Remember to Play
And the days went by like paper in the wind
Everything changed then changed again
It’s hard to find a friend
It’s hard to find a friend
I am three years old, and I am supposed to be taking a nap. I am on my bedroom floor, in a sleeping bag, and I hear someone coming up the stairs. I quickly shut my eyes, not wanting to be caught. I hear my door creak open, and someone tiptoes quietly into the room. I work to keep my breathing steady and slow. I am as still as possible. I feel something being placed next to my head, in between my pillow and the bed I am lying next to. My heart is pounding—I am a good faker. The person leaves—I pulled it off. I turn my head and open my eyes: my grandmother (and biggest fan) has left me a present. Not any present, but something so special that I cannot contain my excitement. My life can finally begin. I am the lucky recipient of that which all preschoolers dream of: a Neil Diamond record. Neil stands next to a tree with his arms folded on the cover. Although I wish he would look directly at me, he seems to be looking off somewhere in the distance. “I’m over here, Neil!” I want to say. He just stares. “Turn on your heartlight,” he says. “Let it shine wherever you go. Let it make a happy glow, for all the world to see.” To me, more beautiful words had never been spoken.
Although my love for Neil didn’t last forever, my sentimentality did. For as long as I can remember, I have been someone who felt extremely connected to others, and in tune with what they were feeling. Just mentioning the movie “Benji” would make me start blubbering. I was encouraged at an early age to think about how people might feel in different situations, and that I did…almost all of the time. One day in preschool, my closest friend was being teased by classmates for “acting like a baby.” Although they were only words, in my mind, they might as well have been beating her to a pulp. I found it unfathomable—excruciating—to see someone that I loved in pain.
This could be why, as an adult, I find myself without many friends. Too tricky—too scary to be so vulnerable, and frankly, to see them so vulnerable. I have them, of course—a handful of close ones, whom I have known for a long time. But being a friend as a grown-up is not easy, and no one prepares us for that. As young children, we get to fantasize with our friends. We make up stories and play them out: use fake accents and reenact what we see our parents doing as grown-ups: You be the banker, I’ll be the customer. You be the checkout person, I’ll be the shopper. Our job, as children, is to sit down together and create. Ride bikes together and explore. Lie on beds and stare at each other’s ceilings, saying whatever comes to mind. There is so much time to pass together. Some of it, in comfortable silence. When we move into adolescence, friendships change. I was lucky enough to have a “best” friend as a young child. Because I had no siblings, she became like a sister to me. We had sleepovers every weekend, talking late into the night. We filmed pretend cooking shows together in which we mixed as many ingredients together as we could at one time in a blender. In the summer we practiced endless handstands in the bay at her family’s shore house. We developed elaborate scenarios with Barbie and her friends (and lovers) and laughed until we couldn’t breathe. It was my first peek at sisterhood; the feeling of knowing that we are not alone in the world; that someone understands you and loves you and your silliness, your fears. I distinctly remember the loss I felt when we started to move away from each other, as friends do. We became busy with different interests, and met new people. Even as an 11 year-old, I sensed that a bit of my innocence was slipping away.
When I arrived in middle school, the friendship landscape changed again. Suddenly, it became clear that we needed to form alliances in order to survive. To be alone was to be a pariah—a reject. We scrambled to have someone to sit with at all times—in the lunch room, in science class. At recess we bunched together in groups of four or five, sneaking glances at the other groups, comparing ourselves with them inside of our minds. We carefully watched how the other girls walked and how they laughed. One time after lunch, someone from my own group, who was supposed to be a best friend, pulled the cords of my hooded windbreaker down as far as she could and tied it tight, exposing only my mouth. She and my other friends ran away, leaving me without sight, terrified and standing alone on the blacktop. I considered screaming and running towards someone, anyone, who could help me. But I thought better of it when I realized that if I did, I would look like a blind eggplant in my purple windbreaker, zigzagging aimlessly across the playground. I remained still for what felt like an eternity, and eventually the girls returned, giggling maniacally. They thought it was hilarious. After scrambling to get the knot untied, I wiped my tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand and pretended to shrug it off. Inside, I was shocked and hurt that the people I thought cared about me seemed to enjoy seeing me suffer. In middle school, the rules became clear: you were on your own. Another friend during this time would suddenly stop speaking to me, seemingly out of nowhere. It was my job to guess what I had done wrong each time. I would write her notes, pleading for her forgiveness. My pleas were met with icy glares, or worse—no response at all. I would study her face for some recognition, some sign that we could be okay again. I needed her, and she knew it. To be left alone inside the walls of the school was the worst punishment one could deliver. Then, just as quickly as she had stopped, she would begin speaking to me again, willingly sitting next to me at lunch and smiling cheerily when I passed her in the hallways, as if nothing had ever happened. Looking back, this was setting the foundation for my understanding of female friendships: be careful whom you trust. There are good times to be had, but they probably won’t last. Savor them. Keep some things to yourself—they are better off inside you. Sometimes, exposing your pain will lead to heartbreak and vulnerability that you will fear will break you: it isn’t worth it. Put on a brave face and don’t let them see you sweat.
