There’s a Reason You Miss Your Barista

Your microfriendships mean more than you think

My husband works in a city two hours away. Though he joins our four-year-old and me on weekends, I’m effectively in single-parent mode during the week.

My son and I had fallen into a weekly rhythm of outings: trips to the coffee shop for an afternoon hot chocolate or to the hippie grocery store to buy kombucha and organic lollipops. I made loose plans with other moms for Thursday mornings at the playground, the library, or the YMCA, and if we didn’t connect, it wasn’t a big deal, because there would be other parents or librarians to chat with whenever we arrived. The point was getting out of the house, getting to see people, and enjoying a change of scenery. Relief from it being just the two of us.

Enter Covid-19, pursued by a bear.

In the time of pandemic, our usual haunts are closed for public health reasons. The friends I have there and the wonderful program staff are gone from our lives for the next three weeks, maybe longer. It’s just you and me, kid.

Why does it make me feel so crazy that I can’t just nip out to my local coffee shop or smoothie joint? With all the yoga available on YouTube, why do I miss my YMCA class so much? In the age of unlimited long-distance minutes, FaceTime, and group chats, why is social distancing so hard?

It turns out regular friendly interactions aren’t just part of the scenery. Microdosing on socialization is good for us.

These “weak ties” are actually vital to well-being, writer Allie Volpe argues in the New York Times. Volpe cites a bevy of research, including work by sociologist Mark Granovetter that directly links microfriendships to a sense of belonging. “Not only can these connections affect our job prospects, they also can have a positive impact on our well-being by helping us feel more connected to other social groups,” Volpe writes.

From where I stand, Granovetter’s theory checks out. Seeing the same faces over and over again, whether at circle time or behind the cash register, makes me feel like I’m moored to something bigger than myself: Call it community, maybe.

Before I had my kid, I assumed I would fall into a robust and intimate parenting community. Though some of my dearest pals are fellow comrades-in-arms in the project of motherhood, this has mostly not come to pass.

Instead, I’ve amassed many, many mom friends who are really more like mom acquaintances: other parents I see regularly at the library, the drop-in centers, or the playground. When I was in my twenties, these people would have been drinking buddies—the kind, as James Thurber would say, who had never seen me sober or in daylight. In my thirties, these are people who have never seen me at a bar.

Solo parenting a preschooler is rewarding, messy, and often lonely. But those microfriendships, built around shared spaces and a bit of time together, do wonders for me. They are often not deep relationships, but it doesn’t matter: Any adult contact can be a balm, a salve, a salvation. I tend toward loneliness, and these interactions save me every week.

We tend to see “real” friendships as defined by long-standing, intimate connections. But Granovetter argues that putting all our emotional energies into “strong ties” is likelier to make us cliquey and closed off to the community at large. As we get older and start shedding our childhood and college friend groups, it can also become harder to dive into those deep relationships.

Instead of focusing on a few perfect rose blooms of friendship, many of us come to supplement our grown-up social needs with more of a baby’s breath approach: lots of friendly little interactions, over and over again, with lots of different people. We might scratch that itch by seeking out groups that are focused around a particular topic or activity, like book clubs, sewing circles, or karaoke nights. We find work spouses, yoga buddies, trivia partners, or, yes, mom friends. It’s why we also have favorite baristas and bartenders.

These microfriendships give my day-to-day life texture and meaning by breaking up the monotony of parenting and reminding me that I’m part of the social fabric. And I’m realizing now that when these in-person interactions are gone from my routine, I miss them keenly. I’m betting you do, too.

But the connections are still there. Many of us are checking on each other through social media, talking about border closures and the number of coronavirus cases in our region. My Instagram is full of mom friends sharing pictures and videos of their kids; some of us are delighted to be home, while some are hiding from our children in the bathroom. It’s nice to know that we’re on the same page, even when we’re not in the same room.

And there are ways to double down on these weak ties. Last week, I dropped off cookies and muffins for a mom friend who lives around the corner. I have left encouraging messages on social media when my favorite local businesses decide to shut their doors for the good of public health. It’s worth trying to maintain those loose, low-key connections any way you can.

And you might even find ways of making new ones. My son and I have taken to gardening in our front yard. I pull weeds and rake up last fall’s leaves, while he stands in the driveway and says hello to everyone who walks by. He asks their names and offers his own. I also wave hello, and people often stop. We chat briefly — from a safe distance — about the weather, their dogs, and how we’re all holding up. It’s not the same balm we usually get, but it’s enough to get us through the day, at least for now.

Ontario writer and interviewer who specializes in talking to people about what makes their lives good.

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