Karl Taro Greenfeld
Dad Desperately Seeks Friends to Share Midlife
Writer Karl Taro Greenfeld found himself in his mid-thirties happily married with two daughters but no real friends. Why do men have such a harder time making friends? What could he do?
I didn’t know that by the time you hit 30, you had all the friends were going to get. I had gone through college and my 20s making the usual assortment of school chums and work pals, guys I would get a drink with or meet for a game of pick up soccer and I assumed that I would just continue gathering such casual friends throughout my life. A few would stick and become the sorts of male colleagues with whom I would grow old, comparing notes about our careers, marriages, children, and, eventually, ailments and infirmities.
But when I was in my mid-30s, my wife and I had our first daughter, and I looked around at the men in my life and realized they were either terminal bachelors or terrible bores—most had simply vanished. In that time before social media many did just that. We had spent a few weeks traveling around in, say, Southeast Asia, and then I never saw them again. So I was left with my college classmates and a few guys I had met in my 20s and apparently, this was the crew who were going to accompany me through the rest of my life.
I’m not a snob about who I spend my time with, but this was a terrifying prospect not for the flaws and deficiencies of these particular gents, but for how sad it seemed that I was stuck on this particular deck on the cruise through life. There was no mystery here. Certainly there was no adventure left in the relationship with, say, my college roommate, the trombonist who had gone on to a successful career running his own recording studio but who had this habit of bringing up old college in-jokes whenever we met for a drink. (Oh, and he is sober now, so his “drink” was a Coke.)
In films and on television, men always have these great friends who provide steady comedic relief and tribal wisdom on the challenges of being a man. Beer commercials seem to be made up entirely of multiracial groups of men who accept each other unconditionally. Where was my Vince Vaughn or Seth Rogen? Was I really to go through life a Band of One, trying to approach each of my various life crises with nothing more than self-help books and medical specialists for support and guidance?
Very little is written about adult male feebleness when it comes to forging new friendships. My wife seems to make a new pal with every yoga class she attends. She can’t get a cup of coffee without exchanging kisses with some new amie whom I’ve never seen before. Yet most adult males make friends either at work or ... that’s about it. We meet other guys through our jobs. That is a very limited pool of potential buddies. For those of us who work on our own—I’m a freelance writer and novelist—that means I’m trying to forge a bond from having a drink with an editor or fellow writer once every few months. (And most of my editors are women. I occasionally strike up a casual friendship with a woman, yet those are inherently limited by how frequently a married man can have drinks with a woman before either A) his wife gets suspicious or B) his wife has good reason to be suspicious.)
As far as trying to build a friendship from those professional bonds, it puts an awful lot of pressure on a drink with a colleague to think that I’m going into it looking to make a lifelong friend with whom I’ll be zip-lining in Costa Rica when we’re 60. Who can stand that kind of pressure? It’s like a first date, only instead of the prospect of eventual sex, there is only the possibility of many more witty exchanges. At my age, we don’t even have the relief of getting into some heavy drugs later in the evening, which makes anyone’s company bearable.
I’m not particularly repellent or dull; I don’t smell. Yet I was tired of my friends and couldn’t find new ones. Where was I to find the male associates with whom I might stumble through middle-age and eventual senility, watching sports together and lamenting to each other the failings of our various body parts? Would I have to take up some hobby—fly fishing or model-railroading—where I could meet a few potential pals?
I spent much of my 30s abroad, running a magazine in Hong Kong, where, busy as I was managing a staff, I was always surrounded by colleagues and coworkers, even if I never really became close or socialized with them. I spent much of my time traveling, interviewing CEOS, politicians, generals. I was married, the father of two daughters, and the other ex-pat fathers dropping their children off at playgroups or pre-school, or dining at the China Club or American Club, were, invariably, bankers. Perhaps I could have become pals with these financiers, but it seemed so much like the work I did during the day—struggling to make conversation with powerful people who didn’t really interest me. It didn’t bother me, busy as I was with career and family. It seemed I was destined to end up friendless, watching college football by myself, without even the company of sons to hide the fact that I had no buddies.
I didn’t seek pity. I convinced myself there was something virtuous about my rugged individualism. America is a nation founded, after all, by those who may have been friendless back wherever they came from. Otherwise, why make the passage? I was one of those destined to ride off into the sunset, a truly lone ranger.
It was a pleasant surprise then to find in my late 30s a whole new cast of male characters from whom I could pick and choose. We moved to Tribeca in New York. When my oldest daughter Esmee was in kindergarten, I took to walking her to our local school every morning and then standing in the cold schoolyard before the bell, waiting for her, jolly, bespectacled teacher to turn up and collect the class. (The teacher was a lovely person, so joyous and patient with the kids; they didn’t learn a damn thing the whole two years they were in her class.) I noticed the other fathers, similarly unsure of what their role was out here. This was before the era of ubiquitous smart phones. Now we would all be busy pretending to be doing something important on our phones.
But soon, I discovered that these dads were a self-selecting bunch. There were other fathers, whose wives or nannies dropped their kids at school. These men were presumably so busy and indispensable they had to be at their desks at investment banks or law firms way before their kids needed to be at school. Many kids were simply let off from black cars at the front of the school. Inside the cars, I guessed, were fathers. I would never know. But those dads who could stand around out here waiting for the bell, they were like me, I realized, in that they didn’t really have anywhere to go.
I recall one father asking me if I wanted to get a cup of coffee after drop off. I don’t know why, but I turned him down for the stupid reason that I’d already had coffee that morning. Later, when I noticed a couple of the fathers walking off together to a diner across the street I understood. They were bonding! I needed some bonding.
I was invited again and so joined them. They turned out to be similarly self-employed in the arts: a painter, a playwright, a TV producer, and a fellow author. Other fathers joined in—a photographer, another writer—and it became a daily occurrence, and a natural pool from which to make new friends.
We live through our children in so many ways, our hearts ache for them when they aren’t chosen for elite sports teams or prized schools, when they fail at exams or disappoint in their essays. When we see them struggling with their peers, or struggling to make their own new friends, somehow our own egos get bruised and we find ourselves, for the first time in our lives, thinking ill upon a particularly cruel 9-year-old who has made our daughter cry. In this relationship, we forget that our children are also watching us, so it was a great surprise when Esmee turned to me one morning as we were walking to school, and I was looking forward to seeing my new comrades and said, “Daddy, I’m happy you’re making new friends.”