'I'm not saying I think your life is like Sex and the City'

I talked to my friend about how as our lives diverge, it can feel like you’ve lost your compass.

Molly Pierce and I have known each other for twenty-five years. We grew up streets apart and used to walk home from the school bus together. When we got to the point in the road where we were to go our separate ways, we’d often stop on the wall and keep talking to each other, even though we were going to see each other on the bus again the next morning. 

We grew up together, we were teenagers together, we partied together in our twenties and we felt the same as each other, until, one day I realised, our lives are now different in every way. 

I talked to my friend Molly about our diverging life choices and how it plays out in friendship dynamics. 

Tiffany: Our lives now look and feel incredibly different, especially if we look at our lives through the lens of how society looks at women in their thirties. I'm single, I live in a flatshare and I’m self-employed. Whereas, you have a husband and a two-year-old and a full-time job. 

Anna Codrea-Rado said to  me when I interviewed her for this newsletter: ‘I think people struggle with friendships as we get older because our friends are our mirrors.’

Molly: Your friendships are the way that you make sense of the world. Growing up and coming into your adulthood, you use each other as kind of measuring posts almost. Not that you’re constantly comparing, but you see someone doing something that you might be interested in and think maybe I’d also like to do that. So one example is when you were living in New York and I was living in California.

I remember you coming to visit me and I’d been really grappling with whether or not I was going to stay in California and you told me you were leaving New York. I really remember feeling like that gave me permission to be like: ‘I'm going to finish out grad school, and then I'm going to come home.’

I remember feeling like it was okay because my friend was doing it too. That's just one example of hundreds of how seeing what your friends are doing gives you permission to be brave and explore the stuff that's right for you.

And then we've gone into our thirties and our lives look so different and it can feel like you’ve lost your compass. I think that divergence can make you feel like: ‘what’s happened to my mirror? How do I now understand my place in the world?’

When we're teenagers and growing up, we're all doing stuff together and getting permission and inspiration from each other and then what feels like quite suddenly our lives become very different.

It's a harder type of independence than independence from your family when you're a teenager and in your young twenties, you crave that independence, you crave being able to make your own decisions but becoming independent from your friends, that's a trickier step to take.

You were the first in our friendship group to have a baby. What was that like?

It took a really long time for me to get pregnant and it was a pretty hard journey at times and I talked to you guys about it the whole way along so I felt really enveloped in love.

But having a baby and being on maternity leave, then you’re in a different headspace. So that felt disorienting. 

A few more of our friends have babies now which is lovely, and I love being able to talk about the baby stuff. But I am also really aware that we don't all have kids and I don't want it to become a space in which someone who doesn't have children feels less comfortable. But then I also don't want those of us who do have children to elide this part of our lives. 

You were the first in the group to have a baby and then you were sort of alone in that. But then, it feels like everyone has babies and now me, as a single child-free person, is in the minority.  

It’s anxiety-inducing for people who are choosing not to have children and it’s anxiety-inducing for people like me who want to have children but haven’t met anyone yet. When you feel like part of the minority versus part of the majority, it can really affect how you feel about your life.

It's really challenging because friends have things you want and it's not coming as easily for you. How do you think that dynamic plays out in friendship groups?

In our friendship group, there's a whole spectrum. My daughter is almost a toddler and then there are people who have tiny babies, then people who don't want babies or aren’t sure if they want babies and then there are people who do want babies but don't want babies yet and to be honest, I think it makes communicating harder.

People's feelings can get hurt, and people can be insensitive and blind to the way they talk about certain things.

I try to remember what it was like when I was trying to get pregnant, which took a long time,  and to try to make sure that I'm not being that person who's oblivious to what somebody else might be experiencing. But it’s also tricky because sometimes you just want to be like: ‘Oh my god, the baby is being a total nightmare. I haven't slept for three days,’ and you don't want to not say that because you’re being sensitive. You just want to express that feeling to your friends.

That has also been complicated by the fact that over the last year, we have not been able to see each other in person anywhere near as much as we would in a normal year. And now, we're re-entering the seeing each other in person stage and all this life has happened in the interim. 

We saw each other recently and we had a really lovely, funny, stupid, drunken time and it felt so good. This is what I’ve really missed in my friendships is being able to talk to each other and be honest about stuff, without it feeling like you're having a big unburdening.

