The Male Friendship Recession
Meeting People Is Easy
The New Fatherhood is an open and honest conversation about modern fatherhood, with a bunch of dads figuring it out as we go. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. You are one of the 7,405 dads (and curious non-dads) signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, why not get your own?
“Loneliness is the suffering of our time. Even if we're surrounded by others, we can feel very alone—we are lonely together.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Communicating
Loneliness is on the rise worldwide, a trend that predates the pandemic. A 2020 study found more than 61% of Americans report “sometimes” or “always” feeling alone, whilst another paper found 22% feel it “often or always”. A 2016 study found 1 in 10 UK residents felt they did not have a single friend to rely upon, which shot up to 1 in 8 in 2020. 1 in 5 Brits lack someone to confide in, which jumps to 1 in 4 for men. Loneliness is more prevalent in older respondents, but it isn’t exclusive to them: one study found a third of adults over 45 regularly feel lonely; a meta-analysis of 345 studies on loneliness found levels steadily increasing from 1976 to the present day, particularly in emerging adults between 18-29. Tyler, the Creator was on the verge of leaving that bracket when his album Flower Boy bloomed into the world; he partnered with Frank Ocean to share his feelings of isolation on “911 / Mr Lonely”
“I can't even lie,
I've been lonely as fuck.
I’m the loneliest man alive,
but I keep dancin’ to throw them off.”
Loneliness—not just for the uncool and elderly anymore! Governments are doing everything they can to identify and eradicate it, and for good reason. The knock-on effects are clear: chronic loneliness is linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression and suicide; it raises the risk of premature death in numbers that rival smoking, obesity and physical inactivity; those who feel isolated are 50% more likely to develop dementia, 29% more likely to develop heart disease and have a 32% higher risk of a stroke. Policymakers are prioritising this as a public health issue: in 2018 the UK government started publishing an annual report on the topic and appointed its first Minister for Loneliness. Japan followed with a minister of their own soon after. In 2017, US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy declared loneliness a “deadly, invisible epidemic, hiding in plain sight.”
“People wouldn't say to me, you know, ‘My name is Bob. I'm struggling with loneliness’ But they would say, ‘I feel like I have to deal with all of these problems by myself.' 'I feel like we're out there all alone and no one's looking out for us.' 'I feel like I'm invisible.’
And time after time, when I began to hear this, it struck me that there is a much deeper pattern here, a pattern that I began to see as loneliness.”
There’s no group in society feeling this more acutely than the modern man. I’ve already written about the increased risk of depression and suicide men face. These social problems run deep, with the percentage of men with at least 6 close friends falling by half between 1990 and 2021, from 55% to 27%. In that same study, 15% of men reported having no close friendships at all, a 5x increase since 1990. It won’t come as a surprise to any of you reading this—male or female—that studies consistently find men less likely than women to rely on friends for emotional support or to share their personal feelings with them. We’re not the best at asking for help. Loneliness exacerbates these feelings in a vicious cycle where feelings of isolation are consistently reinforced and compounded.
Now. Atop of all this, try becoming a dad. It’s not a stretch to imagine a man walking this tightrope, then having a child, and losing his grip on everything. Fatherhood is the beginning of a beautiful new chapter in your life, but openings don’t exist without closings. Welcoming a baby into your world can kickstart a fundamental deconstruction of core aspects of your life—your sense of self, your shifting understanding of purpose, changes in dynamics of key relationships, an altogether alien structure and routine—which means saying goodbye to aspects of “the old days” you may have taken for granted. Like the spontaneity of a few drinks after work. A sudden decision to catch a movie with your partner, 30 minutes before the showing. An impromptu weekend away, city-breaking with old friends—folks you might have spent most of your adult life with, before having kids. Suddenly, it’s all different.
You might still live where you grew up, and have had the same close friends for decades. You may have stayed put, but needed to expand your social circle after becoming one of the first (or one of the few) to have kids, searching for others stepping into a similar life stage: learning to live on breadcrumbs of sleep, a search history littered with queries that would have seemed perverted a few years earlier. If you moved to a new city for work, love, or sheer hedonism, you may have made new friends there. You might have met folks through your hobbies. You probably met a fair few through your job—colleagues transforming into friends, bonds forged in the fire of tight deadlines, late nights and asshole bosses; after-work drinks that became a place to make sense of the day you were toasting the death of.
