Since Christmas, I’ve had a few emails from readers about loneliness. When I get a number of emails on a particular topic I take it seriously because I know that for each woman that speaks out, there will be others in the same situation. There is one reader that I’ve been talking to who I am especially worried about. I have helped her as much as I can and she has asked me to raise loneliness as a topic on Midlifechic to see if you have any more ideas. I’ve promised not to reveal her identity, so I’m going to call her Anna.
She has two teenage children and a husband who works away for most of the week. A year ago they took the decision as a family to move away from London to a semi-rural location. Her children have adapted well to their new school but Anna doesn’t work and although she has tried to get to know her neighbours and people in the village, she has found it impossible to make new friends locally.
Neither I nor Anna think her situation is unique. Loneliness is a topical issue at the moment and it is being brought to the forefront by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. If you are an overseas reader you might not be familiar with Jo Cox. She was a young British MP who was murdered outside her office last year in what can only be called a hate crime. She left behind her husband and two young children. Prior to her death she was trying to establish a cross party group of MPs to work on loneliness and now her family want to carry on with her work, in her name.
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the launch of the Jo Cox Commission in January. It explained about the particular groups that had been identified as being at risk of loneliness: the elderly and women with small children were two. It was then followed by a ‘phone in’ and the thing that struck me was the number of calls from midlife women. Their message was that nobody realises they are lonely because they are surrounded by family – husbands, teenage children, elderly parents – and yet they were saying that they often go for days without a meaningful conversation. I think we can probably all identify with that on some level.
So that programme, the emails I have received and particularly Anna have all been on my mind. Today I want to tackle the whole issue of loneliness and the midlife woman – and open up the question of how to make new friends at this stage of our lives.
Is our generation lonelier than our mothers’?
It was probably easier for our mothers’ generation to make new friends because this was often the time that they became deeply involved with their church which gave them meaning and companionship with other women of a similar age. There were also established groups such as the WI, the Mothers’ Union or the Townswomen’s Guild which is the one my mum used to go to. For various reasons, these associations seem to be on the wane and just don’t factor in for a lot of today’s midlife women.
Our families are also more nuclear. The more educated we are, the more we seem to move around and lose the extended network of people we can count on. This has really struck me as I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do for my 50th birthday. I have collected lots of friends throughout my life but because I’ve moved a lot, they’re all over the world and I doubt I could ever get them all together in one place. Plus they’re such an eclectic bunch that if I did, I know they would end up in small cliques – so it wouldn’t be the mingling I imagine.
Why are midlife women in particular feeling lonely?
It’s partly because we all have our hands so full and spend our days being busy. You would think that being self-employed, I would be perfectly in control of my time but every single week, I cancel something I have been looking forward to – meeting friends for coffee or a walk with the dogs. My deadlines drive me and it’s often hard for friends and family to understand.
In midlife, our children are often growing away emotionally and yet they still need us around. I spend a lot of time just being ‘on hand’ for lifts or help with coursework. It’s important and sometimes it’s an opportunity to build a bond but at other times I feel like the proverbial bottle washer.
We no longer have the daily playground interaction with other women our age which often threw up the random opportunity for a conversation with someone new or a coffee after drop off. There isn’t an obvious place where midlife women gather and wait with time on their hands.
And finally, as has happened with Anna, midlife women often upsize – or downsize – and relocate, losing their easy contact with friends that they have built up over the years. I certainly empathise with the difficulties of moving from an urban to a rural community.
How do you make new friends in midlife?
This is the question that I want you to help Anna with. It is a dilemma I faced when we left London and moved here. I thought it would be easy, I had grown up in a neighbouring village and understood local ways. Despite that, the fact that I had lived in London for 15 years meant I was still viewed as an ‘offcomer.’ I was saved by the fact that our boys went to the village primary school and so I gradually made friends with the small group of other ‘offcomers’ and I still have two close friends and other buddies from those days. However the friends that I really have a meeting of minds with are mostly down South and we don’t manage to get together very often.