By high school, I had found a couple of friends that were “my people.” We drove aimlessly in the car together, blaring music and talking about relationships, our bodies, our dreams. We sat together in diners until the wee hours of the morning, eating cold, limp French fries and sharing inside jokes about the wait staff. Each song that came on had a special meaning, a reason to cry or bring up a shared memory. We wrote scripts of movies together and then performed them, each of us playing different characters (often opposite our own gender) and we critiqued them while collapsing in fits of laughter. We longed to keep these days going. They were familiar and warm, and we felt like we were finally home.
And then we grew up.
Whether we plunge right into the work force, or go on to college, or find some combination of the two, as young adults, our days of sleeping until 2pm (unless we work nights) are over. Fairly suddenly, we are expected to be serious. There is studying to be done; money to be made. There are futures to be formed. “What are you going to be?” We are asked. Some of us are ready. Some of us have advisors, and clear visions, and timelines. During my time at the small liberal arts college I attended, I was encouraged to join a sorority. Before I got to school, I had never even heard of Greek life. As a freshman I wasn’t allowed to pledge but over time learned about which groups were associated with what (the drinkers, the snobs, the Good Girls, the academics.) By sophomore year, I had decided that I was curious about the concept of “rushing” and told myself that joining would be a good way to meet people. For some, pledging is a great way to build connections, make memories, and have fun. For us sensitive types, however, it is a recipe for disaster. I became obsessed with making a good impression so that I would be “picked” by my sorority of choice. I was self-conscious about the other girls liking me, and worried that I wasn’t “together enough” to be a part of this group of young women, many of whom seemed to know exactly what they were going to do with the lives laid out before them. They seemed to know precisely what they wanted and precisely how to get it. Although it was acceptable to be true to our individuality, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being asked to fit into a box; one that looked a certain way, dressed a certain way, and acted a certain way. Instead of helping me to build confidence through new friendships, I grew more and more uncomfortable in my own skin. I memorized chants and songs, dressed up for themed parties and helped organize events that I was told were important. It always seemed like I was the last to catch on to whatever function we were supposed to be coordinating. I would discover that girls would be prepping costumes and writing skits for weeks for a party, and it was all I could do to just show up. Clearly some of them loved it, lived for it—taking care to coordinate their gifts for one another with the sorority’s colors and symbols. Signing letters with special code words that only a “sister” would understand. I kept waiting for someone to show up and say that we could relax, that stuff wasn’t really important. What was important was that we enjoyed our time together, that we really got to know each other. But no one did.
I found myself wondering if the other girls were being nice to me because they actually liked me, or because of the letters on my shirt. In hindsight, my tendency to feel emotions so strongly and preference for more spontaneous, less prescribed activities made me a horrible candidate for sorority life. I felt like an imposter, someone who was trying to fit in, but didn’t really make the cut. I slowly drifted away from the other girls, remaining friendly but never allowing myself to get too close to anyone. I know that many of the women in my sorority were lovely, as were many in other sororities and those who decided not to pledge. I have remained in touch with them even now. But at the time, the letters became a barrier to my seeing other women for who they really were. It took years for me to re-learn how to become friends with someone naturally again. Because of my sensitive nature and what felt to me like an awkward period of time between adolescence and adulthood, I became confused about whether I was really deserving of these relationships at all. I sank further slowly into myself, doubting my ability to establish genuine connections with other women.
Many of us, like me, form intimate relationships around this time. We spend more and more time with our partner. We stop putting on an act when we are out with someone. We let our guard down a bit and reveal more of our history and who we are. We learn what is attractive to us, what feels good and what doesn’t. Maybe we even find Someone Special—someone to go out with on Saturday nights, someone to wake up with on rainy mornings. Our focus shifts: maybe we don’t know what we are going to be yet, but we know who we are going to love. The days of spending time with our friends seem far away. As we turn 19, and then 20, and then 21, we realize that we are not going back. That all of our days up to this point were leading to this: Real Life.
