I used to love meeting new people, being surrounded by voices and stories and laughter. I loved conversations with strangers on my college campus, helping new clients every day at my job, welcoming people in my church and youth group. I went places and did things, I saw people’s whole entire faces for long periods of time and shared my life with them from across a table or side by side.
When I became a stay-at-home mom 10 years ago, I thought it would give me more time to spend with other people, and truth be told, I have had my share of park dates and Chick-fil-A playplace takeovers over the years. But going from a working mom who interacted with co-workers, volunteers, and clients every day to a stay-at-home mom with three tinies, I was shocked at first by how isolating my new role often felt. Our lives revolved around naptime, and with three kids under four, oftentimes it took all day to rotate between them all. Our “adventures” were stolen an hour at a time, riding in the big cart at Walmart, squeezing in 15 minutes at the playground before overtired naptime battles ensued, or if I was lucky enough to find three openings in kid care, an hour at the gym alone with my headphones while the kids played with different (albeit not better and decidedly more germy) toys than we had at home.
I learned in those early years that while I still loved and appreciated the in-person relationships I somehow managed to maintain (thanks, MOPS group and church nurseries!), my Facebook friends became a lot more friend-like than I had given them credit before. At once, I was no longer the only 24-year-old I knew raising a-buncha babies; my fellow mom friend just happened to be stationed across the country with her military spouse. My quirky sense of humor didn’t get lost in the vanilla landscape of moms-just-trying-to-get-along, because my weird friends on the internet shared plenty of funny stuff for me to enjoy while sitting in the McDonald’s drive thru line. Even my graduate-school-dropout side was nurtured as my graduate-school-graduates-and-beyond friends continue to share engaging stories and articles to help me learn and grow mentally even while many days I felt like my brain cells were slowly dying in the monotony of motherhood.
I have relied on internet friends to fill in my emotional gaps for years.
I have joined parenting groups, ministry groups, homeschool groups, social awareness and justice groups, and yes, even some meme groups. Many of my fellow Knoxville Moms contributors are women I know only through our website and Facebook, as we have never met in person. I have learned and grown tremendously more from being a part of these diverse and passionate groups than I ever could have staying in my safe, comfortable circle at home. I have been affirmed and encouraged when I have done well, even though I felt alone or concerned within my in-person circles; I have been called out and disciplined when I was wrong, even though the people in my immediate vicinity probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Without question, I am a better person because of my internet friends.
Last year a global pandemic shut down most of the world and forced us all to stay in our homes and away from most in-person gatherings. Of course we all had our shared and unique struggles in that situation, but oddly enough for this extrovert, I found myself thriving emotionally during shut-in because I never once felt shut-out. While some of my face-to-face relationships have naturally moved away and on, many of my online relationships blossomed tremendously. We are connected by Bernie memes, stupid TikToks and shared convictions and twisted humor, but there’s more to it than that. We share pieces of ourselves and what matters to us, what makes us laugh, what makes us hurt, what makes us feel seen. My internet friends are not less real than in-person friends; in many cases and in many ways, they are more intimate and profound.
I still love people and stories and laughter. Whether it is age or pandemic life or some combination of several factors, I now prefer those things in smaller doses and with individuals rather than large groups, but I still want in-person friendships. However, I have learned the great value of friendships forged on shared bonds rather than shared experiences.