Mum and Dad gestured at a smiling young woman who was busy chatting at the play centre. “That’s her. Chloe from the playground.” A cute baby bounced on her hip and a boy around my daughter’s age played at her feet.
My stomach flipped. “Are you sure it’s her?” I hissed.
I glanced in Chloe’s direction again. My parents had told her all about me. Now, they suggested I say hello but my palms sweated at the prospect. I was cemented to the play centre’s worn carpet, suddenly as socially inept as a child on their first day of school. Except, despite being sandwiched in between my parents and fighting the impulse to throw a tantrum over the cacophony of over-tired toddlers and weary carers, I wasn’t a child.
I was a mother in need of friends in my new hometown in regional Australia. I knew it. My parents knew it. The kids across the room with drool on their chins knew it. And before I had time to distract my parents, Dad had barrelled over to Chloe to reintroduce himself – and tell her I was here too. I high-tailed after him, flushed and braced for social damage control.
Three months ago, my parents met Chloe and struck up a conversation at the playground. I cringed at the image of my big-hearted parents befriending a local mum while they were babysitting my then-almost-two-year-old daughter.
I cringed at the image of my big-hearted parents befriending a local mum while they were babysitting my then-almost-two-year-old daughter.
How had it come to this? I’d collected an assortment of close friends since leaving the country sixteen years ago but suddenly, back in the bush, my parents were transforming into my friendship wingmen. All I could do was hope their loved-up meddling could lead to some semblance of a social life – as long as I intervened before they brought up the time my bikini top came off on a water slide.
Everything changed when my husband and I made the life-altering return to country living in late 2019, just before another deadly black summer in Australia.
We were separated from most of our friends by hundreds of kilometres – even oceans, in some cases. It was a hard adjustment, but not all bad. As many of us have since discovered in a COVID world, true friendships – the real soulmates – survive the toughest of long-distance circumstances with a little help from social media, phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom, What’s App groups peppered with personal jokes and, for some, the long-last art of letter-writing and postcards.
Yet, I also craved community in real life. I was luckier than many who’ve made a life-altering tree-change or sea-change; one of my high school best friends lived in the next suburb and welcomed my return with open arms. But I was mindful of not being too needy; her calendar was already brimming with catch-ups and responsibilities.
On the outside, I feigned enthusiasm at the thought of pursuing new friendships in a small town. But on the inside, I was terrified.
On the outside, I feigned enthusiasm at the thought of pursuing new friendships in a small town. But on the inside, I was terrified. Despite being born and bred in the country, I felt like an outsider, and without the scaffolding of a work office or university campus, I was unsure how to widen the social net. I worked alone at home, friendship apps aren’t popular in my town and, not long after my arrival, bushfire smoke and COVID restrictions prevented social-starved parents from lingering by the daycare gate for a yarn.
My friendship light may have been on, but I was in a season of life where it seemed like others’ social circles were closed to new members, whether it was due to lack of time, feeling guarded around strangers or literally having enough friends. And I understood. There were only so many hours in the day to manage friendships and many of us already felt like we’re not there enough for the relationships we have. The stakes also felt a little higher for people in a small-town setting too. If a new friendship took an awkward turn, there was a high chance you’d run into them at the supermarket, daycare drop-off – or, in poor Chloe’s case, at the local play centre.
Enter my long-suffering parents to steamroll my hesitance and elevate my friendship quest to the next level. As fate would have it, Chloe’s friendship light was on too. We chatted, traded phone numbers, caught up a few weeks later and are close more than a year on, still laughing about my parents’ initial matchmaking.
Enter my long-suffering parents to steamroll my hesitance and elevate my friendship quest to the next level.
Mum and Dad had been right – and unbelievably it wasn’t their only friendship success story during those first early months. They were also the connecting link with two other women my age and, for that, I’m deeply appreciative. Who needs a friendship app when you have two retired parents with a weighty black book of contacts?
Since then, I’ve had some luck dipping my toes in the friendship pool on my own. I’ve reconnected with a few other long-lost people from school, befriended a fellow pop-culture-obsessed mum on a bus and clicked with another writer via a local Instagram hashtag. But I still give full credit to Mum and Dad for inadvertently reminding me that regional towns are full of people who value community and relationships. It was the nudge I needed to break down my own walls, flash a smile and begin a conversation with a kind stranger – never knowing where it could lead. And mostly, in a year that included mass bushfires, collective grief and a global pandemic, I’m grateful for everyone who took a chance and kept their friendship light on too.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter and Instagram @gabrielletozer and www.gabrielletozer.com. Gabrielle’s forthcoming YA novel Can’t Say It Went To Plan (HarperCollins) is out in May.