As we create families of our own, we become even more solitary. Our focus changes again if we become parents. Rather than thinking about our own friendships, we worry about our children’s friendships. Will they get along well with other kids? Will other kids be nice to them? We set up play dates, sign them up for team sports, dance lessons, summer camps. We begin to see more of our children’s friends’ parents—at birthday parties, on field trips, at volunteer nights. We look around and think, where did my real friends go? Or maybe, if we haven’t found “our people” by this point (or have lost them over time), we wonder if we will ever experience the true intimacy of real friendship.
I was unprepared for the loneliness that I would feel as an adult. The sense of community that we have as women, I find, is mostly virtual. “I’m going out of my mind,” I text a group of girlfriends. They text back if they can find time, as they are in their own worlds of busy-ness. I find that dinner time is the worst time in my house. I am tired from the drudgery of the day, usually disappointed in myself for not accomplishing what I said I would. I feel the pressure to come up with an outstanding meal that everyone will love. As I chop vegetables or sauté chicken, a sadness comes over me, because I know that this won’t happen. My husband will be late, and the kids will be eating bags of Pirates Booty and Cheese-its because they are “too hungry” to wait for their meal. I will scream at them, and tell them they’d better not put one more thing in their mouths before dinner. I chastise myself for not having a Pinterest-worthy refrigerator with a special shelf that is divided into sections so that the children can easily reach for an apple, a cheese stick and a yogurt before dinner. All of the other moms have figured it out—why can’t I? When we finally sit down, the kids are full. My son talks about how disgusting the food is, and explains why he won’t be eating it. I try to change the topic—try to talk to them about something interesting that happened that day. Their minds are blank. They have nothing to share. I shovel my food into my mouth, even though I have lost my appetite due to snacking as I cooked and rage that I am alone. My son doesn’t stay in his seat. I tell him that I just want him to stay at the table; I don’t care if he eats. He whines. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, I think. It wasn’t until I learned to sit with that hot loneliness, night after night, that I was able to see it for what it was: a longing. I longed for connection, real connection. Not just a quick text from a friend, or scrolling through pictures on Facebook, but real time spent with someone who understood me. It is not their fault, but young children are unable to provide this. They are self-centered and, yes I’ll say it—boring, at times. Sometimes my husband makes it home for dinner, but I find connection then difficult too. We try to discuss who said what at a meeting, or what the outcome of a project was, but it takes eight tries because of spills to be cleaned up, or interruptions to beg the children to take a bite of something, or the dog stealing meat from one of our plates. “Forget it,” we end up saying. Conversations are disjointed, filled with tension. My mind drifts again to the topic of friendships. My friends are having the exact same evening I am, in their own homes, at the same time. They feel disappointment, exhaustion, rage. And they keep going, plowing through the cleanup, bath time and the excruciatingly slow bedtime.
This loneliness is eating away at us. There is something missing from our lives, something that we have forgotten about. No, the “girlfriend getaways” once a year and cocktails once a month with our friends are not cutting it. We need regular, weekly time to play—yes, play—with our closest confidantes. We need to go back. We need to lie on each other’s beds and look at the ceiling. We need to ride bikes together and make movies together. During the lonely times, which will still happen, we have only one option: to sit in it and feel it in our bodies, this agitation, this irritating pebble in our shoe, and allow it. Breathe and feel it and allow it to pass, which it always does. I have found that this can be very difficult, because all we want to do is bolt. Bolt in the form of wine, or croutons straight from the bag, or screaming. I believe, however, that this emptiness will not feel so vast if we allow for the play and fun that we not only want, but need. This part of us—this laughing-so-hard-we-cry, creative, silly part of us, is inside of us, and it is dying to get out.
We recently went on vacation with a group of friends. Our first night there, my 11-year-old daughter started to cry and told me she wanted to talk with me privately. When I asked what was wrong, she said, “I’ve just never seen you like this. You just seem…different. Like, not yourself.” It should be noted that I’d had a couple of drinks, but was far from drunk. I was acting like myself, only…happy. The friends we were with trigger something in me; a spark that I often forget about. They bring out the performer in me—the version of myself that I like the most. Seeing this threw my daughter so much that she became emotional. She didn’t know what to do with this mom she was watching—the mom that had let go and was connecting with her silly side.
Our children need to see our true selves. I don’t mean to imply that we are not who we really are when we are with our spouses—I am lucky enough to have a husband in whom I can confide, laugh with, and who “gets me.” However, I can’t help but be in “mom mode” when we are all together. Aside from the Holderness Family (the popular Youtube parody sensation), I don’t really know anyone who is able to tap into their playful, creative side on a regular basis with young kids. I don’t mean tapping into the children’s creative sides (playing dolls and dress-up, having water gun fights.) I mean tapping into our creative playful sides. One of the paths to our true selves is through those who bring out that part of us. This takes some thought and planning, but it can be done. What if we put as much time and effort into planning our own creative, fun times as we did scheduling our children’s social events and activities? What would happen if we asked ourselves, “Who in my life makes me feel like a kid again? What did I do previously in my life that brought me so much joy that I forgot about my worries, even if it was just for a minute?”
