his friends?"
There was a silence -- long enough that I wondered if the connection had been lost. Then I realized my friend was sobbing so hard she couldn't speak. I waited, and finally she choked out, "It's not the kids. It's me."
It turned out that my friend, let's call her Fiona, was feeling rejected. When her oldest son had been in preschool, she developed a tight group of mom friends. The moms often went jogging or biking together for the couple hours each morning when the kids were in nursery school; sometimes, they met up for lunch or for afternoon play dates. Several times a month, the moms went out for Girls Night Out evenings without the kids.
For about two years, life was idyllic, (well, except for the craziness of dealing with small children). And then kindergarten started; the kids all went to different schools, and within several months, the regular interactions with the mom group had ended.
Some of Fiona's friends went back to work full-time, eliminating their chances to do regular jogging-and-coffee dates. Three of the moms had new babies, and they stayed together and turned into their own supertight minigroup. A few others grouped off as well, supporting each other as they returned to teaching jobs. Fiona had neither a new baby nor a new job, and she made every effort to keep hanging out with the scattered playgroup (she did have a younger son, but he was not a baby).
But they stopped calling her. When she saw them, conversations became awkward and uncomfortable. Let me clarify, this is NOT like when you see a friend who you haven't seen in awhile, but you are both mutually thrilled to run into each other, and you gab a million miles a minute and blow kisses and promise to get together but don't simply because you are too busy. That is not what Fiona is talking about.
Fiona is in pain because she notes a true imbalance of affection. Whereas SHE would love to still be a regular part of the group, THEY are politely disinterested in her. This is super tricky. The other moms have sort of voted her off the island, but not entirely. It's more like Fiona went for a swim and no one went searching for her. The mom group has reformed and moved on, and she is not in it. She wants to be in it.
What to do?
Really, the response is no different than what I would advise a kid in the same situation. Surround yourself with the people who want to be with you. If you are the one chasing, and the group is running away, it is time to get a new group. The moms in this case are not bullying Fiona, at least not at this point. Rather, they simply are no longer that interested in her. It sucks SO MUCH. It hurts SO MUCH. And yet, there is little Fiona can do to make them want to be with her if they do not want to be with her. Relationships will always be at the level of the least involved person, which is hard to accept when you are the more involved person.
Let me clarify -- it is not bullying if someone simply chooses not to hang out with you. There is no doubt that it feels awful, but it is part of the natural ebb and flow of social cliques.
The situation would indeed be labeled as bullying, however, if the moms in the group were actively seeking to hurt Fiona. For example, if the other moms were spreading gossip about Fiona, writing cruel things on her Facebook wall, explicitly letting her know that she was not invited to group events or refusing to speak to her when they ran into her, then this would be a bullying situation. And believe me, there are plenty mom groups where this happens, and it is terrible.
Whether a group has simply reshaped without you, or whether there is actual mom bullying involved, there are ways to make yourself feel better:
1. Remind yourself that you get to choose your friends and you do not just have to wait to be chosen.
2. Start to get involved with the parents in your new circle, either by volunteering when possible at your child's school or by attending evening school events.
3. Stop stalking the old friends, because if you are looking for evidence that they are still hanging out, you WILL find it, and it will only make you feel sad. If you are on Facebook, take the chance to write on the wall of a new acquaintance instead of looking to see what the old friends are doing without you.
4. Cognitively reframe the situation. Instead of telling yourself, "They rejected me because there is something wrong with me," try telling yourself, "External factors contributed to the initial growing apart, and sometimes people simply decide to place their time and affection with different friends." The better you are at reaching out and forming new friendships when the old ones wilt, the more equipped you will be to help your kids when this inevitably happens to them.
5. Take up a healthy new group class as a way to make new friends; for example, yoga, running clubs, cooking classes, pottery, painting, zumba, nia, boot camps, etc.
6. Stay offline for a few days or even a few weeks, in order to give yourself a break from the pain of seeing other people's social lives.
7. Start a journal and write down your progress, including each positive new step you take and each new friend or acquaintance you make.
8. Seek professional help if your unhappiness persists or interferes with your ability to function, and reassure yourself that it is OK to have feelings of sadness when experiencing friendship breakups. Just as with romantic breakups, there is a normal grieving period that occurs when a friendship shifts.
9. Remind yourself that you are worthy and important. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good!
Check out Carrie Goldman's new book: Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.