In 2012, after 13 years of marriage and several cross-country moves, I became a solo parent to a toddler and kindergartner in a city where we had few friends and little family. Months earlier, our family had moved to my husband’s hometown: Missoula, Mont. Then we divorced, and the kids’ dad moved states away. The kids and I had no other home to which to go home, so we stayed in Missoula.
That January, we got snowed in for seven days. School was closed, and I couldn’t get the station wagon out of the driveway, no matter how much snow I shoveled. We used the convenience store across the street for necessities: milk, eggs, human contact in the form of hello and thank you and goodbye. I worked remotely during naps, and when the kids woke up, we played with Legos and Play-Doh for hours. “Dora the Explorer” became the score to my despair. I cried while cooking dinner. I cried going to bed. I cried before I opened my eyes in the morning. By the end of that week-long stretch, I knew I had to do everything in my power to build a support network for myself, and my kids. We would not survive living like castaways on a desert island.
I had dear friends from all stages of my life, spread out around the country. My ex’s family lived in town, too. But the thing I did not predict about divorce is something I’d experienced a decade before when my only sibling killed himself: People shy away from grief, especially if the loss triggers their own fears. Even people who are anchored in communities often find that friends and family fall away as they transition into single-parenthood, as if this new, solo stage of life is a threat to others. This is why single parents fall off invite lists, finding themselves most alone when they have the deepest need for support.
As the snow receded and spring approached, I forced myself to step out of my introvert shell. The kids’ dad had always been the social one in our relationship. Making friends was not something I’d practiced. In fact, putting myself out there made me deeply uncomfortable. But I needed friends who didn’t view my life circumstances as a contagious disease. I already feared my new solo-parent status enough on my own.
I approached making friends the same way some newly single people tackle dating: I started taking names and numbers. I made small talk at playgrounds. I scanned the library event calendar, and we became regulars at story time and Lego club. If I noticed a parent nearby, reading as our kids played, I’d use the book as a conversation starter. I paid attention at day-care pickup, listening to the names of the kids my kids talked about so I could find out who their parents were and invite them over for a play date, despite the weeds in our yard and the grime on our baseboards. I met my friend Sarah by commenting on her beaded turquoise necklace. Six years later, we’re best friends with a history we can trace to our sons’ first visit to Lego club.
Not all introductions turned into friendships, but those that did were all we really needed: a handful of regulars we could invite over, who would invite us back. The moms to whom I grew close were people I could turn to and say, “I’m having a hard time.” Getting those words out provided immediate relief. The phrases that came back to me — “of course,” and “I’m sorry,” and “me too” — lifted more weight off my shoulder than I realized I’d been carrying. The cure for isolation is community, and I accepted every bit of kindness that came our way. Our unit of three slowly became part of a tribe of others whose lives had not turned out the way they’d expected. These were people I could call in case of emergency, people who knew our names and habits and likes and dislikes. People who got our jokes, noticed if we didn’t show up to school, and met our heartbreak with open arms. People who could look me in the eye and say, “You’re doing great,” and “Life won’t always be this hard.”
Earlier this year, we hosted our first party — something that would have overwhelmed me in those early days of divorce when I was too shattered and spent to make it to the grocery store on a regular basis. During the party, I watched a new, full-time step-mom talk to the mom of a kid who goes to school with my daughter. I watched two solo moms who’d never met laugh about the absurdity of small-town online dating. I talked with a dear friend who hasn’t yet told the world that she is in the process of becoming a single mom, a friend for whom my life serves as a template for what comes next. I could see the relief in her body as her shoulders relaxed while she chatted with others. Others like her, like me, like us.
My son is now in middle school, my daughter in third grade, and they both have friends they’ve known since preschool. The acute heartbreak of divorce has passed, and I wake up most days unable to imagine another version of our lives. We are no longer castaways, but members of a tribe who are able to welcome and help others. Because that’s what community does. We pay attention. We listen. We ask for help when we need it, and we pick each other up when we can.