I pick up the phone and the voice of my mother sounds brighter than it has in months. “Celia called,” she says.
“Oh?” I answer, raising an eyebrow. I hadn’t heard the name of her good friend in several months. “What did she say?”
“She said it hurt her feelings when I didn’t want to walk with her anymore.”
“Oh?” I reply. “Weren’t we just talking about how you miss those walks?”
“We were!” she said. “I told her, ‘I never said that. I love walking with you, I thought you were too busy and didn’t want to walk with me.’”
“And what did she say?”
“Well, we’re going walking tomorrow and I’m just so glad she called,” she said, her voice shining like the sun.
I’m telling this story because I can relate. My mom is 73 and she’s lifted up and really hurt by the same trigger that started for most of us in grade school: female friendships. In Raising Girls, Steve Biddulph writes, “Friends are important to most of us, but for girls, they are like the oxygen they breathe.” From my vantage right between girl and septuagenarian, in my thirties running a mostly stay-at-home-mom gig with three kids, I wasn’t prepared for both the depth and the length of all these relationships. Motherhood has been rapid-fire friendship 101.
Going in, there was this expectation to find my person, or my people. I’d moved to the other side of LA, we had no family in town, and I needed an emergency contact. But we didn’t know anyone that well yet. And then there was that made-up unicorn mom I was longing for. I would be Cat, she’d be Nat. We’d vent together, laugh together. She’d be the sanity break following an imaginary-play marathon. The work of momming all day with no other adults felt isolating. To have that one trusted person to get through it with would make everything easier. But I know now, friendships don’t necessarily work that way.
The way I’ve seen it, the shape of the motherhood friendship rollercoaster ride looks something like this: It starts with a baby. Babies crack you open and make you feel vulnerable in ways maybe you have never felt before. Women often make deep, authentic connections in these years. We really need each other, and moms show up. Conversations cover nap schedules, first foods, stroller accessories, existential crises. No one else in the world can breathe these topics like a new mom.
It’s only a couple years until that baby gets a sibling, or not, starts at Montessori daycare or a forest school, and there’s a shift. Someone always moves. And it’s sad, so you’ll watch some kids grow up on Instagram instead of in your backyard. And if you have a job, or a strong friendship with your spouse, or you’re close with your mom, or a sister, then friends come and go, and the ride feels just kind of bumpy. But if it’s just you with these kids, no emergency contact, and the only people you really talk to are moms at the park, then, like me, you’ll be white-knuckling a lot of this ride.
If making baby friends feels quick and dirty, elementary school is the long, slow climb. Grade school is a bigger crowd of people on so many different pages with every shaped family. Instead of hours sitting on the floor watching someone nonverbal try to crawl, you cannot hear yourself think from the carpool line, trying to simultaneously keep a baby awake and seem interested in the middle child’s soliloquy on Pokémon Go. The season is loud. Family life becomes all-consuming. There’s little time for friends, but you’re surrounded all the time by people. You make small talk at practices, recitals, back-to-school nights, basketball games. You send SOS texts for drinks, bent on staying awake and completing a thought. You catch up with the people you bonded over babies with. You also make time for a hike with the mom you want to get to know better from basketball. With low expectations of everyone, you can cobble together adult time. Sometimes it’s all too much and you just take your free time to read a pile of books. (I also recommend tennis.)
I’ve realized that that’s all OK. We’re all a little lonely, and we’re going up and down. The truth is motherhood brings about reason to connect with a diverse, fascinating collection of women who will support you, have fun with you, and draw boundaries with you. Friends fade in and out while life changes more quickly than children grow up. We all have new relational, emotional, and time needs with each pregnancy, diagnosis, school year, job change. The seasons can’t match up with any one person. But there’s overlap and in those times, shared mothering means the world.
So it’s not you, it’s us. One size fits none. It’s really normal to be 73 and missing your friend. And to walk through a misunderstanding with her. Since grade school it’s been thrilling to connect with someone new, and sad to stop seeing them regularly.
So whom do I list as my emergency contact? As it turns out, a whole bunch of people. I was looking for a bestie, but I found a network. It’s better than I could have imagined.