For me, Midlifechic helps. I chat to all of you about whatever is on my mind and happily lots of you respond, I see you as friends. In fact I was muttering to you all in my head when I went to the pop up bar in the village a couple of weeks ago. One friend was discussing some health issues she was having and I gently suggested that it might be menopause related. She and the other friend I was with roundly bit my head off and refused to entertain the idea that they could be menopausal. They didn’t want to discuss it any further. They are 49 and 52!
The point I am making here is that for me, my blog, which began as a hobby, has brought me new midlife friends from all over the world. One thing I would encourage anyone who is feeling lonely to do is to think not only about local friendships, but virtual ones too.
You see my blog has also brought me my blogger friends in the Over40Collective (O40Co). As you know, on one level we work together to raise the profile of bloggers over 40 amongst brands and this week we’re launching our website and taking it on a stage further. Even though we have only met three times, we have forged a strong and loyal bond.
I’ve learned that the thing to bear in mind about making new friends in midlife is that the relationship won’t be the same as longstanding friendships with whom you have shared history. You’re learning someone’s story from the midpoint and so you don’t have that accrual of understanding. You have to work much harder at it, particularly if it’s based mostly on online chat.
The trouble with online relationships is that they’re harder to gauge. You don’t have the affinity that you get from a face to face conversation. I am particularly sensitive to the nuances of the written word and most days, someone in the O40Co says something that makes me stop, blink and hold my breath. However I usually find that if I rewind and read what they have said in their voice it isn’t so bad. Often it’s something as simple as a misalignment between the “say it as I see it” attitude of the new worlders versus the innate diplomacy of the born and bred Brits.
What I’m trying to get across is that if you want to make new friends in midlife you have to be prepared to work at it. With the advance of online communities there are more opportunities than ever before. However it takes time and determination to smooth the edges and get a friendship flowing in an easy, instinctive way.
I’ve known the O40Co ladies for a year now and in that time we’ve had a lot of laughs but also some big bust ups – we’re a group of strong minded women so I suppose that is bound to happen. However we’ve applied our midlife skills to the problems and worked them out.
I mentioned my nightmare Storm Doris train journey in my last post. What I didn’t tell you was that I was quite literally living one of my recurring nightmares which always plays on the theme of someone I love needing me but me not being able to get back to them.
As I was stuck on the coach in gridlocked traffic going nowhere for nine hours, someone I love was awaiting a serious outcome. There was nothing I could do to influence the result but the news was either going to be good or bad. As optimists, we had banked on it being good and decided that I would go about my day as planned.
As it turned out, when I heard the ping on my mobile telling me the result was in, the news was bad. I was trapped. There was absolutely nothing I could do, even a phone conversation would have been difficult on a silent coach filled with fuming people. I felt utterly powerless.
However, as always, all six of the Over 40 Collective were there on WhatsApp and they empathised, rationalised and cheered me on throughout the journey. Female friendships are such a life-enhancing thing that I think it’s important for us, as midlife women, to carry the thought that women we know or meet might be lonely.
How we can all help
I really like what the Jo Cox Commission is trying to do. The first thing they are asking is for people to pledge to ‘start a conversation.’ It really isn’t a big thing but a conversation can make such a difference to someone’s day – and yours too. I ended up chatting to an old lady in the village shop today when I was buying chocolate. She looked at it disapprovingly and asked me if I’d been breastfed (which I was). Her view was that breastfeeding gives you a sweet tooth and she told me that most of the world’s problems lie with these ‘modern fads.’ It confused me on so many levels that I wasn’t sure how to respond but it’s made me think, and smile, all afternoon.
It seems a shame that despite the wide media coverage in January, only 615 pledges have been made to start a conversation so I’m wondering whether as ‘Midlifechicers’ we could boost the numbers. It’s a small thing we can do to help fulfil another woman’s legacy. You can also go further and volunteer your friendship on the site. It may be that it will help some people to find a way to combat their own loneliness and somebody else’s at the same time.
I don’t think that it is unusual to feel lonely in midlife but I am particularly concerned about Anna. She says she has lost hope and so I have my fingers crossed that you will be kind enough to share some of your experiences and perhaps some further ideas on how midlife women can find new friends. I know I’m behind in replying to your comments but please stick with me, this post is important and I will jump on to them quickly.