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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To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom

Best of Men and Best of Husbands

Occasionally people ask me if I hate men.

Playing a feminist version of the old “Bloody Mary” game of slumber parties past, I’ve stood with eyes squeezed shut and asked a mirror the same question.

“Do I hate men?”
“Do I hate men?”
“Do I hate men?”

When I’ve opened my eyes, the answer is the same as it’s always been.

No.

Of course I don’t hate men.

Look, there’s a world of difference between being pro-woman and being anti-man. They are not two sides of the same coin, one does not necessitate the other. But those are thoughts for another post.

But this post? This one goes out to the ones I love.

I suppose in a way, following the logical conclusion of REM lyrics, it goes out to the ones I’ve left behind as well. After all, the long trail of tears from adolescence to late twenties led me directly to the kind of man I could spend my life with, raise children with, and move across continents with. It’s led me to forming friendships with the kind of men I’m comfortable with.

The point is, I know good men. My husband, friends, random people I’ve met on the internet….

What I’ve realized of late is that sometimes in this never-ending battle of the sexes, we don’t follow the Marine Corp. code. Often those few good men do get left behind.

So, if you are one of them, if you’re married to one or raised one, if your daughter married one, if you know one, make sure you give them a quick nod of thanks before we go up over the trench for the next skirmish.

Who are these men? They are men who understand their life as a male grants them the mother of all hall passes: the opportunity to walk through life unburdened by the albatross of constantly playing catch up. The ones who, all else being equal, can expend their energy chasing white whales and windmills. And before anyone gets indignant, defiant, or defensive, I don’t mean to imply men do not face their own set of challenges–because they absolutely do, but that’s for another post.

It would seem I have a lot of writing to do.

But these men, the best of men and best of husbands? They know that a fluke of sperm and chromosome has given them a platform. The height I–or any other woman–gets from a pair of stilettos, doesn’t begin to come close.

These are the men who are willing to listen and learn, to expand their views, and most importantly, to change the way they use the hall pass which is perpetually tucked into the back pocket of their man pants.

My husband? He understands that opening the world up for women means opening the world up for him as well. A wider world of opportunity for ME means a wider world of opportunity for him and for our sons as well.

Never going to be tall enough

It means my kids can belt out the soundtrack to Hamilton at full blast and not be concerned with whether or not it’s ok for men to sing Broadway musicals. It means my oldest son can draw rainbows and unicorns without worrying about being called feminine or an LGBTQ slur. It means my youngest can wear pink football boots without being called a pussy. It means allowing them the freedom to explore a richer emotional life without being told to man up. It means encouraging to do the things they love, not just the limited options on the male approved list. It means seeking out things that will bring them fulfillment, not just ticking the boxes of what success means.

As much as it means I find and demand value beyond being a mother, it means my husband gets to find value in being a father.

The men I am talking about? They aren’t afraid to put their money where their mouth is. I have witnessed these men change the language they use, I have listened to them not only talk about the importance of diversity quotas but actually put them into practice. I have watched the lightbulb moment of recognition in some where they have come to realize women are not simply making this shit up. I have watched them enter into online dialogues to call out sexism. I have watched them dig below the layer that is so often presented to them to find a female example, a female candidate, a female adviser–not just to score brownie points, but because they recognize that expanding their own circle of knowledge to include experiences beyond their own is going to enrich their own experience.

It’s like adding new cuisine to a meat and potatoes diet. Does meat and potatoes taste good? Sure. Will it sustain you? Sure. But how do you know your new favorite meal isn’t going to be something you’ve never tried before?

I don’t hate men. I want men to be better. Having said that, there are many I know who are already there.

The best of men and best of husbands, this is for you.

 

 

Expat Speak

Pristine gym shoes and undented lunch boxes aren’t the only sign of a new school year. At an international school like the one my kids attend, there is also a sea of new faces, a phalanx of new germs, and, if you put in the effort, the opportunity to make new friends.

Meet and greets are a commonplace enough at the beginning of the year. I always think those suckers are like expat speed dating, but with caffeine in lieu of wine. But don’t be fooled. You can learn a lot more than a just a name to put to the person mainlining coffee across from you.