“Who’s in your dad crew?” I asked last summer. “Those dads you see regularly, that you feel comfortable opening up with?” Some were lucky to have become parents at the same time as other friends, like Dalton: “We just found out 3 couples close to us are expecting for the first time as well. It’s exciting to think that I will most definitely have a core group of dad friends to lean on and spend time with.” Others found connections through school, daycare, or baby classes. Bonding around hobbies was a familiar theme, like for Maxell: “I have a group of cycling mates, 4 of us who all take racing bikes pretty seriously while also taking being modern fathers pretty seriously too. Not an easy juggle but a great way to manage stress.” And where would a conversation on dad support networks be without the group chat? It was a regular reply, a digital lifeline that came into it’s own during the pandemic.
I’m in a Whatsapp group with a bunch of men who were all based in Manchester during our twenties. We have stayed in touch since, some moving on from the city, whilst others stayed put. We would see each other for the big weddings, and the occasional drink. But after our friend Nic was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and the pandemic meant the treatment sustaining his life was no longer available, we all came together to support him, his family, and each other. Roughly half the group has kids, so it’s not overly dad in there. But there’s a healthy mix. I saw one of the dads in Barcelona last summer, as we sat outside and shared war stories of parenting an elder daughter and a younger son, both relieved to be facing similar challenges. A problem shared is a problem halved. Especially when you’re not suffering alone.
When I moved to Barcelona, I had to make new friends. We knew no one here. My son was born, I wasn’t managing it well, and I knew that having friends in my life—real, in the same physical place friends—would help. We went to some events, we got introduced to friends of friends, we slowly tested the waters and began to find our tribe. I met a group of dads in the oddest manner. During our first year, we sent our daughter to an English-speaking school. It was a way of hedging our bets, so if this move didn’t work out and we needed to return to the UK, she’d avoid spending a year learning a language she’d have no use for. After settling in well, she hit a point where she didn’t want to go to school. She’d get upset in the morning, and throw a small-scale protest—she didn’t like her uniform, didn’t want to brush her teeth, didn’t like the cereal—those snags that are minor battles on a Saturday afternoon, but seem insurmountable at 7.30 am on a Tuesday. Especially whilst in the depths of the first 12 months of another child. One day I walked out of my door, bleary-eyed, and heard a male Californian voice utter: “Well, at least she’s in a better mood today than yesterday.”
What? Who the hell is this? And how is he saying what I’m thinking? It turns out we both left home around the same time, so he’d be walking his dog as I was getting out of the door. We’d seen each other whilst out with our dogs—we’d occasionally exchange the universally acknowledged “dog walker nod”—and he introduced himself. Then invited me into his Whatsapp group.
Here’s how these ex-pat groups work. Think of yourself as the current cohort of interlopers: “Barcelona 2019 has entered the group chat.” You’ve all arrived at a new place in roughly the same window. The group might be organised, and organise real events. They might be disorganised and occasionally meet for a few drinks. In the spirit of leaning into a new place, and doing what you can to meet new people, you’ll get together with them, at least once. If things go well, you’ll find a smattering of like-minded folks, and end up spending more time with them—breaking off into splinter groups, connecting over a shared love of something, even if that something is as simple as “sitting outside having a beer at the end of the week.”
The group was a good way to meet people, especially in the early days, when I was finding my feet here. With any open-invite group it’s inevitable you won’t agree with everyone. Cultures would clash in the chat. But it’s a necessity when moving to a place where your network is non-existent. Especially if, like I was, you’re not going to an office job every day. A workplace provides an already established group of folks, roughly the same age, all in the same place. When I moved to London, work was filled with exactly the folks I’d want to befriend—interesting people who had cool side projects, they were from every corner of the world, with impeccable taste in design, music and cinema. They had read all the books everyone was talking about, had travelled to the best cities, and had a take on the current hot internet shit—and maybe a finger in the pie too. They seemed to have figured it out what they wanted to do with their lives; at least to the extent that you can, in your late twenties. With hindsight, we all had much further to go.
One of my many cures for loneliness, especially in a world where you don’t work in an office, is to fabricate ways of working with others. After the pandemic, I started working as a line chef in a restaurant here in Barcelona—I make coffee, prep calamari, shell peas, shoot this shit and play music. It scratches my “going to the office” itch, so I head there once a week, cosplay as a chef for two hours, and get paid with a bottle of wine at the end of my short shift1. Another void is one of creative collaboration, filled by working with Tony on this newsletter. He’s illustrated well over 30 issues, and his work raises the bar of every piece it sits alongside. He crafts magnificent illustrations from the rawest of ingredients—being offered anything from “here is almost the final essay, it needs a few tweaks” all the way to “here is an embryonic set of bullet points.”2 I’ve lost count of the number of times where my thinking has been crystallised, and—more honestly—elevated by the back and forth between us. He’ll throw in an observation, or a powerful question, that pushes the whole thing forward. It’s not just his penmanship that you see on the page, but fingerprints of his thinking too.
