Making friends as an adult is awkward, slightly less awkward than dating only because there’s rarely sex involved. All the same issues apply. Do we have things in common? Are we compatible emotionally, financially, and ideologically? It’s not like I have list of friendship deal breakers, but I’m a broke, introverted, atheist teacher with an art habit and an 8-year-old. Some friendships just aren’t going to work out.
For my daughter, making friends is still simple. She just marches up to the other kid and says, “Hi. I’m Alice. Let’s be friends.” That’s how she became friends with L. L and her mom J cut through our apartment complex on their walk home from school. Alice, playing outside, befriended L simply by being friendly. Soon L and J were stopping most afternoons to play in the apartments’ common area, and J and I eventually struck up brief conversations about the kids, the weather and preschool.
I was nervous when they invited us over for a play date. When Alice was a toddler and I was a stay-at-home mom, I never hit it off with other parents at the park or story time. None of them ever talked about themselves, sticking instead to the one thing we had in common–our kids. The small talk quickly bored me or made me feel vaguely judged or, worse, vaguely competitive. Our kids were a mask that let us pretend we were all middle class with no political opinions or controversial problems. Sometimes I felt a strong urge to swear or shout, “I have $80 in my checking account! I don’t care about choosing a preschool! I have a master’s degree, for fuck’s sake!”
At J’s, I sat in the living room as anxious as a girl on a blind date, relieved that the house was a little messy and the baby was toddling around in a diaper. Turns out we had a lot in common. We both had daughters and had been both stay-at-home and working moms. She had been a theater major in college–not the same as my creative writing degree, but we both knew Shakespeare, loved art and had often answered the question, “What are you going to do with that degree?” It was a great first play date, and we invited them to an open house at Alice’s dance school the next week. While the girls were in class, J and I had coffee and didn’t talk about our kids. She was smart and funny, talkative but interested in what I had to say. I liked her big curly hair and her openness. It felt like I was making a friend.
On the way home from dance class, L pointed out the car window, “Look, a church.”
Without pause, Alice replied, “I don’t go to church. I’m not ever going.” In the front seat, I kept my eyes on the road and held my breath, thinking, You can’t just jump into a religious discussion on the second play date! You have to ease it into conversation around play date eight or ten after casually swearing and name dropping Chuck Darwin. You’ll offend them and then neither of us will have a new friend.
What matters in friendship, the big or the little things? And which is religion? Is it too big to overcome, something with which we will always hurt or offend each other if we don’t see eye to eye, or is it one of the little things we can agree to disagree about, like reality TV or Thai food? I have friends from a wide spectrum of faith and skepticism—agnostic recovering Catholics; militantly anti-religious atheists; thoughtful, devout Christians; hip young churchgoers who picture Jesus as the sort of guy you could take out for a beer. On hopeful days, I believe we enrich each other’s lives, help each other see the world through a different lens. Other days, I feel only the disconnect between our points of view. When it comes to making friends with other parents, the assumptions we make about each others’ religious views are another mask to get past. I think of a lesbian mom friend saying she doesn’t want to “pass” for straight but is exhausted by having to come out over and over. I feel the same.
In the backseat, they kept it simple. “Well, I’m going to church,” L said. “When I grow up, I’m going to church all the time.”
“Well,” Alice said, “I’m not.” Then they told knock-knock jokes all the way home.