They're difficult to find and even more difficult to maintain. But friendships are an essential part of being a well-rounded person.
Friends are lifetime commodities. They’re bike gang members. They help with moving. They give toasts. They show up at wakes. They text you ridiculous .gifs that distract you from whatever toddler meltdown you might be dealing with that that moment. In short, they’re there. But life gets busy, and friends become less present, although not less valuable. No study is needed to show their importance, but there are numerous that do.
One such study published in the journal Men and Masculinity found that there was a “trusting nature” and “lack of boundaries and judgment” in friendships as compared to romantic relationships. It’s not earth-shattering, and few would argue with it. But one caveat about the study. It was with undergraduate students. It doesn’t blunt the findings, but a chorus of married dads would like to add, “Sounds goods, but exactly when is this supposed to happen?”
There are a lot of things that make up a life: work, spouse, kids, sleep, exercise, eating well, doing nothing. They’re all important, most are researched-backed, and they all take time and energy, neither of which are limitless.
“Every second is a choice,” says Scott Schoenfelder a Milwaukee-based 40-year-old father of 4 children ranging in age from two to 11. “The friend thing never rises into the top two or three.”
Friendship is still a worthwhile expenditure of capital, says Dr. Jeff Bostic, a psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “We’re herd animals. We like to be close together with people who are like us.”
Spouses can be friends, but there’s a to-do list that will always interrupt date night. Plus, they can’t like everything and over-relying on them is taxing, says Dr. Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. Friends can just hold one mutual interest, but that’s enough to be an escape, where there’s no worrying about when the washer is going to be fixed. “They put us in the moment and take you out of your thoughts, which is not always a happy place,” Bea says.
Adds Bostic, “That’s meditation. It’s clearing your mind.”
Schoenfelder doesn’t doubt the benefit. He played collegiate volleyball and had friends on the team, which combined with work friends in his 20s. But since he and his wife moved to Wisconsin six years ago, he says it’s been difficult to both maintain old friendships and to build new ones beyond post-soccer pizza at a family’s house, and maybe an occasional beer on a porch with one of the dads.
Garth Leonard is 45 and lives outside Atlanta with his wife and four children, who range in age from 6 to 13. He’s still close with his college friends. The group just had plans for a get-together in Florida. Leonard says he could have gone, but the two previous weekends he was out of town for his oldest son’s hockey tournaments, leaving his wife solo with the other three children and that wouldn’t be fair.
Leonard will keep in contact like he does, with texts and via social media posts, which he says is enough. With old friends, the voices are known and it’s possible to pick the conversation right up. That works and provides a necessary outlet, but as Bostic says, there needs to be an in-person component to friendship.
The chorus of married dads chime in with, “Great again, but …?”
Here’s why it might be possible: Friendship can be anything. It can last a lifetime or six months. It doesn’t have to be deep. In fact, it’s the opposite. After a day full of big talks and responsibility, being able to debate Tarantino films is plenty meaningful.
The bottom line is the bond has to be mutual, and for the busy dads, the potential friends are right around you. They’re the other busy dads, guys who have similar schedules, shared concerns, and are close by — because, per Bea, if getting together isn’t easy, it won’t have a chance of happening ever, let alone on a semi-regular basis.
Nice to consider, sure. But while the kids are the intro, says David Spark, that can’t be all. He’s 50, lives outside San Francisco with his wife and two children, 7 and 4, and would be happy to connect with other dads, but, “I care enough about other people’s kids, but not so much that I want to talk about it all day. I don’t want that to be the whole level of conversation.”
Bostic says that there’s a way to be strategic to increase the odds. Split up the activity list with your spouse and attend the stuff that’s more exciting. Chances are better of meeting like-minded people. After that, it’s part luck, Leonard says. Schedules have to jibe and kids have to get along, and, if it’s around sports, they have to keep being on the same team. But when there are two hours to kill watching a weekly practice, conversations will happen. Some will be good. Some will be awkward, and both will be apparent quickly, he says.
A little directedness doesn’t hurt to move the conversation out of polite mode if that’s your inclination. David Cass has always been so inclined and took that root with the other soccer dads two years ago when his son was 14. He says he’d drop comments, find out political leanings and senses of humor. The result has been 5-6 guys who he can hang out with, but that didn’t happen in the early years of kid activities.
For another outlet, the 51-year-old Cass, who lives in Mansfield, Massachusetts, plays basketball twice a week, with some guys it’s been for 20 years. At first, his wife wasn’t a fan of the Sunday morning game, but then she realized she could sleep in — pre-kids; they also have an 18-year-old — and he’d bring her coffee. It became one of their things. The game grew on her and revealed a benefit. “She knows that if I don’t play, I get stressed out and cranky,” Cass says.
Best of all, he says, it’s uncomplicated. The biggest requirement is that a 10th person shows up. Once that’s set, they play. The trash talk. They might hang out but don’t have to. “It’s fun and easy and there’s no pressure.”
Says Bostic, “that’s nirvana.”
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