By Dixie Dillon Lane
At some time or another, all women (and men) experience loneliness. They may even experience deep loneliness -- long loneliness -- the loneliness that worms into the bones and makes you wonder whether you are even lovable, and whether there is a God.
And when you finally get up the courage to mention this loneliness to someone else out there, here is what I hope they will not say. I hope they will not tell you: You know what? You should start some sort of group!
Yet that is just the sort of exhausting and dispiriting advice that the lonely constantly get.
Of course, most women, lonely or not, are always seeking ways to increase connection and make themselves and their homes more welcoming to their families and friends. And there’s no getting around the work involved in this: the reaching out, the inviting people over, and yes, the starting of groups. There is some wisdom to what the all-too-perfect mommies on the internet say: Take action! Build the community you seek yourself!
Yet most women these days already have so, so much to do. We are tasked with much that is trying. And sometimes, if we’re honest, we just want someone else to do the reaching out to us. As we lovingly prepare another tray of coffee and treats for an evening party, or rub our teenaged daughter’s feet while she tells us her troubles even though we’re tired from work, or make one more batch of cookies for the latest bake sale, sometimes we wish someone would extend a little bit of hospitality and rest to us.
Go out and be hospitable? We think in frustration. Why can’t someone else reach out and make friends with me instead?
In other words, the call to hospitality and action to improve our social lot might be emotionally and personally exhausting far too early in the process, if we’re not careful. Yet it is only once we have established a warm circle of family and friend relationships through this kind of hard work that we can achieve the reciprocity for which we long. Finding, establishing, and growing that circle takes time and effort.
But doing all the reaching out, all the time, by ourselves, feels overwhelming. So what are we to do?
I suggest that we begin by honoring our personal seasons of hospitality. We must protect our energy and emotions by respecting the very real and purposeful rhythms of our lives.
The truth is that the always-on nature of modern society is draining, no matter how well-intentioned its socializing may be. Instead of joining in on this different kind of rat race, let us consider that many women may have a tendency to be cyclical or seasonal in their hospitality and social activity just as they do in so many other things. We do have times of energy and outward-feeling, in which we reach out to strangers and friends alike and make plans or organize groups. But then, we also have times when we need rest from society, a sort of cocooning, when we crave time alone and with those who are very close to us. And these inward times are just as important to respect as the extroverted ones.
If we burden ourselves with an expectation to always take the lead socially and always do it all – no matter what – we may be working not so much against laziness or timidity, but against our needs and ourselves. And that doesn’t do anybody any favors.
I have observed, for example, that when I myself am in the “boom” part of this cycle of hospitality, if I make plans too far ahead, I am likely to end up needing to fulfill them when I am actually in a “bust” cycle in terms of energy and desire to socialize. Then I get caught in a spiral of self-doubt over whether I should cancel my plans in order to take care of myself or go ahead with the plans in order to take care of someone else. Often the boom and bust follow my menstrual cycle to a certain degree, but this pattern also adjusts itself according to holidays, the beginning and end of the academic semester, and other times of stress or rejoicing.
If you observe yourself over time as well, you may well notice that you are not really a “flake” who cancels plans at the last minute because she is selfish or just not up to snuff. Rather, you may have a tendency to plan too much for the weeks ahead while you are in an energetic moment, when you ought instead to be anticipating a need in the coming weeks to cocoon and get your husband to rub your feet. Perhaps this is why so many women hesitate to make commitments: we never know quite how we will feel when the time comes to fulfill them, and we hate to be inconsiderate or disappoint anyone by not following through.
If we can appreciate this seasonal, cyclical pattern rather than fight it, however, we can see that it is actually a feature, not a bug. We women were not designed to be “on” all the time, to have a weekly supper date ever on the books and to which we always invite a new family. Rather, we are designed to have seasons of interiorizing and rest – the first trimester of pregnancy, the postpartum period, the time just before and after the beginning of a menstrual cycle, the coldest of the winter months, and more – and other seasons of turning our energy, now restored by our time in the cocoon, outward to welcome and nourish others outside of our tightest circle. We should honor this, not ignore it or try to force it into compliance. A square peg is not supposed to fit in a round hole.
Hospitality is a marathon, not a sprint, as is friendship; to do them well, we need rest and recovery in regular off seasons. So have your weekly dinner, but plan the one at the beginning of the month for dear, comfortable friends only, with takeout on the menu; or do it once a month, spontaneously, instead of on every other Tuesday, when you may or may not be feeling generous and well. Or if last year you were able to lead the church women’s group or teach CCD, don’t feel that that means you ought to be able to do it this year – maybe this year is a time to focus on rest. Did you just have a baby? Please don’t sign up for that other mom’s meal schedule. There will be time enough for that later on.
So why not try honoring our interior seasons as ways to guide us in our growth in hospitality and friendship, not as obstacles that we must overcome? After all, combatting loneliness starts with accepting the truths of your needs and your own character, your own self. So whether your personal seasons of rest come with a particular monthly week or approach you quietly when you least expect them, do your best to welcome and anticipate them, not push them under or away. They may be the very source of the energy you most need in order to live out joyfully your next season’s plans.
Dixie Dillon Lane is a historian, essayist, and homeschooling mother who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame and is an Associate Editor at Hearth & Field. More of her writing can be found via her substack newsletter, The Hollow.