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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The Weight of Being a Woman

There are days I cannot breath as a woman. The weight of my sex is so heavy within me it’s surprising I can walk or talk. Every exhale is labored. Every inhale like breathing under water. The weight of being nothing but an ‘also ran’ is constantly with me. We are attached, me and this Siamese twin of otherness.

For me this is what it feels like to be a woman at times: the pressure in my chest blossoms into fury, and yet I know there is nowhere for that outward spray to go, and so two thousand years of history sits in the middle of my chest. The whole thing is almost impossible to move except in the tiniest of increments so you can suck enough air to keep you alive.

It’s exhausting.

It is exhausting knowing deep down in my bone marrow no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, how much I learn, I will always be seen as second best by people who consider themselves best for no legitimate reason other than they’ve always been told they are. I will almost always have a qualifier in front of my name, an extra “W” for Woman added. Almost everything I do will be measured from a yardstick of maledom. It is exhausting to remind myself that I should not let that dictate what I do or do not do.

I try.

The weight of being a woman is trying to dispel the suspicion that the entire world is set up not only to facilitate my failure, but to take joy in it.

The weight of being a woman is the near constant battle of internal and external. The internal does not feel any different, no better than or less than, but the world around me screams something very different. The outer world does not match my inner world. It’s a constant battle to maintain equilibrium.

It weighs on me. As a woman.

I wonder, do some think a woman arises from her bed in the morning, groggy with sleep and warmth, feeling as if she is naturally less than a man? Do some assume women wear a sense of inferiority like a second skin? Burrow into it like a rabbit warren? Do some think women simply accept a notion of less as point of fact?

The weight of being a woman is fighting that notion, with nail and claw and written word, some days with nearly every breath I struggle to take.

I am not tired of being a woman. I am tired of being a woman in this world. I am tired of arguing for legitimacy, as if the possession of ovaries instead of testicles automatically confers something I am blind, deaf, and dumb to. I am tired of having an identifier attached to my name. I am tired of being a derivative. I am tired of being half the yardstick. I am tired of explaining how the system is set up against me, against my sisters, to people whom the system most benefits.

The weight of being a woman is sometimes simply the sheer exhaustion of being nice. It is exhausting feigning polite merely to survive, constantly calculating risk, managing the way I walk through life. It is exhausting not trusting that there are people who have your best interests at heart, to wonder if they are not simply waiting in the wings in some sort of sexist ambush. It is exhausting trying to squeeze into the idea of feminine when everything within me overflows those boundaries.

The weight of being a woman is the tangible weight of pregnancies and infants on hip, of petticoats and bustles, layer upon layer upon layer of veil to mask us from ourselves, from the world.

The weight of a woman is the exhaustion of navigating the world with a currency of sexuality in your pocket. A currency given to me before I was old enough to use it or save it or spend it. A currency which is practically worthless now that I am of a certain age. Spent now, nothing left though my pockets still feel plenty heavy to me.

The weight of being a woman is watching young girls navigate their way through this mine field, knowing exactly where the detonating points are. Warning them will have no effect. It will take years of constant subtle–and not so subtle– explosions to convince them.

I want to take them aside and tell them about this weight, this weight of being a woman, but they will dismiss me as nothing more than an old crank. Halfway to crone. Worldly womanly wisdom is not yet discernible in a wrinkled jowl or a head of white.

I’m not a kindly oldening woman offering sage advice.

I am a vortex of rage. An eddy of emotion, whipped frustration and just sheer exhaustion. Exhausted by the weight of being a woman.

The weight of a woman is trying to explain this, all of it invisible to everyone but those who carry it around with them, every day, everywhere they go.

There are days I cannot breathe as a woman.

Today is one of those days.

 

 

The Lion Queen

I spend a good deal of time watching women hack through the jungle of self-doubt with a dull, rusty machete.

Scratch that. With a pair of cuticle trimmers.

I’d like to say it’s difficult trying to figure out why so many unbelievably smart, successful, frankly kick-ass women have trouble valuing their self-worth, except it’s not, because at times I am one of those women. You see, I’m not just talking out of my increasingly expanding ass when I say that women, on the whole, have a confidence problem.

There’s a saying going around at the moment which resonates with a lot of women I know.

Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.

On the surface the statement is a flippant way of looking at the way society is set up to benefit and glorify the accomplishments of  men, (many of whom absolutely deserve the accolades). But dig a little deeper and you’ll get to the self-deprecating heart of the matter. Female confidence is a tricky tight rope to walk. Too meek? You get walked all over. Too strong? You’re a bitch in heels. Speak up? You’re called shrill, loud, overbearing. Don’t speak up? Well, no wonder you don’t get that raise. What’s seen as confidence in men often comes across as entitlement in women. What comes across as assertiveness and leadership among males is perceived as aggressiveness and ball-busting in women.

If women have to constantly recalibrate the poles they use for balance, to find some Goldilocks just right version of confidence, is it any wonder we fall flat on our faces a lot of the time?

But surely we get a little bounce back from a safety net of other women underneath us, right? Oh, honey…no. Plenty of times other women are more than happy to watch you fall flat on your face. Whether this is simply human nature, decades of conditioning, or a combination of a thousand other factors is up for debate.

I write nearly every day of my life. I have a successful blog. I’m published. I’ve won contests, been nominated for Pushcart Prize, been paid for my work, completed a novel….and yet when someone asked me to tutor their child in writing, I balked.

