The Evolution of Friendship: From Mean Girls to Meaningful Women

Every year for the last three, along with a group of friends, I’ve packed my bags, left color-coded instructions for my family, and flown off for a long weekend. If our annual women’s weekend (or as I christened it this year, Vajayjay Vacay) were a movie, here’s how I envision the poster:

Six full-grown females, running, suitcases clacking on the cobblestones. For good measure, they’d throw in a harried and clueless looking dad. There’d be one mom checking her e-mail ‘on the go’–in business wear and heels, natch. And in the background, a gaggle of frowny kids, except the demon child with the cute, but mischievous look on his face.

There’d be a dumb tag line, something like With No Kids in Sight, Will Moms Go Wild at Night? perched tipsily on a margarita glass or something. Because of course the first thing mothers do when away from the daily grind of spit up, vacuums, and carrot sticks is to let their hair down, flirt with every hunky man they see, and drink themselves into a stupor until they end up passed out on a park bench in the middle of Madrid.

At least that’s the stereotype, the tired and trite and perhaps sometimes true trope.

I don’t know. Maybe that happens when you’re a mom in your twenties. Or thirties. Maybe it happens when you’re still breastfeeding and one glass of wine gives you a hangover. I’m in my late forties. My kids are older. My tolerance for red wine has built up like an impenetrable armor.

In my reality, a weekend away with women in their forties can best be summed by this comment, made by one of our group:

Eating a bag of chips in bed, without having to share them with my kids, napping under the covers at 5 pm? Bliss.

*****

I’ve always had close friendships with women. Some, in my teens and early twenties, were intense. Others sizzled with a live wire of competitiveness, even if we weren’t aware of what, exactly, we were competing for. This is how girls are…or at least were…conditioned. To find a guy. To marry. To have kids. That was always the end goal. Even if your goal was to be an astronaut, there was the assumption you’d be a married astronaut. The catch phrase for girls growing up in the 70s and 80s was not You Can Have One or Two things. It was you can Have It ALL. 

All most definitely included a husband and kids.

Girls absorb those assumptions. We marinate in them, soak until our blood expectation level is over the limit. You’re not always aware of it–I know I wasn’t–but it’s there all the same, the idea that a girl, a woman, is defined by her ability to get a man. Preferably one who puts a ring on it. Datable, marriageable men are presented to us as a limited resource. A rare Pokemon siting, a nugget of gold in an otherwise barren mine of rock.

And so the societal stage is set for mean girl antics and bitch behavior. Most of us play along, unaware we’re not much more than girl pawns in a game of social conditioning chess.

None of this is to say I haven’t had emotionally connective and cherished friendships with women and girls throughout my life. I absolutely have.

But….there’s something especially nice about the friendships of women in their forties.

Less competition, more chips.

****

Here’s a sneak peek into what a weekend away with six moms in their 40s really looks like…

Drinking sangria in the middle of the afternoon without having to worry about the school run.

Talking about labor, kids, periods, the future, sex. Exchanging stories about our husbands. Sure, there’s the odd complaint, but more often than not, the stories are of how we met, the sweet things they’ve done, they do.

Walking through a museum actually looking at what’s on the walls, not trying to stop your kids getting too close to the rope or bribing them with gummy bears to let you see the exhibit.

Deciding what to have for dinner as you’re sitting down. Not worrying about what to make for dinner and who eats what and who hates that? Heaven on Earth.

Long meals filled with constant conversation. There are no silences in a group of six women. There are no gaps, no awkward pauses, nothing left unspoken, no reading between the lines. When you do not have to worry about second guessing what the person across from you is thinking by what they’re not saying, there’s a lot of room for real listening.

No one is interested in flirting with the cute waiter. Oh sure, we comment on the cute waiter, but it is more important he bring us our Cava fast than make our hearts beat faster.

We talked about finding a substitute in our now long marriages for those first butterfly feelings. We talked about what the next few years hold, our fears for our kids. We joked about the weight we’ve gained. Ok, I joked (mostly) about the weight I’ve gained.

We compromised and took each other’s ideas into consideration. They toured around the feminist art exhibit with me and I sucked up the overpriced 19 Euro hotel breakfast for them.

We walked. A lot.

We walked more.

And then collapsed on the bed without having to make sure everyone else was ok first. With a bag of chips we didn’t have to share.

****

This is what female friendship in your forties is like. There’s enough room for everyone. There’s no drama, no competition, no let’s hang out with her because she makes me look good. Not mean girls, but meaningful women.

Oh sure, we dress up, slap on a little makeup, put on a little sparkle, but it’s so we cover the grays and the laugh lines in the inevitable photos rather than to attract attention. There is no seeking attention. Unless it’s signaling to the waiter we need another bottle of wine.

Female friendships are often portrayed through a filter of cattiness, of snide comments and back stabbing. I’m sure those relationships exist, even for women in their fifth decade.