With any group of a feather that flocks together the conversation usually follows a loose script. When Brits get together they ask about the weather. With new moms the questions are usually about how much sleep you’re getting. Expats are no different. We play our own version of Twenty Questions. Sometimes however, it’s not the question or even the answer, but the between the lines translation where you strike gold.

Q: Where do you come from?

Translation: How am I going to have to adjust my own personal language/speech/topic patterns in this conversation? Alternatively it can mean “help me out because I can’t place your accent”. I have trouble with South African vs. New Zealand. Unless they say “shame” in which case, it’s South Africa for the win every time. But unless I directly ask someone to replay the Cersei/nun showdown on Game of Thrones, that one can be a bit tricky.

Bonus: If the answer to this question is  “The US” or “The UK” these days it will be followed by a question designed to determine who you voted for or where you voted on Brexit. Whether or not you mentally walk away from that person when you figure out the answer is up to the individual. You all know where I stand.

Q: Where did you move from? (Note: this is an entirely different than asking where you come from)

Translation: Is this your fist overseas stint? The answer dictates which way the conversation will shift. This question is like the fork in the conversational road. Talk will either shift onto the path of ‘how can I help you?’ or onto the road of ‘let’s compare places we’ve lived’.

Q: How are you finding it here ?

So, how do feel about that Referendum???

Translation: Are we going to be friends or are you going to be the person I strategically avoid for the rest of the school year? This is not to be confused with genuine concerns. For instance, if someone says “It’s harder than I thought it would be,” longer term expats generally go all mother expat hen and spill their best tips about navigating the supermarket. But if the answer is “Ugh, the Danes are so rude”?  Pretty much going to keep the social interactions to a nod and not much more. There are whole pockets of naysayer expat. They will find a place amongst their own tribe and be happy in their own unhappy way.

Q: How long have you been here?

Translation: Are we going to like it here or have we made the mother of all screw ups? When someone asks how long you’ve been somewhere and the answer is a.) more than six months and b.) they have a smile on their face, it’s a good sign. When your answer, like mine, is nearly six years, you can almost hear the exhale. Generally people don’t stay around in a posting for more than a year or two if they hate it. Note: If they’re on a fixed schedule, a la Embassy families, you’ll get that answer in this question too: “Two years, we’ve got one more year before our time is up”. Embassy families have expiration dates. Like milk.

Q: Do you like it here?

Translation: There are either things about this place I’m finding really strange and I’m trying to figure out if it’s me…or them. Or, there are lots of things about this place I really like and I’m trying to figure out if I’m crazy for liking them.

Q: How often do you get home?

Translation: How do you deal with the fact that you are so far away from family, aging/sick parents/or my personal albatross, keeping an ocean between a grandmother and her only grandchildren.

Q: Who do you work for?

Translation: Where do you fall in the expat hierarchy? This is one of those questions which would normally be considered rude, but on the international circuit it’s par for the course. It’s also pretty sneaky. Where someone works generally gives you an idea of the size/type of the expat package they are receiving, and sometimes–though not always–insight into the way they live their lives.

Q: How much longer are you here for?

Translation: Am I going to put a lot of time and effort into a relationship that’s going to be over in three months? Six? A year? Also, can I have your house/apartment/babysitter when you leave?

Q: Where will you go next?

Translation: I’m going to pick you brain to see if you’ve figured out all the niggling, nagging questions that keep me awake at night.

 

Come from? Well…how long you got?

Q: Do you see yourself moving back ‘home’?

Translation: I’m kind of grooving on this expat thing and I’m not sure I want to ever go back home. Am I alone? Alternatively, everyone seems to rave about this lifestyle and yet I’m incredibly homesick. Am I alone? Please, for the love of all that’s holy, tell me I’m not alone in my abject confusion regarding this subject.

Ok, maybe that one is my own projection….

Listen, a new language can be hard enough to figure out. The last thing you need to do is start translating expat speak on top of it. Consider yourself forewarned, and thereby forearmed. Now go forth into the new year and be fruitful. Or at the very least, coffee-full.