My husband is a rock star human in many ways. He’s a compassionate and attentive dad. He’s a loving and supportive husband. He’s a diligent and hard-working professional. And he’s a loyal and engaged friend.
Except, well, here’s the thing: He doesn’t see his friends much these days. And I worry about him because of that.
As women and mothers, we often extol the virtues of friendships. We sing the praises of girls’ nights out and cheer each other on when we give guilt the middle finger and get away for a weekend with friends. Like every other parent on the planet, I’m busy as hell, and there are days when my life feels like it’s consumed with baseball practice, homework, and breaking up fights over the Xbox. There are literally days when I do not talk to a single person over the age of 10.
Yet, somehow, friendship hasn’t taken a back seat. Sure, communication might happen exclusively through long, running text messages and I miss my faraway friends so much it hurts sometimes, but I still feel connected to them. Because I work from home, I’m able to sneak away for lunch or coffee with a girlfriend from time to time, and because I’m around my kids so much during the week, I don’t think twice about escaping for a mani-pedi with a friend on Saturday afternoon. My social calendar might not be busting at the seams, but I have quality friendships that more than make up for what might be lacking in quantity.
My husband, on the other hand, cannot say the same. He is an outgoing and popular person, with a wide swath of friends — whom he misses in a visceral way. He is a proverbial people-person, who actually enjoys small talk and meeting new people. He has friends scattered near and far, but many of his closest friends are at the far ends of the country. What’s more, because he spends so much time working and parenting and husbanding, there is little time left for the friends closer to home.
My husband is not alone. Forty-year-old dad Billy Baker recently wrote about his very common struggles to maintain friendships in the Boston Globe: “I have a wife and two young boys. I moved to the suburbs a few years ago, where I own a fairly ugly home with white vinyl siding and two aging station wagons with crushed Goldfish crackers serving as floor mats. When I step on a Lego in the middle of the night on my way to the bathroom, I try to tell myself that it’s cute that I’ve turned into a sitcom dad.”
Baker could have been describing our current life station verbatim. Two kids? Check. Fairly ugly home in the suburbs? Check. Smooshed Goldfish crackers and living room filled with Lego minefields? Check and check. (Well, except that we have one minivan instead of two station wagons. Pot-A-to, Pot-AH-to.)
If there is one thing that binds parents these days, it’s this: We’re all busy as hell. We’re all fighting to stay afloat among the work deadlines and soccer games and occasional bout with a stomach virus or a case of the dreaded head lice. And when we’re overscheduled and stretched to the max, the first thing to get pushed to the wayside are friendships.
The rationale is understandable. Our children need us in a way our friends don’t. And because we need a paycheck and don’t want to get divorced, our boss and spouse also warrant our attention. But our friends? Well, they can run on autopilot from time to time. Quite frankly, that’s part of the beauty of friendship.
But while our friends might not need us in the way our children, spouse, or bosses do, we need our friends and we need friendship — not just for our own happiness, but for our physical health as well. In fact, the lonelier and more socially isolated a person is, the more likely they are to die. Science says so. Loneliness has also been linked to an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, one study found that loneliness is as dangerous as smoking.
I know what you’re thinking. That doesn’t matter to me; I’m not old yet. By the time I’m old, I’ll have extra time to spend with friends. Except, well, we are old. Or older than we think. And neglecting friendships now can impact our lives down the road.
The overscheduled, never-enough-time friendship dilemma isn’t unique to men — women are just as likely to suffer the mental and physical effects of loneliness as men — but during these middle years, it can be even harder for men to maintain friendships. Whereas I might connect with my BFF through ongoing text messages or the occasional phone conversation, men typically need a shared activity to build and sustain friendships. Again, science says so.
Unfortunately, those shared activities can be hard when you’re both chasing after toddlers running in different directions or burning the midnight oil in a high-rise office building.
“In the middle years of life, those side-by-side opportunities to get together are exactly the sort of things that fall off,” Baker wrote. “When you have a gap in your schedule, you feel bad running off with the fellas and leaving your partner alone to look for the shoes. And the guys I’d like to spend time with are all locked in the exact same bind as me. Planning anything takes great initiative, and if you have to take initiative every time you see someone, it’s easy to just let it disappear.”
I recently read Baker’s article to my husband during a long car ride and had to stop to choke back tears several times. This is our life, I thought. This is his life, and he deserves more. Like I said, my husband is a kick-ass human being. He is selfless and easygoing, friendly and funny. He is a devoted father and a better husband than I ever thought imaginable (even when I said yes all those years ago). I know that he misses his faraway friends, just like I miss mine, but because he spends most (if not all) of his time tending to work obligations or family responsibilities, there is little room left for his friends on a regular (even occasional) basis.
“You should do this,” I said, after I finished reading. “You should make a standing date with friends or your brother. Join a bowling league or something. Make it a weekly thing. You deserve it. Don’t worry about us. We’ll figure it out.”
He just nodded, either because he agreed or because he knew a weekly man date likely wouldn’t happen. He’s busy as hell, and so are most of his friends. He works long hours and misses his kids enough as it is, and worries about disappointing me if he’s gone another night of the week.
But here’s the thing: I actually don’t mind when my husband goes out with his friends. In fact, I rather enjoy it. He comes home happy, and I can cozy up in bed with a good book or watch some cheesy rom-com without the eye rolls. It’s important for our kids to see their dad spending time with friends too, since it shows them the importance of self-care and friendship. It’s my husband — with his selfless and noble desire to spend his free time with his family — who has the hardest time penciling his friends onto the calendar.
Maybe he just needs a little encouragement. Maybe it’s up to me to gently push him out the door from time to time. Maybe I need to say, “Go!” so that he knows I value his friendships. Maybe we all need to shove our spouses — man or woman — out the door every now and then and encourage them to have some bonding time with their pals. It’s in everyone’s best interest after all. Not only will it keep them healthy, but it gives us one more guilt-free night out with our friends too.