Ever since M was born and she’s come to form bonds with other young children during her three short years, I’ve been thinking more and more of how one makes friends and maintains friendships over time. And why some friendships last, and some peter out over time (and trying to accept that that’s OK). And why some people have a lot of friends and some only have one or two. And why it sometimes seems so easy to make new friends yet other times it feels all awkward and clunky like you’re back in high school, even though that might even be more than half a lifetime ago. And why some friendships can be so deep that nothing goes unsaid, yet others seem only to scratch the surface. My guess is that social media sites like Facebook have changed the dynamics a bit too, with long lost friends suddenly reappearing in one’s life (for good or for bad) and a newfound daily dialogue where there was once largely comfortable silence, save for the random birth announcement or holiday greeting.
It’s been interesting to watch M form what can now probably be called true friendships. We’re lucky to live on a street where there are a few other girls (yes, they happen to all be girls, strangely enough) for M to pal around with. But two in particular, A and E (who are sisters), are M’s favorites by far–proximity in age is likely the reason why. M gets genuinely excited whenever she hears A or E outside playing and looks for her friends often from the window. It’s been fun to watch all of them start to grow up together and navigate touchy toddler/preschooler issues like taking turns or sharing or acceptable boundaries of personal space and simultaneously generate pure joy and giddiness over talking about things like poop and flip flops. M will get excited to try and remember to tell E something that happened earlier that day or show her something that she thinks is cool on the block. And A and E reciprocate these things in kind. I hope that they have many years of hanging out on the corner and sharing giggles and watermelon.
In many ways, seeing M form these friendships reminds me of my grade school years growing up in upstate New York. I had really neat friendships (until we moved to Massachusetts when I was in sixth grade) with my next door neighbor (A) and another close friend (L) who lived up the road. I was truly heartbroken that we had to leave those friends behind. Those were the ancient days of yore where the only hope of maintaining a friendship was by (gasp!) paper and pen, and even though there were some well-intentioned attempts at keeping things going, middle school life and geography ultimately got in the way. But a funny thing happened after I reluctantly (but now thankfully!) joined Facebook–I was able to reconnect with several elementary school friends, AND my old next door neighbor A!! How incredible! And wouldn’t you know that A and I still have things to chat about from time to time. Not just the fun things we remember about growing up in the 80s (the music, rollerskating, video games) but other bigger things, like our stances on religion in particular. We happen to have the same views on these things, so that makes it more awesome (at least from my perspective). But in many ways I don’t even know that it would have mattered how we turned out politically because the nucleus of the friendship seemed to come from a more organic place. I wonder whether M will have a similar experience as she and A and E eventually go their separate ways…(she may not know it yet, but eventually M WILL be moving out!)
I can see how it is easy to form friendships with people who literally grow up with and around you. They’re like family–even if you don’t like them one day, ultimately you love them for all that you have experienced together, the good, the bad and the not taking turns. And a separation of time and space doesn’t diminish or erase those kinds of friendships, so even if it takes 20+ years to reconnect, it still feels totally natural to be yourself when you do. Since M, at least at this point, tends to be more timid and not overly extroverted until she is comfortable in the presence of others, she takes a long time to warm up to anyone else before they might be considered a “friend”. It will be interesting to see how she forms new friendships in places like school or sports as she gets older. Maybe she will grow out of it, but at this point at least, she does not go out of her way to meet new people or approach groups of more than 2 kids.
And this is what made me wonder about my own friendships and how or why they formed. In all my life, I have not been one to have very many friends–I am happy with a close handful or so. But on the depth scale, I’d say that most of them have hovered around a 7 or 8, with 1 being “I’ll tell you my name and we can talk about the weather” and a 10 being “I have a very dark secret to tell you and no one else, not even my mom or husband knows but you” (I don’t, by the way). Why is that? Sometimes it gets me down when I see other folks who seem to have that one true best friend that is based on a very deep bond, and I don’t. Jealous perhaps. But overall I have generally been more of the introverted, solitary type over my life (by choice) so I wonder what it is that I think I am missing. Certainly I have family and a fortunately a husband that if needed, I could always turn to in moments of despair. But there is something about having a friend who you can share your most personal thoughts with and they really are there for you not because of blood or marital ties. Almost like a third party seal of approval that, yes, you are worthy of such things.
But as to how any friendship forms, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it really seems to be about time and place. If I scan the catalog of friends that I have now, it is certainly a healthy mix of “work friends”, “college/law school friends”, “friends that I met because of M” (preschool, neighborhood), and a few other categories. Some definitely were strong friendships in their own right, but often later strengthened by parallel experiences we both had in common throughout the years (getting married, having children, changing jobs). I suppose that it’s no big surprise that having things in common with someone leads to friendships, but there also needs to be a bit of personality alignment as well for it to work. We could both love reading about gardening or breaking down last night’s Patriots game, but if you’re a condescending jerk (or I am) chances are that one or both of us is not going to invest much time or effort in maintaining the friendship.
Except kids are different. They often seem really not to care about any of that, or at least get over it fairly quickly, because all they care about is being silly and who has the coolest toys out in the yard at the moment. I think adults need to be more like that (present company included). Why does it get harder to make friends over time as you get older? Why not just go knock on your neighbors’ doors and see if they want to share a brew or some veggies from your garden or catch up on whose quarterback rating is falling this week? Does it really matter that they might not have the same world view as you? No, it doesn’t (except if they’re bigots–that’s nonstarter for me). I have been trying to do more of this now that we are bona fide homeowners in a community. Yes, this is way outside of my comfort range given my own hang-ups and tendencies to gravitate toward people who are just like me, but it is the example that I am trying to set for M because sooner or later, and subconsciously or not, she will see how I make and maintain friendships and may use that as her guide. I want her to learn that it is OK to seek out friendships, even with people that are not your carbon copy, and not just wait for the right time and place for a new friendship to form. Life is too short to wait for that to happen and you might miss meeting someone really interesting.
To wit, as a result of what have been surprisingly minimal efforts, I have a nice handful of what I like to call “cuppa sugar friends” — you know, the ones that you can comfortably knock on their door in the middle of making cookies because you ran out of sugar (or, ahem, gas for the grill during a family BBQ). And they’re not just the parents of M’s little friends. They are other neighbors who don’t even have children (or least not young ones). Until about a year or so ago, I didn’t know that I lived a stone’s throw from a retired geologist who is now repairing antique clocks and goes birdwatching in his spare time, and who happily takes our extra zucchinis and cucumbers. Awesome! If it were not for M’s lead in getting outside to chat it up with the neighborhood gang, I would not have come out of my shell and into the community to make more friends myself.