How To Make New Friends as a Parent

Having children can be incredibly isolating, especially if you're the only member of your pre-existing group of friends to have a small baby. After time it isn't uncommon to look around and realise that you're seriously lacking in adult companions.
The Internet is partly to blame for parental isolation; with so many of us moving our relationships out of local communities and on to Facebook, forums, and other online platforms. It's arguably easier to make a good friend in New Zealand now than it is within half a mile of your own home.
I'm pretty lucky, after a short spell of crippling loneliness when Seb was born (during which my previously extensive social circle was reduced down to perhaps one or two not-particularly-reliable friends) I've been able to build up a pretty good network of supportive, genuine Mum-mates, both in my local area and online - and it's made a world of difference to my parenting experience.
I've heard from way, way, way too many other parents though who feel they don't really have any friends now that they've had babies, and have no idea where to start in meeting new people. For many, it's the first time they've been faced with the prospect of deliberately forming friendships since school - and unfamiliar social interactions can be an enormous anxiety triggers for a lot of adults.
I've decided to share some tips that worked for me. The only way to form any sort of relationship is to put yourself forward and make yourself available, but here are some pointers from someone who's managed it!
1. Netmums - ah netmums you beaut. Here's an example of how online networking CAN lead to genuine friendship in the real world. Netmums is a handy website for information and advice on all aspects of parenting and it does have a message board style forum which is open to all (not quite as entertaining as the Mumsnet forum if you're looking for the likes of The Penis Beaker Debate). One of my favourite features of the Netmums site is the Meet A Mum board though. When you sign up to Netmums (free) you'll have access to a local area of the website specific to where you live (in my case, Netmums East Kent). Within the local area of the site, the Meet A  Mum board is a little like a dating site, for Mums to find others in their area who, like them, want to make new friends. That immediately takes some of the pressure off - you were both actively looking for new mates, so neither is going to think the other is a weirdo for starting up a conversation - instant win. Like many forms of online matchmaking, one of you sends the other a message to introduce themselves (and in this case, their kids too) and the other responds. You swap a few messages back and forth before agreeing to meet up at a local soft play area, or café, or the park etc. Like dating - there will, of course, be occasions where you meet people and don't really "click"; they're nice enough, but not bestie material. However, when I got married three years ago, one of my bridesmaids was a lady I met through the Meet A Mum board when our babies were a few months old (we took the babies swimming the first time we met and then had a coffee in the leisure centre café afterwards). When my husband and I separated two years later, it was my friend Amanda, who I'd met via the Northants Meet a Mum board whilst living there for a year in 2012, who drove the three hour trip to be with me and make sure I was alright. These are real, genuine best mates, made thanks to Netmums, and yeah, there were others I met a couple of times and then the swapped messages just fizzled out. You can also post your own "looking for new friends" ad on your local Meet-A-Mum board, and allow other Mummies to message you.
2. Baby Groups - urgh. Baby groups. Everyone hates going along to a baby group for the first time, especially alone. It's pants - sitting there in the corner of a cold and musty smelling church hall whilst your child bashes around amongst grubby toys and the rest of the parents, with their established friendship groups, resolutely ignore you beyond throwing the occasional forced smile. I know that this is most people's experience. You can force it - just go over to people, confidently introduce yourself, join in with conversations... or spot someone else sitting alone and join them... or take a friend with you in the first place. But I know that most people go along to a group once and if they're not welcomed with glorious open arms, decide not to go back. Try avoiding those church hall venues and instead, pick out baby groups that people typically go to alone, and that run in block sessions or "terms" - basically, hobby groups. For example, see if there's a local Water Babies group - baby swimming is lovely, and it's unlikely that big groups of pre-existing friends will have signed up together, also, if classes start on, say, the 17th October, you'll all be new on the same day, rather that you having to wade in to a long running group. My friend Tor and I met through Water Babies when our eldest kids were tiny. Other things to find locally that run in a similar style (nationwide) and are likely to involve a lot of others who don't know anyone else, are Baby Sensory, Sing & Sign, and Baby Massage or Breastfeeding Support groups at your local SureStart children's centre.
3. Find smaller, friendlier ante natal options. Pregnant Mamas - whilst the NHS ante natal classes can be handy, they tend to involve large groups and very little interaction, which doesn't exactly harbour lasting friendships. Try looking in to private antenatal classes instead, with the likes of the National Childbirth Trust, where groups will be a lot smaller, and you'll be encouraged to take part in group activities, ice breakers, and plenty of discussions - as well as invited to "reunions" once your babies are born. These types of group are more likely to bare friendship fruit; it's much easier to suggest getting together with other group attendees in these sorts of settings. Also ask your midwife if there are any particular groups for pregnant ladies in your area, your SureStart Childrens Centre might run a group for "bumps". We went along to a local Homebirth Support Group and I meet up regularly with some of the ladies who went to that group and were expecting at around the same time I had Quinn.
4. Make the school gate work for you - This is one where you really do have to suck it up and make an effort, but so many people consider the school gate to be an inhospitable environment where nobody talks to them, everyone's a member of some sort of clique, and the average Mum often feels isolated or a bit of a loner. 9 times out of 10 though, ask the loner Mum what she's done to actively make friends with other school Mums, and the answer is, not a lot. One way that you can easily make friends through your child's school is by volunteering, either as a member of the PTFA or other in-school organisation, or just on an ad-hoc basis, running a stall at the Christmas fair or similar. Even easier than that - talk to people! You've already got one major element of your lifestyle in common with every single person there, so finding conversation material really shouldn't be difficult. If you don't feel comfortable simply saying "hi" then pick out someone who, on first appearance, looks most like "your kind of person" and ask whether they know the date that the kids break up, or the time of the nativity play, or whether the children have to take a packed lunch on the upcoming trip - you'll think of something - even if you already know the answer, it's a "natural" seeming way to start a conversation. Once you've got your answer though, keep the chat doing, don't just say "Ok thanks" and resume your silence! If you're feeling brave, why not say to one of the parents that you're thinking of organising a Mum's night out for those with kid's in your child's class, or suggesting that a group of you get together in the holidays at the park so that the kids get to see their friends. You could suggest setting up a Facebook group to make organisation easier, which will give you a platform outside of the playground to get to know one another.
5. Look up your exes. No not those exes (unless appropriate), if you haven't moved around a lot in the last few years, why not use the Internet to reconnect with old friends from long before your parenting days, and seek out those who've also had children. The most obvious avenue to pursue is school friends, a friend request on Facebook won't seem particularly bizarre, and you'll be able to very quickly ascertain whether they're now parents. If you spot tell tale signs of babies, drop them a message to ask how they are and what they're up to these days - if you find you still get on well, why not suggest meeting for coffee one day with your children. Don't be too quick to dismiss people from your past, it's unlikely that you're the same person you were at sixteen, so someone who was once shy/a show off/prone to snogging other people's boyfriends may be surprisingly different these days.
 Do you have a best friend that you've connected with via your children? I'd love to hear other Mum's friendship stories.

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