I recently went on a first date. It was just coffee. With a bunch of women. The kind of women I would have so easily been friends with had we met at 21. I thought about what to wear and heeded my conversation (remember to listen) hoping they would approve and ask me out again. It went well, I thought. But as we rushed our goodbyes all dashing off with so many things to do they uttered those death-knell post-date words: “Take care.” Doubt I’ll be hearing from them again.
It made me long for old friends. You know the ones, who will hang out with you amongst piles of washing and scattered toys with nothing in particular to say. Women who get you without the need for subtext. Who don’t judge you for your shortcomings, who you can call at any hour and divulge your greatest fears and regrets, not censoring your neediness to belong. You just don’t make friends like that after 40.
It’s a familiarity that takes years to generate. Lots of hanging out with bands of like-minded young souls with nowhere to be, conversations bleeding into the next day, the unconscious audition process of our teens and twenties as we decided who we dug (and didn’t) amassing a posse of loyal mates to stand by us into the future. The soul purpose of life it seemed back then was to find our tribe.
As I found mine: My beautiful hodgepodge of friends from school and uni and later the single set who became each other’s families when everyone else had gone and made their own. But now we are all scattered to the winds with bath times and careers and new friends and it takes six months to organise dinner.
These types of friends can’t be whipped up. Not now, betwixt families of our own and fresh priorities. The new criteria for friendship-forming is whether your children are the same age and you live close by, unions forged on the sidelines of the soccer field via distracted snatches of conversation that rarely get to the heart of anyone. You can be lucky, sure, and strike a soulmate at Nippers. But I have little faith. With such flimsy foundations, surely most of these bonds will last as long as the time-limited circumstances that brought you together.
Yet this is the time when so many of us could do with new friends. Where they were once a dime-a-dozen all on a similar trajectory, when you head off to do your own thing a great chasm opens up. “On one hand social media tells us we’ve got hundreds of friends but they’re all out in the ether”, says psychologist Meredith Fuller. “Friendships take time to develop and they need trust and exchanging and disclosing confidences over time. When other responsibilities take over, it’s much harder to allocate the care and attention it takes to cultivate friendships.”
“Motherhood is like a sieve”, I was warned when I joined the ranks. By its very all encompassing nature it sifts out the true friends. When required at home for lunchtime sleeps and bedtime stories you soon work out who the stayers are. Too often they are few and far between.
Defying all rules of nature, making friends is one thing you don’t get better at with time. What was once instinctual, amassing kindred spirits without effort, now seems daunting. And awkward. To reach out, to hint at the desire to connect, might suggest even vaguely at the prospect of loneliness and that is the greatest repellant, unbearable mostly to ourselves: That we of the 500 Facebook Friends might have become that person.
Friend-making is cumulative. The more you have the more you get as others want a piece of the action. Similarly with a confidante deficit, you can lose your nerve, what Fuller calls a classic case of “performance anxiety”. It takes a bold soul to suspend pride and possible rejection to ask for one’s hand in friendship. “We get more self conscious as we get older”, she says. “The stakes are higher. It’s unusual to meet interesting people so it’s more prized. But you don’t have the luxury of time and shared experiences because we’re rushing so you don’t get to close the deal.”
Author of The Friendship Crisis, Marla Paul, agrees, saying “making friends as grownups is arduous”. She believes most women are lonely for new friends but have lost the knack. “Making friends as children and teens was as effortless as breathing. As midlife women, though, it’s suddenly a complicated dance whose steps we try to retrace but can’t quite remember.”
But it’s vital we make the effort. Not only are friendships good for our health, they help bring relevance to our lives through shared experiences. “We need friends who mirror back to us: this is who you are. I see you”, says Fuller. “That’s why older friends are more important because there’s a shared memory of who you really are. New friends only see a part of you.”
Problem is, as Gwyneth Paltrow’s late Dad warned her, “You can’t make new old friends.” True. But with the other optimum time for forging friendships being in our 50s, there is always the prospect of old new friends.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 10th December 2012