Not here. Not mine. I’ve only got a limited amount of time left and choose to surround myself with meaningful women.

Even if they don’t share their chips.

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There’s No Medal At the End of Motherhood

Last night some friends and I went to see Bad Moms. After explaining to the non-Americans that yes, shit like that really does happen in American PTA meetings, we talked about the idea of women doing it all.

Why do women so often feel that no matter what we do as mothers it is never enough? Why do we carry around the idea that if only we do better, do more, then we’ll win at it?

Motherhood isn’t a sport you can train for. It’s not a game you can win.

There’s no medal waiting for you at the end of motherhood.

You work your ass off. You give up cheese and wine and deli meat for nine months. You stop dying your hair. Most of us give up a a body part or two (did I ever tell you how being pregnant wrecked my teeth?). You give up sleep and sex and alone time. You give up hobbies, the Sunday paper in peace, Saturday afternoon naps. You give up crappy take out for dinner five nights out of seven, impromptu happy hours, spontaneous, last-minute vacations, holidays out of school term. A lot of us give up our identity, a career, money, high heel shoes, dreams.

But guess what? There’s still no freaking medal at the end.

Once you are a mother, you’ll be a mother until you shuffle off this mortal coil. It gets easier and then harder again, then presumably easier. It’s like head lice, you think you’re good but it keeps coming back. But it doesn’t end.

Do you know what’s at the end of motherhood? Death. Death is at the end of motherhood. And even then you’ll probably be dragged out in therapy sessions.

Motherhood is not the Olympics. You’re not going to come in first just because your Rice Krispie treats are made with homemade marshmallow. You’re not going to win the gold because your kid does three activities or because you made a conscious decision for them to do no activities and play around in the mud all day instead. You’re not going to get to stand on the podium in your Mom podium pants because you schlepped your kid around to play on three different teams or learn Latin. You’re not going to smash a mother record because you get by on the least amount of sleep or breast-fed your kid the longest. No matter what you squeeze into your day or what you don’t, what kind of cakes you bake or buy, you’re never going to get a medal.

ussr_female_handball_team_wins_1980_olympic_games

There’s no silver for you because you puree kale in your mini food-processor and freeze it in little cubes. There’s no bronze for me because I try to write honestly about motherhood.

Motherhood isn’t a race. It’s not an endurance sport that requires training and multiple hydration stops (unless you’re talking wine). Sure, we all want to find our personal best, but that personal best shouldn’t be about how much we can fit in (or conversely, how little we can do), but finding a balance between raising children to be healthy, functioning adults and being healthy, functioning adults ourselves.

Trying to do too much, to be all things, to be the best at all things–maybe it might make you feel like you’re doing it all, but at the end?

Still no medal.

If you’re lucky you might get some flowers and brunch on the first Sunday in May.

You can bake the best cakes and throw the best parties and sew the best Halloween costumes. You can create Van Gogh inspired lunches or be the one who volunteers for every field trip, who sits in the front row for every assembly and concert. Or you can brag loudly about doing none of those things.

There’s still no medal.

The moms in Bad Moms were exaggerated examples (mostly), but they were recognizable enough to make me question why so many of us take a thing like motherhood, which is hard enough, and make it into something impossible?

Women are smart and talented and intelligent and creative and capable. Then we have kids and all of that multi-faceted-ness I love about women gets squeezed into the narrow channel of motherhood where it bulges like a hernia. Eventually it explodes into something resembling what we have now: Mothers going for the gold.

Being a good mom–or even a bad mom–doesn’t have to be the sole defining factor of your existence. It can be an important one, even the most important one if that’s what you choose, but don’t let anyone else make that choice for you. Because even though motherhood may feel like a competition at times, it’s not.

There are no podium pants. There are no podiums. No one’s going to raise a flag or sing an anthem or ask you for an interview or put you on a box of diapers as the face of Motherhood. No ticker tape parades or entries into Wikipedia. There are no trophies or consolation prizes.

There is no medal at the end of motherhood. The reward is kids who grow up to lead respectful lives, who contribute in some way to the betterment of society–even if that betterment is being a kind soul. That’s your reward. And it’s worth more than any medal.

Just don’t kill yourself trying to get there or you’ll never get to enjoy the result.

We all lose when everybody wins

Photo: budgettrophies.net
Photo: budgettrophies.net

Yesterday was Sports Day for my older son.  As a parent volunteer, I dressed in a pair of red jeans and led a group of color-coordinated kids around the schoolyard, encouraging them to do their best ‘throwing the hopper’, shooting baskets, and skipping rope.  They ran and jumped and shot their little hearts out.  At the end of a long afternoon they bounced a football on a parachute for five minutes, slowly wilting in the sun. I yelled myself hoarse cheering them on, rallying them to go faster, try harder, keep going.  Parent captains kept score, tallying points for how fast and how many baskets and adding extra points for team spirit.  Throughout, Team Red kept asking me what the score was.  Were they winning?  Behind?  Close?  At the end the afternoon, my Reds waited to find out who had won.  The parent coaches waited to find out who had won. The teachers running the events waited to find out who had won.

