Your culture – your everyday way of life – is so ubiquitous that you rarely even notice it until you’re suddenly taken out of it. In 2010, the first summer that my husband and I were dating, we took a month-long trip to South Africa and Kenya. For the first and only time in my life I experienced genuine culture shock. I’m not going to lie; a lot of it was simply the result of a lifetime of middle-class American expectations. I wasn’t prepared for some of the practical aspects of traveling in rural Kenya. But there were other things besides pit toilets that took some getting used to. Bartering, for instance. It’s not a skill we develop in the U.S., and it was hard feeling dependent on our Kenyan friends every time we needed to purchase something at the market. It chafed my sense of independence throughout my journey.
And then there were things about Kenyan culture that I loved, things that I still consciously try to cultivate in my own life. One such cultural practice was the way that Kenyans prioritized people over clocks. If you were friends with somebody, they would stop to greet you, ask how you were doing, and sincerely listen to your answer before going about their business. Even if they were running late. The Americans came across as downright rude by comparison, constantly checking our watches and worrying about sticking to the itinerary.
But the most profound lesson I learned from Kenya was something that I didn’t fully understand until a couple years later as I transitioned to being a stay-at-home mom and watched helplessly as my female friendships faded into the background of my life. In Kenya, the women whom I encountered were deeply connected with other women. Their community was tight knit, and the daily work that had to be completed was usually done in the company of other women. We stayed at a small compound that belonged to our friend Mophat’s family, and the women worked together as a group to prepare meals and clean. Work was completed collectively, and they chatted and laughed together as they worked. One of the women had a beautiful baby daughter named Michelle, and she told me her birth story about being at the market when labor set in. It was a fast labor – too fast to get to her birthplace – so Michelle was born at the market and the women there took care of everything. Mother and daughter were both safe and healthy. She laughed as she told me about it.
I felt a small tug as I observed the women’s comradery, but it was subtle, almost subconscious. At the time I was unmarried and childless, and if I missed a friend, it was pretty straightforward to meet up for drinks, dinner, karaoke, or all three. Even my friends in Milwaukee were just a two-hour drive away, which wasn’t a big deal when I didn’t have a screaming infant in the backseat.
Fast forward a couple of years: I was twenty-nine years old and a new mom. I was excited to stay home with my infant son and extremely grateful that I could afford to do so. But all of a sudden I went from a structured day working in a high school with other adults to a day that consisted of snuggling a baby, nursing a baby, napping with a baby, and getting dinner done before Ned got home. Please don’t get me wrong – the fact that I get to stay home with my babies is one of the things I am absolutely most grateful for in my life. I love snuggling, nursing, and napping with my babies! But holy cats, to completely give up adult interaction for the majority of your waking day is mentally taxing. On a social-emotional level it’s downright devastating.
And all of a sudden, I looked back at my month in Africa and it was no longer the safari in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park or the nights of drinking Tusker beer and watching World Cup soccer that stood out to me. What I remembered clearest was standing in the grass, watching out of the corner of my eye as the women prepared dinner together, their hands as deft at peeling green bananas as their mouths were at telling jokes that would make everyone giggle. There was an easy intimacy there that was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed as an American woman.
I’m sure that the reason for our disconnect here in America is complex, with multiple causes. I’m not aware of any academic research on the topic, but I have some theories. One theory is that Americans are likely to move away from their family and childhood community. Even if you stay in the same city, as I eventually did, it’s unlikely that you’re in the same exact neighborhood, maintaining the friendships and relationships that you had when you were a child. There’s also the matter of how Americans worship independence. I get it. Honestly, I do. My family will tell you about the nightmare stage I went through as a three-year-old when I would throw a tantrum every time they tried to help me with anything because “I can do it myself!” And I haven’t improved much since. But my attitude is not uncommon in the United States. We see dependence as a weakness, and it’s easy for that independence to translate to isolation.
But overall – if I can give a big, messy answer – it’s that our society has changed so much so quickly that we’re still reeling from all of the societal transitions we’re trying to process. Gender roles are completely different for me than they were for my parents. Media and technology have revolutionized how we communicate and relate to each other. We now live in a world where we have 500 Facebook friends, but we don’t know the person’s name who lives two doors down from us. Please don’t mistake this as an “I wish we could go back to the good old days” statement. It’s not. But I do think we’re living with a lot of uncertainty as we all try to figure out what the new normal is, and the constant insecurity combined with the physical disconnect in our communities has made us incredibly isolated.
As much of a problem as female isolation is for all women, though, it gets noticeably more problematic with motherhood. With so few women staying home to work as full-time caretakers, stay-at-home moms are more spread out. My mom tells stories about the neighborhood mothers meeting up for coffee cake in the morning while the kids played together, but I honestly don’t know if there are any other stay-at-home parents within three blocks of me, let alone having multiple moms on a single block. And mothers who work have their own set of social challenges. By the time they put in a full day at work, pick up kids, and make dinner, it’s time for the kids to go to bed. After that they may or may not have an hour or so to get stuff done around the house or watch a show before going to bed and starting the routine all over. Whether moms stay at home or work, their social connections by necessity fall to the bottom of their priority list.
And we’re social creatures, so we find ways to connect anyways. But it’s a secondary priority in our culture. Not even secondary. First we have family obligations. Second we have work obligations. Then, maybe, if we have the time and energy left over, we might be able to squeeze in some self-care or time with friends. If we’re lucky.
I have keenly felt the lack of sisterhood in my own life, especially since becoming a mom. I have gone days and occasionally weeks without connecting meaningfully with my female friends, and it leaves your life lacking something essential. Last year I needed my appendix out, and my post-surgery lifting restrictions left me housebound with my kids, who were six months and two years old, for a month. It was the only time in my adult life that I had days when I literally had to talk myself into getting out of bed in the morning. I wondered if I should go see a counselor and look into the possibility of antidepressants. But then I had a night where I was able to get out of the house and hang out with some mommy friends for a couple of hours, and, like magic, my mood did a 180. The change was so immediate and concrete that I knew my issue was not a chemical imbalance but a social-emotional one.
Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that our society does not prioritize female relationships, and our women would be happier and healthier if it did. It’s not going to look like it did in rural Kenya. There are too many differences in our infrastructures and workplaces, so we need to find our version of that female connectedness. It’s time for us to come out of our separate corners and find ways to socialize and connect on a regular basis, even if it’s not daily. It’s going to take work because change like that doesn’t just happen by itself, but it’s work that will pay off exponentially in terms of our happiness, mental health, and our ability to contribute to our families and the world around us. It is my hope that, through this blog, I can play my own small part in exploring this issue of disconnection and maybe even offering some ideas and solutions. And if you have any strategies that have worked well for you, please feel free to share them.