Thursday, April 12, 2012

Friends with kids: Lessons we've learned

I feel like making friends as an early career academic is like trying to set down roots as a very educated tumble weed. This is part two of my thoughts on making friends while having a child, an unsolved 2 body problem, and a career that asks me to move across and between countries every few years. Comments and experiences from other educated tumbleweeds are very welcome.

Last time I tried to describe how the people we felt comfortable associating with had changed drastically pre and post Epsilon. Before his birth, we hung out with other graduate students, post docs and young professionals. We didn't see much of our neighbors. We met people by playing sports or participating in religious/cultural activities, and built friendships by inviting people over for dinner or games or drinks.

Now we choose housing by which neighborhoods have lots of children, and hang out with our neighbors as toddlers and preschoolers play in a lawn. We meet parents at parks and religious/cultural activities, and arrange play dates. Our favorite time to have people over is breakfast or lunch. Philosophical discussions over dinner mostly concern why the engine on the plastic train is not running.

We've muddled through these last few years for better or for worse. But we get a fresh start come September, and my partner and I have been trying to take lessions from the last 2.5 years.

The first notable point is that we have less time and energy to devote to making friends than we did before. In fact, our energy levels have dropped to the point where it is hard to try something new, or try again after something didn't work. We've settled into a pattern where we try to do something fun every weekend, to cut the boredom of having the same three conversations with Epsilon every Saturday and Sunday. That has helped, but it hasn't fixed our loneliness. This is something to change next year.

The second point is that ideal current friend pool, the intersection between interesting people, interesting professionals, and parents is not as large as it may first appear. Some academics with kids are unfortunately academics who are married to a parent. Conversely, the family events organized by the campus women's group are largely populated by stay at home mother married to academics. Similarly, mothers I meet in other settings are often not devoted to a career. I have nothing against mothers who take time off for their children. It is a choice I could never make. However, since so much of what I love about life is my science, I have a hard time bonding with a person who doesn't understand having a passion for one's career. At a time when my 2 body problem consumes so much of my life, it is hard to make such friends empathize with or even understand the decision to repeatedly tear our family apart.

This is not to say that I have found no meaningful relationships in this intersection. Rather, if I had known the probability distributions of who I may encounter in which setting, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and heartbreak early on.

Third, as lunch is now one of my favorite times to meet people, I should take advantage of the fact that lunch is a convenient time to socialize with people on campus. There was one year when I (and my partner when he was aroud) managed to schedule weekly lunches with a grad student from a different department. We all looked forward to those meetings. She has since moved on, and I haven't found a replacement engagement. That is a mistake I should not wait until September to mend.

Finally, as much as I lament having to leave old friends behind, or have friends move away, I have learned in the past few months how much a few regular (daily/weekly) e-mails or phone calls to people in distant cities can do to revive the embers of friendship, and to make me feel connected to people I may see less than once a year. Before I started this blog, I tried mass e-mails to friends on a roughly monthly basis to no avail. More frequent, specific e-mails to specific people, while a lot more work, has paid off for me in an amazing way.

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