I think it is easy to fall into the trap of making this complicated. Don’t. I know that for many of us, an idea such as this becomes a project—we feel as though we have to plan a special trip, or we decide to have our friends over with their kids for dinner, but we have to have signature cocktails and some kind of craft for the children. You will never do it again if you make it hard. Start with what is needed—laughter, authenticity, creativity—and go from there. It could look like walking with friends while the kids ride their bikes twice a week. It could look like writing skits SNL style and discussing them via FaceTime. Starting a documentary club. All of these things, admittedly, sound good to me. But they might sound awful to you. What matters is that you have a regularly scheduled time for creativity and friendship, and that it involve actual human connection (texting doesn’t count.)
Of course, they have to be the right people. You’ll know right away if they’re not. Sometimes I feel as though I am entering a middle school cafeteria when I go to a social function in my small town. Except instead of blemishes and poorly cut bangs, I am self-conscious about my belly pooch and crows feet. I haven’t had any botox and I immediately start comparing the elasticity of my skin to that of everyone I run into. I obsess that we are all in an unspoken competition: a competition I have made up entirely in my mind. I come home from such functions and tell my husband, “I don’t have any friends. Everyone else knows everyone. I know like three people.” He looks at me with the same face he always gives me; the face that says, “Seriously? How old are we?” “I am twelve,” I want to say. “I am twelve years old.” The thing is, that most of the women I am comparing myself to have the exact same insecurities that I do. Deep down, they know that they are worthy, strong, and uniquely beautiful in their own way. But when they enter a room full of other women with professional blow-outs and designer jeans, their inner adolescent is triggered. Those memories of finding safety within a squad die hard. To enter such a room as yourself, with no pretenses or apologies, exactly as you are, is an act of bravery.
It is tricky to find your people as an adult. You would think it would be easy by now—just look for the ones that look you in the eye, not up and down to judge your outfit. Just look for the ones that don’t seem to peer over your shoulder as you’re talking, to find someone more important. The ones that laugh knowingly when you share your fears, your faults, your desires. But the truth is, I’ve failed all of those tests myself. I have caught myself, seemingly on auto-pilot, glancing nervously around a room as someone talks to me. I have sized up women’s outfits as they opened up to me. Not because I thought I was better than they were; but because I worried that they were better than me. I have been so conditioned to be on the lookout, on the defense, for someone to judge me that I automatically do it first. I hate myself for it, but it’s true.
Here is what I know: real friends show up. When you reach out, they may not be available right away, but they tell you when they will be, and it’s as soon as they can make it happen. Real friends laugh genuinely. They are thrilled when you are happy, and crushed when you are down. You don’t need a real activity with true friends. Sure, dinner is great; coffee is great, pedis are great. But real friends don’t require a plan. “Come over” works. Conversations don’t revolve around “stuff” and who has accumulated what. They don’t revolve around whose children have been chosen for which elite teams. It might be mentioned, but it’s not integral. The purpose of visits with true friends is: how are you? I mean how are you, really? And there is laughter. Lots of laughter.
There is no question that, at the idea of this, of putting time aside for your own silliness and fun, your Bad Mom Alert signals will be blinking hard. We have lots of fears of being accused of neglecting our precious children. Fears that, if we put attention on what brings us joy, they will suffer. They will see us using our imaginations and whooping it up and staying out late to talk with our girlfriends and they will feel forgotten.
The truth is that one does not eclipse the other. In fact, through revisiting what brings us joy and prioritizing our friendships, we are modeling for our children how to remain true to our creative, spontaneous selves. I know how scary it is to allow for vulnerability and friendship as an adult. It is easier to stay in our bubbles, coming out only for our kids’ birthday parties and sports events. If we say that we don’t have time for joy or to be our real selves, we get to continue our narrative that we do all of the work; that no one cares about us. This helps us to feel valuable and needed. But it also helps us to feel bitter and angry.
We aren’t in middle school anymore. We know who our people are. We know who allows for real intimacy, and who is secretly pleased when we are going through a hard time. And while it sometimes hurts to be one of the sensitive, Neil-Diamond-loving kids, the pain is worth the reward. It is time to let our real friends back into our lives, along with the fun we forgot we knew how to have.