The past 11 months have been relentless for Mariclaire, a 38-year-old mom of two who works as a private school teacher. Early in the pandemic, when her children’s day care and school suddenly closed, she and her husband struggled to find any kind of manageable routine. There was, as she put it, “a lot of drowning.”
Since then, things have eased up slightly. Mariclaire’s older child goes to school in person part-time and her younger child is in day care. Mariclaire is back to teaching full-time in the classroom. But any time she once had for herself has evaporated. And any time she had for relationships outside of her children and husband dried up, too.
“It’s not that I don’t have friends, but my friendships are so different now,” said Mariclaire, who asked to only use her first name so she could discuss pressures she felt related to work. “We’re all struggling. None of us have enough time. For me, my downtime is 9 at night.”
Before COVID-19 hit, Mariclaire saw or spoke to her closest friend daily.
“I can probably count on one hand how many times we’ve talked on the phone in the past handful of months,” she said. “We’re just exhausted.”
Mariclaire is hardly alone in being too tired to maintain her friendships right now. The pandemic has been universally taxing on parents, but various studies and surveys show it has been particularly hard on moms. They are, for example, 30% more likely than fathers to be experiencing burnout and have tended to take on a greater share of the housework and remote education duties.
And for many stressed-out moms, one of the first things to fall by the wayside over the past year has been their friendships — at a time when women are in desperate need of that emotional lifeline.
The pandemic has erased certain types of friendships.
The pandemic has not only limited everyone’s ability to see anyone outside their household or “pod” while also placing unprecedented demands on mothers’ time; it has effectively erased certain categories of friendship.
“A lot of people have struggled with those looser ties they have — the once-a-month lunch friends,” explained Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. “Similarly, the friendships you rely on to do things together — that sort of companionate friendship — is very hard to keep alive right now.”
Indeed, studies suggest that people’s social networks have shrunk considerably during the pandemic (though some have found their close friendships have become stronger).
Losing casual friendships might not sound all that bad. But Franco said it can take a subtle toll.
“When we’re around different people, the parts of ourselves that overlap with them come out. So each different tie that we have makes us know and feel ourselves more deeply, and feel more rich and full as people,” she explained. “So it sort of feels like parts of ourselves are shriveling up.”
There is a practical consequence of losing more casual relationships as well.
“Loose ties are known for giving us access to new information and resources,” Franco said.
Roughly 25% of Americans say they or someone in their household lost a job during the pandemic, and women — particularly mothers of young children — have been slammed hard. Reentering the workforce after stopping to take care of children is hard enough for mothers, even under the best circumstances. So the dissolution of casual friendships and acquaintances could have really serious consequences for women’s long-term career prospects, as well as their ability to support their families financially.
The good news? Super simple actions really, truly can help.
Of course, the last thing tired, overburdened moms need right now is another perceived shortcoming or line on their to-do list. But really small, simple steps can make a difference.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to reach out if you know how to do it in a meaningful way,” Franco said.
“Even if you only have time to text your good friend once a month while you hide from your children in the bathroom, that can be more than enough if the message is 'meaningful' and 'substantive.' Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.”
When you do have time to reach out to friends, tell them you love them and miss them, Franco urged. Even if you only have time to text your good friend once a month while you hide from your children in the bathroom, that can be more than enough if the message is “meaningful” and “substantive.” Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
Franco suggested sending a message saying something like: “I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t been reaching out more because I know you need a friend right now. It’s not because I don’t want to. I’ve just been feeling so overwhelmed with caring for children in this pandemic, but just wanted to check in and say that I really miss you.”
Virtual hangouts can really help maintain both casual friendships and deeper ones. Early on, people may have overdone it with the Zoom happy hours and game nights, but Franco said now might be a good time to try them again. See if a few friends want to hop online for a bit. And don’t be upset if your efforts don’t come together.
“If people don’t join your Zoom call, you still succeeded,” Franco said. “Even by reaching out to them, you showed them that they still matter in your life.”
Use social media as a resource.
Americans have been spending more time on social media during the pandemic. And although that can have downsides, it’s an asset when it comes to keeping in touch with friends. Obvious? Yes. But easy to forget when social media has become overrun by ads and political posts.
“People think that social media is the end of all connection, but it’s more nuanced than that,” Franco said. “Comment on someone’s post and share how happy and excited you are for them.”
In her own life, she likes to practice what she calls “love scrolling” versus “doomscrolling.” She deliberately focuses on the positive posts she sees in her feed, and tries to spread that positivity to her friends and connections.
Remember the “seasons.”
If you’re struggling to keep your friendships afloat right now, know that you are absolutely not alone.
“Research finds that when we get into romantic relationships we lose friendships, and then when we have kids we lose even more friends. So if that’s happened to you, that’s a normal process,” Franco explained.
Throw in a global pandemic and things are ... rough.
It’s OK to simply accept that this might be a season in your life when friendships simply are not a top priority, Franco said. That does not mean you’re a person who doesn’t value friendships as important in general, or that your friendships are doomed to fall apart.
“The people that are best at keeping their friendships make positive and optimistic assumptions about those friendships,” she said.
Some day in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to “recenter” your friendships. For now, it’s more than enough to just get through the day.