The importance of tending to friendships

little girl watering small tree with a watering can


By Anne Helena

Usually we walked briskly, our stride matching the tempo of our conversation. But not today. The storm clouds loomed over us like a stern reminder of our responsibilities and small talk crept into the silence between our footsteps.

The walking path led us just beyond the side entrance of the zoo, a place my friends and I had spent countless hours together when our children were younger. Through the chain-link fence I glimpsed rows of little bodies pressed up against the glass enclosure where the mama lion dozed with her cub. Maggie sighed: “Aw, you guys, don’t you miss those lazy days at the zoo with the kids in tow?” 

I nodded. Watching those moms chat with their friends—one ear bent towards their conversations and one eye fixed on their toddlers—I realized that I not only missed my kids at this stage, I missed my friends from that era too. Even the ones standing right next to me. 

“Yeah, I remember those days,” Kath said wistfully. “I actually had a social life when my kids were little! This is the first time I’ve been out in months,” she laughed, half-resigned, half-amused by her realization. 

It was true that as parents of older kids, socializing with other moms was no longer part of our job description. Music Together classes and supervised playdates were long gone. Friendship was no longer automatic, but did that mean it was somehow less important?

I met Kath and Maggie when our like-minded children, now tweens, were in preschool together. Our friendship evolved over long walks and coffee while the kids were at school. Together the three of us weathered the anxieties of raising sensitive children, the stress of going back to work, and even the loss of loved ones.

But after our kids went off to different elementary schools and getting together was no longer as convenient, our meetings became more sporadic. I had been trying to coax my friends out for a walk since April, and now it was almost Thanksgiving.

Several postponed walks later, we were finally meeting up.

I bent to tie my shoe as Kath continued to rattle off excuses—her dissertation, the job search, house projects. Maggie came clamoring to her aid, maybe as a means to ease her own guilt as well.

“We understand, right Anne?” Maggie insisted, nudging me like a mama cat toward the rest of her litter. 

I understood that life was busy. With our kids in school all day we had more time than before, but we also had more responsibility—at work and at home. The workday was only half over at 4pm, when we ferried our kids from soccer to swim team, from volleyball to violin. We had every excuse not to make time for friends, but our isolation was a choice not an inevitability.

It had become clear to me in recent years that Kath felt more compelled by the weight of her obligations than by the strength of our friendship. I was being replaced—not by another friend, but by a to-do list. I understood Kath’s choice, but I didn’t respect it.

Still, Maggie’s question lingered—we understand, right?—and I felt my head nodding without my consent.

Kath shrugged. “I guess now the kids just organize their own playdates.” Our kids were old enough to choose their own friends, and the friendships they chose did not involve us. We just dropped them off and waved from the car, leaving the engine running. In this new isolation, we needed friends more than ever. 

I hoped Maggie would echo my thoughts, but instead she continued to unfurl the safety net for Kath’s shortcomings: “The best thing about a friendship like ours is that we can go months and months without seeing each other and it doesn’t matter. Right?” 

Her voice begged to be seconded. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

We had gone six months without seeing each other, despite the fact that we lived only two miles apart. It sure as hell mattered to me. How could it not matter to her? While Maggie hadn’t outright canceled get togethers like Kath, she didn’t initiate them either. I could no longer ignore the fact that I was the only one of us still reaching out.

Maggie stood there, waiting for permission to re-brand our friendship. We would be like long-distance friends living in the same city.

It doesn’t matter, right? 

I struggled with myself for a long moment, then with a reluctant nod, I offered up a pathetic “Totally”— a flat and feeble thing that flopped out of my mouth and floundered there on the ground. I winced at its awkwardness. I might as well have tossed our friendship on the ground next to the plastic water bottles and candy wrappers littering the path. I was done fighting for us.

I glanced back at the zoo, towards those new moms with their sweet-scented babies and bouncy toddlers. They didn’t know that their best social lives were unfolding right now. They didn’t know that most of their new-mom friendships would eventually wiggle loose and fall away like baby teeth. If they were lucky, there would be a few that stuck, but only if they tended to them. 

I wanted to grab those fresh moms by the shoulders and shout, “Tend to them!” I wanted them to know that those friendships deserved and demanded their attention—just like a garden, or a child, or a marriage.

“For the love of God, it matters!” I wanted to scream at them, since I couldn’t say it to the friends at my side. I wanted to tell these strangers, because some day—and much sooner than they thought—they, too, would be mothers of older children. 

Our hour was up, our walk was over. As I shut my car door and waved goodbye to Kath and Maggie, I wondered when I’d see them again. Maybe at the coffee shop, or the pool, or the soccer field. I would chat and smile. But I would not seek them out. I could not keep pretending that their semi-annual friendship was enough for me.

In the rearview mirror I watched Kath and Maggie hop into their minivans and drive away from me, towards their busy, separate lives. I drove straight ahead towards the friends in my life who knew what mattered.

And I didn’t look back.

Anne Helena is a linguist, Italian instructor, and nonfiction writer. Her work focuses on her favorite job of all times, being a mom. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and three old-soul children.

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