And then we all had to suffer through the inevitable preachy platitude.  That sticky sweet statement.

There is no one winner today, because WE’RE  ALL WINNERS!

Bullshit.

Photo: twitchy.com
Photo: twitchy.com

In life, there are winners.  And if there are winners, by default, there are losers.  You can call them non-winners if you like.  Participants. Competitors.  Event Attendant.  But when it comes right down to it, down to those sharpened brass tacks we are so careful not to step on these days, there are winners and there are losers.  And kids….well kids KNOW this.  They know it instinctively.

Most kids are natural competitors; they want to succeed, they want to excel, they want to do their best.  They want to win.  And for years now, we have been insulting them by assuming they can’t handle losing.  As much as my Red Team wanted to win the whole shebang, dance around for a minute and gloat that they were the champions and they would rock you, they weren’t about to go out and loot the computer lab if they lost.  They were happy being out in the sunshine, screaming themselves hoarse with their friends, skipping out on math, enjoying a popsicle at the end of the day.  They still wanted to win though.  Yet here we were telling them that the reward for doing their best, for trying their hardest, should be the pride they felt in knowing they did their best.  A pretty sophisticated and complex expectation for a bunch of grade schoolers.

And while nothing is wrong with kids feeling proud about doing their best, there is also nothing wrong with winning.  We are so busy shielding them from failure in the cloak of self-esteem boosting that we are lying to them, so caught up in bubble-wrapping our children from the facts of life that we are doing them a disservice.  Under the guise of protecting them, we are actually harming them.

I excelled in school.  I was a model, straight A student who passed papers in on time.  I was the one who got the symbolism in English Lit class, who took Latin and generally found academics enjoyable and easy.  But I sucked at sports, and at geometry. And at sewing.  I was rewarded for my academics, with medals and honors and eventually, a scholarship.  The high school quarterback, who didn’t excel at English Lit but was really, really good at completing passes, was also rewarded with a scholarship, double mine.  No one told me that well yes, you did well in English class, but you won’t receive a scholarship because, well, we’re all winners.  No one told the quarterback that he couldn’t hoist the Tri-Valley League Championship trophy because, well, the other team’s feelings might be hurt.  In our ongoing quest to make the world a fair and equitable place for our children, we are taking something away from them.  Not only kids who excel, but from the ones who don’t as well.

The dyslexic boy who struggles with reading but can bend it like Beckham?  When we tell him everyone is a winner, we are belittling HIS talent.  The girl with the glasses who is always picked last in gym class but wins the 3rd grade spelling bee by spelling P-O-I-M-E-N-I-C-S?  When we hand out equal medals of participation, we are taking away from HER pride and sense of achievement in what she excels at.  We are so worried about making sure that everyone feels good about themselves, we’re sucking the life out of our kids.  We’re taking away the drive that those kids who AREN”T good at something may feel to go out and find the talent they do have.  The thing they are good at, the thing they excel in.  If everyone is treated equally for everything they do, you take away a desire to do your best.  There is no sense of achievement or pride.  There is an adult sized pat on the back and a over-enthusiastic well done.

Kids don’t want “Well-done”.   They want to know that their hard work paid off.  They want to win.

We are selling our kids short, and by doing so, we are setting them up for a lifetime of anxiety and failure.  Because eventually, whether it’s in middle school, college, or the work place; in relationships or sports or academics, or just life itself, they are going to learn that the world is not a fair and equitable place.  That everyone gets a popsicle at the end of the competition is great, but there’s also nothing with wrong someone coming in first.  There is nothing wrong with being proud of that, or, for those that didn’t win, having the experience fuel the desire to do better next time.  Far from taking away from the efforts of the teams that didn’t win, we are doing more damage to the self-esteem of the ones who did win and are made to hide their pride at winning.

Photo:  goodreads.com
Photo: goodreads.com

We are living in an age of over-parenting which sees us censoring fairy tales because they are “too scary”.  We are shunning classics like Huckleberry Finn because they use racial slurs.  Parents go broke inviting the entire class to a birthday party because someone’s feelings may get hurt.  We get swept along with the current trend of not opening gifts during a party because another child may get jealous, or God forbid, be bored.  How are our children going to learn to negotiate the world, to drive themselves forward, if we  keep putting the brakes on their experiences?

We are not just bathing them in hand sanitizer anymore, we are sanitizing their lives.

My red team at Sports Day didn’t want to hear that they were all winners–they wanted to hear THEY had won.  But, they would have been perfectly content if Team Pink had won instead.

Kids get it.  It’s the adults that have lost our way.