Do you recall those whirlwind evenings, usually fuelled by alcohol and youth, where the appetite for joy was abundant and you would render yourself delightfully dizzy with laughter?
Did you ever slowly turn your head around a room full of colourful characters whom you loved so effortlessly, and who loved you back in turn, and feel as if you were part of an underground revolution?
Did you tilt your head up to a camera phone in response to a slender arm slung over your shoulder, obeying their instruction to ‘smile’, even though you could never envisage a time when you’d need photos such as this to preserve the memory of nights such as those?
Then, during a deep and meaningless discussion with someone you’d met only once before, you looked up and you found that everyone you knew had disappeared. Flown off, perhaps to another party, and forgotten about you.
You realised it was time to go home, except that this was home for you and you don’t know when it stopped being so for everybody else.
So many lifelong friendships are formed during the years in which we are our most unmoulded selves. A group of young people running on ego and rum looking in one another's eyes to try to find themselves. Perhaps it’s that because our feathers had not yet been coated with experience, we were governed only by instinct and so are in many ways both our most uncrafted and most authentic selves. It's during these unanchored years that we tend to meet those who will drift through life with us.
Often we spend this period of life in more than one place and so gather up friends in several different storms. For me, it was the university years and the early working years. Friendships that were tailored with those who were in a similar stage of life to me. Pre-marriage, pre-babies and pre-mortgages. During a time in which the closest there ever was to a magnetic shopping list on the fridge would have been a post-it asking, ’who drank all my f***ing milk???’. Times through which we talked into the early hours about songs that spoke to us, the flaws of everyone outside our inner circle and devised and debated pointless top five lists.
My less-smart-phone bleeped far less frequently than it does today, but with matters of far more importance. Not streams of WhatsApp sharing, but messages exclusively meant for me. Mostly requests for drinks and updates on essential progress including how intense hangovers were, who had gone home with whom, our ever-changing hairstyles and which pubs had the best bands playing each evening.
Every so often though, it would be a call or a text of need. Sometimes for advice, usually for a sounding board or shoulder to cry on. ‘Emily, he hasn’t called,’ ‘Emily, I need help with my job pro-con list,’ ‘Emily, I’ve fallen out with someone, what shall I do?’ ‘Emily, I'm just letting you know that the nice policemen are just giving me a lift home even though I’m totally not drunk.’ I made my fair share of SOS calls too. There was a time somewhere between the age of 18 and 28 when my friends knew everything that went on in my life and vice-versa.
Fast forward to our 30s and many of us are married or in long-term relationships. Some are homeowners and quite a few of us have children. Most are settled into careers and, although there have been adventures including moves abroad, moves out of the city and a worldwide pandemic, by and large, we’re in a somewhat more stable stage of life.
In many ways, my life doesn’t seem too different from my friends. I have a daughter, a home, I’m working and we’re all trying to juggle family, work and wellbeing. Yet, I honestly cannot remember the last time a friend contacted me directly just to share some news or ask for advice. News I get on WhatsApp groups and social media, but that shouldn’t count. As for less celebratory topics, struggles are shared in person at group events (when broached) but there are no calls or texts in between these to request an understanding ear or shoulder to cry on. I am the only one of my friends still putting in the ‘just checking in’ and ‘you’ll never guess what’ calls. As a self-employed single parent, I’m fairly sure I’m no less busy than anyone else but I know by the trace of perplexity on the other end of the phone, that these calls are not generally expected anymore. Nowadays it’s text and WhatsApp to arrange monthly meetups, whether that’s group get-togethers or one-on-one catch-ups.
Is it that we’re all grown up and our less dramatic lives have rendered us from having to lean on one another? I don’t believe so. Being a ‘grown-up’ is still a fragile thing. The roots have spread deeper and the stem is tougher but the weather still comes, every so often, in an attempt to unearth us.
So, if we’re still in need of counsel, where are we getting it? Mortgage advisors, personal trainers and Brene Brown are on the list. Professional advice, expert advice and others who indirectly speak to us can still open us up, comfort and inspire us. Glennon Doyle’s memoir, Untamed, shook me to my core and I doubt I could ever have had a heart-to-heart with a friend that awoke me in such a life-changing way. Yet, those real in-person heart-to-hearts come with a tenderness and a warmth you can only get from those who know you well.
What impersonal advice and distanced guidance can never replace is that mirror. The one that only someone who walks through life beside you can hold up. If it’s no longer friends, at least not as regularly, then who does that leave? I suppose it’s partners. Ah! I do not have one of those. Perhaps this is one reason I’m still finding myself in need of close friendships?
I highlight close friends because friends, in general, are in abundance. Do not think of me as in need of company. Nights spent indoors reading, writing and relaxing are perfectly balanced with evenings out and lunches with friends. In many ways, it’s easier than ever in my thirties to make new friends. There are the other parents at the school gates, those met through classes and hobbies and, for me, my female founder networking forms as many friendships as it does business relationships.
New friendships are wonderful and are usually made, as those earlier friendships were, as a result of being in a similar stage of life. Thus, in many ways, the more recent relationships formed are more currently relevant. Easier even. Yet, there’s something to be said for old friendships. They ground us. Only somebody who has seen you semi-stalk ‘tattoo guy from the sandwich shop’, danced with you to Avril Lavigne songs or listened to your drunken claims that the moon follows you can ever be truly trusted. Those who were present for all the trials and errors and chose to love us anyway.
