Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Jun 29, 2023

The Beauty of “Phone-a-Friend”

Women working at a telephone switchboard.

“I’d like to phone a friend.”

I was in high school when this phrase became ubiquitous. A new primetime gameshow captured all of our attention with a two-week evening special hosted by Regis Philbin. Contestants would answer increasingly difficult multiple-choice questions to eke closer to the nearly unimaginable million-dollar prize. To get there, they had access to a few "lifelines” to help them along the way. “Phone-a-friend" was exactly what it sounds like. If you need help, call a friend.

This was my favorite lifeline. I couldn’t wait to hear the voice on the other end of the line. Regis would ask AT&T to connect the person in the hot seat to their friend of choice: a history teacher in their kid’s school, a neighbor with obscure knowledge, a childhood best friend, or their sister. I was so curious about who the contestants would call upon to help them answer such random Trivial Pursuit-like questions. Do these people know they might be called during a live TV game show with big money on the line? What if they aren’t home? Or in the bathroom? (This was before cell phones!)

I’ll never forget the first person who made it to the end. Amazingly, he saved his “phone a friend” lifeline for the last question. “I don’t really need your help, Dad. I just wanted to tell you I’m going to win a million dollars.”

In moments of joy, and in moments of real challenge, I cannot think of a better lifeline.

In the weeks after giving birth to my firstborn, I decided to take him out for a short walk in Central Park. The process of getting both of us ready – changing out of an outfit I’d been wearing for a few days, unfolding the stroller the way my husband and I practiced, and filling a bag with enough diapers, wipes, burp cloths, clothes, and more – was the longest 30 minutes I had been through up until that point. By the time the two of us were out the door, I felt resigned from the energy it took to complete a previously simple task and the emotional weight of the fourth trimester.

That day, in a city of over eight million people, I felt a sense of loneliness I hadn’t experienced before. My husband had gone back to work after his short parental leave, and I was left alone with a newborn to care for and nowhere to go. My regularly scheduled program of days filled with meetings and phone calls became tracking poop color, naptimes, haphazard PB&J sandwiches, and Ellen. I quickly learned that parenting was full of emotional highs and lows, and every so often, these feelings coincided at the same time.

Sitting on a park bench, I was overjoyed by the sight of my son sleeping sweetly in the bassinet, his beautiful face, rosy cheeks, and wispy hair. Yet, there was an ache that I could not ignore. The process of becoming a mother brought with it a particular kind of isolation: hormonal changes, a shift in my identity, the sudden disruption of prior routines, and the recalibration of my support structure. Strong-tie relationships either evolved or became weaker as the transformation took hold.

In those first few months postpartum, I found myself mindlessly scrolling on my phone, trying to placate a deep yearning for human connection with online versions of other people’s lives. I was going down a rabbit hole of unhealthy social comparison and withdrawal. I don’t remember exactly when I found the courage to pick up the phone to call my mom and ask for help, but I’m thankful I did. This was my phone-a-friend, and she was ready to swoop up our little family and take us into her arms.

Loneliness is akin to feeling invisible, unaccepted, unseen, and unheard. You can feel lonely when you are by yourself, sitting next to someone you love, or surrounded by thousands of people. It’s a condition that is more common than we might think or feel comfortable putting a name to. The decline in social connection has affected a growing population of Americans over the last decades, including 36% of the general public, 61% of young adults, and 51% of mothers with young children.

What pulled me out of the loneliness I experienced during postpartum was the love and social support that I received from friends and family, big and small. Snacks left by my husband on the bedside table for late-night nursing. Short phone calls from friends “just to say hi.” Messages of encouragement and commiseration from other parents in my life who’d been there before. Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions.” Those weeks in Connecticut when my mom took her new grandson in her arms and sent me back to bed. And a group of neighborhood moms whom I met wandering through the park on those brisk spring and hot summer days in 2013 who continue to be my lifelines today.

I recently listened to an interview between Preet Bharara and Dr. Niobe Way, founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at NYU and a leading researcher on human connection, about the crisis of loneliness facing our country. In response to Preet’s question about whether we are born curious or self-interested, Niobe cited a study by neuroscientists that demonstrated that “80% of our time is spent thinking about the thoughts and feelings of other people.” But in different facets of our lives like in schools and workplaces, “we spend all our time getting people not to think about the thoughts and feelings of other people,” she continued.

What if we redesign how we work, live, and play to prioritize human connection and relationships?

The new advisories from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy give our country a clear pathway forward in addressing the epidemic of loneliness and isolation and the effects of social media on youth mental health  – as individuals and a collective. I hope these solutions will inspire you to learn more about our partnership with the Foundation for Social Connection, the Harvard Human Flourishing Program, and Healthy Places by Design to build connected communities, as well as our collaborative efforts with peer funders, parent leaders, and researchers to embed early relational health practices in pediatrics settings.

In an interview with The New York Times, when asked about his reasons for writing “The Life We’re Looking For,” a book about technology and reclaiming relationships, author Andy Crouch explained:

“From the moment we come into the world, what we are most looking for, most in need of, most designed to learn to give and receive from others, is love — intimate, profound, mutual relationships of giving and receiving, even at great cost to ourselves. That is truly what love is. In the psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s beautiful phrase, we’re all ‘looking for someone looking for us.’”

Let us continue to look for one another. And let us remember one of the best ways to give and receive love is to reach out and phone a friend.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.