I don’t think I was prepared for how exhausting and lonely parenting can be. Despite having active young kids and constantly playing with them, I still found myself longing for time to myself. Time to think, and time to talk to other adult humans about things beyond parenting.
Several years ago, I stumbled across a commencement speech that made me rethink everything about the design of my daily work-and-parenting life.
Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer and humorist and author of 14 books, published a collection of graduation speeches he’s given in the book, “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”. In it, he covers in hilarious detail the simplicity of being human, the conundrum of being nice, and why we’re all suffering from loneliness.
It was so simple, yet so profound:
“Only two major subjects remain to be covered: loneliness and boredom. No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives. We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.”
Do you have fifty people?
He goes on to talk about marriage, and why marriage isn’t falling apart because marriage is wrong, but because our families are too small.
“Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.”
So, he recommends, “everybody here [should] join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. If does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.”
In a second speech, he goes on to elaborate on knowing the secrets to what women and men want. It’s remarkably similar to his story above:
“I know what women want. Women want a whole lot of people to talk to. And what do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.”
And men? “Men want a lot of pals.”
I don’t fully agree with the simplicity of men and women being entirely different (nor do I believe that marriage is just about a man and a woman) — but the underlying point rings true: as people, we want other people to hang out with and talk to.
The isolation of modern work life and family life—harried, getting out the door, hustling kids to school, working in offices and cubicles, only communicating via Slack and being reprimanded for “not working,” to dinner-bed-bath-cleanup-tv-sleep—we’re not living in the communities of support that we all need.
And the cause of fights in marriage? It turns out, he surmises, “what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness.”
“What they’re really saying is, ‘You’re not enough people.’”
We are born into our immediate families. We’re starting our own families now. But the nuclear family—the small unit of just a few humans—is not enough. It’s not working for most of us.
It’s up to us to reach out, meet as many people as possible, and build our extended families.
How many people do you interact with on a daily basis? Not online, or in your email inbox, but in real life?
When I did my own quick tally, I realized that every time I am the happiest in my life, it’s when I’m surrounded by high-quality soul sisters and friends who I love spending time with. Whether it’s a weekend retreat with sixteen entrepreneurs and change makers, or a dinner party with wine and late evenings on the weekends, or a local community exercise group, it’s being with people I love and care about that makes all the difference.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve prioritized joining communities in my thirties. I don’t want to live alone, and I can’t pretend my family is enough. I want to be vibrant, connected, communal.
It’s so hard when you’re overwhelmed by the load of parenting. In the early days, I had to challenge myself to get out to mom’s groups and hosted a Saturday gathering in my apartment to meet with other moms. Now I see them regularly at the local coffeeshop and we bump into each other at the library and yoga studio.
It’s why I’m a part of so many online communities. But it hasn’t been easy, not always. Getting out there and fighting the tide of overwork and the isolation of the nuclear family is, surprisingly, somewhat counter-culture.
Go find your people. More than you think you need.
I’m pretty much an introvert, but my husband passed away recently and I am now really lonely. I have moved to a small apartment in a new town (near my sister and a few friends), and I find myself talking their ears off. I intend to join as many groups as I can as soon as I can.
As heartbreaking as it is to watch a whole generation of family die off, I know it’s inevitable. But I have faith in the goodness of life and look forward to meeting good people.