I watched my 5 year old stand on a playground full of kids. Her shoulders droop, her mouth is ajar, and her eyes darken with unshed tears. She is alone and lonely.
I know that feeling and I ache for her. I still get that way at times. Standing in a room where everyone got the secret dress code right but me, in a room filled with old friends catching up (none of them my old friends), or watching other preschool moms clump up naturally and chat while I stand apart.
I learned early on the best cure for loneliness was to reach out. Like a predator scanning a herd of prey animals, I seek out the easy target: another person standing alone, someone else wearing the wrong clothes, another mom with that uncertain smile. As an extrovert, I am the designated leader, the one obligated to make the first move of any relationship.
I saw other lonely girls on the playground. I beckoned my girl to me and pointed them out. See that girl, the one standing still, looking confused? What about that one, carefully selecting rocks from the mounds of leaf litter and acorns? They don’t have anyone to play with. Go up to them. Say, “Do you want to play?”
When I was single, I used to joke that my most successful pickup line was “Hello, my name is Elaine.” It’s true for friendships too. The best way to meet and befriend people, for any purpose, is a smile and a greeting. We are all afraid of each other, to a certain extent. It’s no surprise a lot of my closest friends are introverts: I’m the extrovert who pursues them!
I watch my little girl walk towards the other lonely girl, but trail off repeatedly.
“Mama, she can’t see me.”
“She doesn’t see me.”
“You have to get in front of her face, make eye contact. Or you can try the other girl.”
I watch my daughter follow the other girl, staying a safe 24 inches away, matching her speed so there’s no danger of overtaking her.
“Mommy, it didn’t work.”
“She’s walking too fast.”
Y’all, the girl was walking at a pre-global-warming glacial pace! And then I got it. I remembered how hard it was for me before learning the power of “hello.” How hard it still is for me, even at age 41.
In college choir, during a break, when my appointed “big sister” was talking to old friends, I saw another freshman standing alone, another singer who had been abandoned by her “big sister.” I went over to her. My heart was in my throat and I felt obvious, targeted, the reject at the family reunion. She had on an interesting top. I complimented her, timidly. What if she rejected me too? Why would no one talk to me. She answered me back. We became best friends.
I sat on the couch at a child’s birthday party, watching family members and long time friends laugh and chat. The men, including my husband, all left the room. The women ignored me. They wouldn’t even make eye contact. I was thirsty, but didn’t know where the cups were. I smiled hopefully at any face that glanced my way and made stilted small talk with a family friend. I refused to go to any more birthday parties.
Another time, I stood at a women’s conference, awkwardly holding a plate of food and a drink. Everyone wore the right clothes except me. Everyone knew someone else. Everyone chatted and laughed animatedly, and I searched out the chairs for a place to sit. I sat alone. I talked with the women who sat near me, but one by one they came, sat, and left. I didn’t make any friends that night.
I joined a new church and looked over the other new members. Who seemed like a potential friend? I saw familiar faces at Sunday School pickup, and determinedly made conversation with women who intimidated me. I have a circle of friends at my church now.
Even as an extrovert, it’s not easy to make the first move in human connections. People see us extroverts as effortlessly relational, the center of attention, full of confidence, but that’s not true. Just because we crave human contact doesn’t mean we are good at it. Even at 41, I struggle with the “cold open” in a room filled with strangers. And at 5, so does my daughter.
When you stand alone in a crowd, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert: you feel marked off, targeted, disregarded. And the solution is always the same: reach out to someone.
I brought my daughter into my lap and told her what I do. I explained that when I’m in a room filled with people, I find the lonely person and go talk to her. I repeat the opening line: “Hello.” And then I did the hardest job of all motherhood: I send her out into the game. I refused to play with her. I kept my head down, forcing myself to let her sink or swim all on her own.
In the end, she and the rock collector played together, making a fairy house. I’m not sure if my daughter actually initiated, or if the rock collector simply noticed her presence. But they played together. Success.
There are a lot of things that make motherhood a tremendous challenge. But for me, empathy is the hardest aspect. Seeing my daughter facing the fears I still face today breaks my heart wide open. Seeing my daughter get frustrated over the same issues that frustrate me today makes me crazy with wanting to help her. Feeling her disappointment when she makes a bad choice cuts me like paper. At the end of the day, all I can do is tell her my stories and hope she learns more quickly than I did.