Surely I’m not qualified! (Yes, I actually said those words.)

When do you become enough of a writer to qualify guiding others in the writing process? When do you become good, better, best enough to do anything? Is there a magic formula to feeling qualified enough? If so there seem to be a lot of magic formulas kept under lock and key and away from the manicured hands of women.

I have a witty, whip-smart friend in the UK who is a lawyer. Another who is a doctor. And this summer I  listened to both of them tell me how unqualified they felt as they returned to positions they’ve been educated and trained for, positions they’ve held before. Sometimes while pregnant, managing a household, morning sickness and a toddler who refuses to pee anywhere but the corner.

Ah, women. I love ’em, but man! Even when we are good at what we do, hell even when we are great at what we do, we doubt ourselves. Forget locusts, if women suffer any kind of plague, it is the plague of second-guessing their worth. We under-value our contribution. We give our work and time away for free. We volunteer instead of assuming we should be paid. We politely inquire when we should expect. We’re happy when people recognize our talents, when they flatter us, and our bank accounts wither and die as our expertise is taken for granted, our time and effort devalued and expected to be given for free.

I’m not saying you should demand the PTA pay you for helping hang Halloween decorations. I’m saying we need to value our work because when all we do is volunteer? Our work ceases to have value.

Your grandmother was right. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? We can lip service volunteer work all we want, and we absolutely should all do it–from time to time–but when we give too much of the milk away for free, the cow develops low self-esteem, doubts herself, and undermines her worth. And as loathe as I am to compare women to cows, when the metaphor moos….

But more than monetary payment is what happens when your work ceases to be valued–internally and externally. You convince yourself  you’re not as good as, worth as much as, as qualified as. The chips on your shoulder get heavier over time. They weigh you down like a bra full of bricks until you can’t stand up straight, until you can’t walk with your head held high, until you start believing it yourself.

In my day-to-day life I meet and talk to countless women who doubt themselves, who disqualify themselves, who dismiss their qualifications as not enough.

I do it myself.

The men I meet? They rarely worry they’re unqualified. They assume a natural position of qualification that’s been inferred upon them since birth. Like Simba the Lion King cub, they wear the crown of accepted leader. Their position is accepted…and expected.

Sisters! Lean in, lift up, whatever it takes. Look into the mirror everyday and channel Al Franken’s Stuart Smally character: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people like me. Whatever you need to do.

Because some days Sarabi** isn’t good enough. Go out and demand a crown of your own.

 

**Sarabi is the name of Simba’s mother. I had to look it up. You see how ingrained this shit is? I didn’t even know the name of Simba’s mother!

 

The Book of Life

Ah June, the season for hay fever, end of school madness, and if you’re an expat, goodbyes.  Emotions are running high, low and often, amok. June is always jam-packed with all sorts of feels.

Watching friends and acquaintances prepare for their next move, helping them navigate the spectrum of emotions that are part and parcel of saying goodbye to a certain time and place, it reminds me of the blind terror I feel each time I sit down to a blank page.

For me, there’s always–always— a niggling fear my words have dried up along side my ovaries. Or that they’ll be shit. A small voice in the back of my head chants What if nothing happens? What if it sucks? What if, what if, what if? But…woven in and out of that fear is a little excitement, a thread of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can conjure up a bit of magic. An idea, a gem of a sentence, on a really good day, a thousand words that tether a few lofty ideas to reality.

Getting ready to move, even for those who are semi-pros, is like sitting down in front of a giant blank page. It doesn’t matter if it’s a flashback repatriation or if you’re setting the scene for an exciting new plot twist, moving on is the equivalent of trying to write the opening sentence of the next chapter in your book of life.

The good news? Chapters are infinitely easier to pen than a whole new book. Getting ready to move, much like getting ready to write, involves a lot of thinking, contemplating, and turning over of ideas. Some of those ideas are going to work brilliantly. Some will fall flat and explode upon impact. The even better news? You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got plenty of chapters already done and dusted and they all come with you. The back story and the settings. The seeds that will later sprout into full-blown story arcs. All the characters you’ve met. And take it from me, characters have a way of popping back up in ways you don’t expect.

When you’re moving, your life is chock full of blank pages–and anything can happen. A surprising plot twist. An epic journey. A hero, a challenge, a rite of passage. A new character from out of nowhere, one that ends up changing the whole dang story. The possibilities that come along with a blank page, a new chapter, or even a move–they’re endless.

At times it’s scary and confusing. Will it all work? How are you going to tie it all together? It’s exhausting. A blank page takes a lot of work to fill. But all that possibility! All that space and room to make great things happen, interesting things, beautiful things. There’s so much room for all of those things–and more.

And, for all those you’re leaving behind as you close out one chapter to begin another? We are all still part of your book, the one that will be carefully packed in tissue paper and transported  in sea containers and trucks and planes all over the world. We’ll pop up, in conversations or a  FaceBook On This Day post (love those), maybe even a guest appearance somewhere down the road. But even if we don’t, we’re not deleted wholesale. Despite physical distance, we’re forever part of your back story now, part of the fabric of your book.

My advice? Sharpen your pencil and dive in. The first sentence is always the hardest. (And it’s almost never the one that you end up using.) Don’t worry about mistakes, there’s plenty of time for editing down the road. But most of all? Always remember all that work you’ve already done is just a chapter behind you when you need it.

Life only hands you one book, my friends–it’s up to you what you fill it with.