Social psychologists define loneliness as “the gap between the social connections you would like to have and those you feel you experience.” If you sit with the word, even for a minute, you’ll begin to feel its effect; for someone to be alone, against their will, feels like cruelty. There’s a particular flavour of loneliness a father can feel, where there is evidence of others everywhere you look, but you can’t help but feel alone. There’s a hesitance to talk about it, because you are so surrounded by love, being held in its embrace, yet you still feel the void. It’s hard for me to write that. Just as I know it will be hard for some of you to read it. But I felt it after the birth of my son.
Those who’ve seen The Banshees of Inisherin will recall Colin Farrell’s Pádraic turning to his sister, telling her: “I am not putting me donkey outside when I'm sad, okay?” It’s comical, but a moment we can empathise with. Because there’s a shame in admitting you feel alone—even for a second. It triggers feelings reminiscent of high-school angst, nerve endings connected to perceived popularity, where your friend count was a primary indicator of your social standing. But it’s an emotion we need to open up about. Because we all wear it during our life, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. We need to do a better job at talking about these issues, so we can live happy, fulfilled lives and avoid descending into lonely chaos, like those men on the island of Inisherin.
“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
— Olivia Liang, The Lonely City
Introducing: TNF Men’s Circles
You might recall seeing this same illustration alongside another essay last year—on dads, depression and suicide. If there’s a single reason The New Fatherhood exists, it’s to raise tough issues like this to the surface. To let anyone reading this know: if you’re feeling down, you’re not alone. I’ve been there. So have many of the thousands of other men reading. It’s OK to talk about it, and to ask for help. You don’t need to carry it around with you, suffering in silence.
We’ve already come together as a group to raise money for dads to get access to therapy, but this year I want to do something more. Whilst working on this essay, which has been gestating for almost six months, I researched the phenomenon of men’s circles and the role they play in mental health, connection, and the sense of a fulfilled self. But what I discovered about many men’s circles left a bad taste in my mouth, with participants reporting on everything from thinly-veiled men’s rights groups to outright misogyny. Last Tuesday I pushed myself well out of my comfort zone and facilitated the very first TNF Men’s Circle for a small number of dads in our community. We came together for an hour, we spoke, we shared, we listened. And felt that it could be the start of something.
We’re going to carry on running them as part of our ongoing work as a community. There seems to be a sweet spot in terms of numbers—we had six dads last week, and 8-10 feels like it will be the maximum workable size. The plan is to have one every two weeks—the next one is in for later this month—but if they carry on going as well as this first one did, and more dads want to get involved, we’ll switch to weekly, and jiggle timezones around so that folks can join no matter where they are.
We’re going to start online. And if this works, we’ll figure out how to do them irl.
3 things to read this week
“Take Yourself on a Date” by Faith Hill in The Atlantic. One thing that I didn’t attempt to tackle here, but an important distinction, is the difference between solitude and loneliness. It’s normal—and, for introverts among us, essential—to find pleasure and purpose in time spent alone. Those familiar with The Artist’s Way will already know of the weekly “artist date,” and its author is one of many experts interviewed here. “This is something Julia Cameron has long understood: Solitude isn’t really antithetical to connection. In fact, she told me, people tend to say that their artist date makes them feel more connected—not just to themselves, but to the world. It fosters a sense of wonder, of being part of something bigger.”
“Your Guide to the Wild World of Parenting Styles” by Elizabeth Chang in The Washington Post. You probably know whether you’re a permissive parent or an authoritarian one. But what about the dozens of other parenting styles—light-house, helicopter, crunchy, silky—making their way into the modern parenting vernacular? This quiz will help you figure it all out, and is sumptuously paired with a series of illustrations from “friend of the newsletter” Tony Johnson, off the back of a few pieces in The Verge too. Don’t leave us, Tony!3
“Do You Know How to Behave? Are You Sure?” in The Cut. You’ve probably read this already. But I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t share it with those who missed it. 140 modern social etiquette tips, including a whole section on parenting, including advice on whether you can discipline a stranger’s kid in the park (a clear “no”, but friends of your child are a “yes”) and how to be crystal clear about what kind of kid’s party you are throwing (to which I would add “will alcohol be served Y/N.”)
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Did you see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish yet? You really should to hurry up. It’s like watching a painting.
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There’s at least a 2,000 word essay here. I’ll get there eventually.
A lot more of the latter than the former. Sorry Tony.