This is why it’s so easy for partners to slip into that role of daily confidant. They too are tasked with loving you unconditionally. Perhaps partners becoming the go-to confidants is the reason why, when problems of friends are disclosed with one another, the issue tends to be the husbands. So, if all other crises and celebrations are shared with partners then maybe those of us who have found lasting romance in our thirties simply don’t need friends so much?
Motherhood also changes the dynamics. Although undoubtedly much support is called for during the early years of your children, their presence, both in the joy and the responsibility, dilutes the importance of other complaints. Other happinesses in our lives are also easily shared with our children who are ever keen to throw themselves into celebrations, no matter how minor.
Having children also often brings us closer to our own parents. In our teens and twenties, we sought familiar friendships with peers who wanted, like us, to spread their wings and navigate their own flight paths. Yet, when we have children we find ourselves rebonded with our parents. Seeking out their guidance and offloading our stresses on them because we recall seeing them, through our younger eyes, go through the same phase of life. This is not true for everyone of course, but some of us find a rekindled relationship with our parents that blossoms into a friendship. Suddenly it is our mothers or fathers who we reach out to again when we need support or have news to share.
For those of us who are still single in our 30s, we fight to insist there does not form a divide between us and our coupled-up friends. Yet, the differences are undeniable. Especially when it comes to reliance because your need and want for closeness in friendships are likely to be greater than theirs.
As a single person, you inevitably miss out on some meetups. As your girlfriend's partners also become friends more gets arranged within the context of foursomes. So much so that when I date I find myself looking for someone not just for me but who will slip into the fold of my friends and their partners also. Talking with my very few single friends I find that these experiences are common. The couples form together and us singletons are included mostly on girls-only get-togethers and seen one-on-one when partners are out of town. Which means less often.
It doesn’t help that several friends have coincidentally relocated to the town where I grew up. Having felt that I must quicken my pace to keep up with friends who seem to be growing up faster than me, I’m now faced with the prospect that to move forward I may have to consider moving back. Whatever way I look at it, returning to the town I attended secondary school in would feel as such.
You see, as a teenager growing up in a place I knew I was soon to leave I did what any young girl with a rebellious streak should. I carelessly but intentionally cultivated the kind of reputation you may as well have when you have absolutely no aspiration to ever return to your hometown. Admittedly, it was a half-hearted misspent youth and probably I’d be little but a hazy memory to anyone who still resided there, if anyone remembered me at all. Still, it’s rather like making a dramatic door-slamming exit, only to realise you had nowhere else to go and had best return through the side door, wings folded back and tinfoil crown in hand.
Still, as life changes the importance of living very near to each other rescinds, since we’re available less often anyway. Those random escalated evenings where a quick after-work drink transforms into a night of legendary status are long gone. Everything that happens now only does so as a result of tedious planning and close to a thousand WhatsApp messages. Yet, it’s not the planning that makes these meet-ups less impactful. Or even that we call it a night earlier or sometimes have the children in tow. It’s that because of the lack of calls and texts in between events, all we have time for is to ‘catch-up.' We spend three hours playing a slow game of musical chairs, making sure we’ve checked in with each other. ‘How’s work?’ Tick. ’How’s so-and-so?’ Tick. ‘How are the kids/family?’ Tick. ‘What’s new?’ A few highlights and lowlights emerge but we don’t get to those in-depth or surprising conversations because we never had to do all the ‘how are yous’ before. Not whilst we had all the calls and texts in between seeing one another. Admittedly, we also saw each other more frequently then, but it was the urgency of updating one another on every little thing that happened that meant we had time for more interesting and unexpected events and conversations to occur when we would get together.
None of these changes in friendships should come as a surprise. After all, every film or series that centred on women taught us that this is how it goes. We lean on one another in our youth, until we find that one person to prop us up. It’s when these loveable scattered girls have grown into successful women and have then, of course, found love, that the series can end, that the film credits can roll.
How is it that in the media we generally celebrate female friendship until something better comes along? The message this sends is toxic both for those who find lasting romance and those who don’t. Whatever our circumstances, it teaches us that we should, at some point, need each other less. This would be fine of course, if it didn’t risk some of us feeling as though there was no one to turn to if disaster was to strike. After all, not being called for active friendship services makes it harder to make those calls ourselves.
Is it all such a bittersweet ending? No, I don’t think so. That we still make time for old friends in our busy lives is a true sign of a deep need for one another. One that may not be so visible on the surface.
I’m beginning to realise that growing up does not mean the end of these friendships, it’s actually when we reap the rewards of how enduring those friendships have become. For what we did in younger years, with our constant contact and reliance on one another, was to stitch the fabric of our friendships together. With each phone call, checking in text, stretched out summers day and evenings of debauchery we wove a fabric made of something beautiful and unbreakable. A material that we could wrap around ourselves as we went about our own individual journeys and shake out, like a blanket under our feet, when we congregate.
As our children, partners, parents and careers begin to take centre stage roles, it can sometimes feel as though our friendships no longer play leading parts. Yet, the truth is that when the scene is set in act one, if we’ve done well enough, then the roles of our friends have become established. And although we are not so often called up for active friendship services or ringing that assembly bell ourselves, we know that these old friends are still a crucial part of our ongoing stories and merely waiting in the wings until needed.