It was fun and honest and carefree and we were kind of making fun of each other's lives.

If we’d had that conversation over text, someone would have got really upset. 

Exactly, we've been robbed of that being able to find those moments of connection with old friends and we’ve spent the last year more exposed to what people have or what their lives are or seem to be via social media or whatever it is, but actually, when you come together in person, you find that we've all struggled this year, whether or not you've had a housemate or husband or lived alone and then you can actually all connect on that shared suffering. But when you haven't had that, I think something tribal has happened over the last year in people's minds.

It’s made me think about friendship because pandemic or no pandemic, if your lives are looking really different, it’s harder to relate to each other. How have you experienced challenges around that and have you ever felt judged for your life choices? 

You suddenly have to work a lot harder at empathy. Before I’d almost cheated my way into being empathetic because I’ve been able to do it for when people are in similar situations to me. You have to do that literal thing of putting yourself in someone’s shoes, which is harder.

I probably have felt judged on certain levels. I feel like I am doing the predictable thing: I'm married to my university boyfriend, we live together, we have a baby, we both work. Interestingly, I think it’s something that I have judged myself for a little bit sometimes. 

But I know, because I'm in it, that my life is much more complex than that. My journey to this point in my relationship with my husband and my journey towards getting pregnant has been a lot more complicated than what that surface level looks like. 

I would hope that my friends see that too, but sometimes, when I think about your life I'm like: ‘Tiffany is this, super fun person who gets to write about what she wants and she’s writing a book and she's doing all this cool stuff and she lives with her trendy flatmate,’ and I'm not saying I think your life is Sex and the City, but it's easy to put that narrative on it. And that really elides all the complexity that I know is in your life and complexity that I know is in your history because I've been with you through all of that.

And I think sometimes we do that to each other a little bit and when I think about the conversations that you and Anna Cod have had in this newsletter, for example about, friends making choices to stay friends. I really remember reading that and being like: ‘where do people like me factor into this equation? How are we making a choice to stay friends?’ 

We have to remember that we're all still fundamentally people with all of the messiness that is around that, as well as having our 50 words blurbs that we present to the world. I think sometimes in our friendships, we forget that. 

I think that's why it's so important for friends to have conversations like these, so everyone can put all their shit on the table basically, and then realize, that life is complex and varied and textured for anyone, no matter what those life choices or life paths look like.

It's been a complicated year for friendship and I think those decisions around babies, families, where we live and how we spend our time. Your early thirties are always complicated because those dynamics shift so much, but in the absence of a chance to get together to be like: ‘here’s what I feel and here’s what I need from  you.’ I’ve really felt the absence of that this past year. 

We've had that almost perfect storm of the pandemic and life having changed for people at such a pace. 

I was also curious about how different career paths play out in friendships. I think there’s something about different work choices and different attitudes to work, which I think can also be another place for this mirror that we've talked about to come up.

I feel like I have a very traditional model of a career and I feel sort of simultaneously jealous of people who are doing a kind of more portfolio careers. At the same time, I have deep-seated knowledge that I could never do a career like that, I just would not be happy in myself and it wouldn't suit me. 

I wonder if: ‘Tiff thinks I’m really boring because I just go and do the same thing every day.’  

Yeah, someone said something similar to me recently. Because I talk and write about work and also when I talk about challenging conventional narratives and living life on your own terms, some people interpret that as a criticism of people who have more traditional stuff in their lives, when actually it's really not about that. It's about conscious choices and not doing things just because you feel you should. And knowing yourself as well. 

Being rebellious is not more worthy than being conventional. People presume that I judge the nine to five, whereas that's not true at all. 

I actually think this life I have, workwise, particularly now, is extremely tough and I don't think most people should do it. 

I think the solitariness of the way you work, I would find that too hard.

Work is another example of that ‘me versus you’ or ‘what you do with your life says something about my life’ and I think that’s the issue: seeing our different life choices in a tribe-like way. 

It speaks to our own insecurity about our own choices in that we perceive people making different choices, often as: ‘What does this mean for me? What does this mean that they think about me? Does it mean that this thing that I secretly might think about myself is actually true?’ 

That tribalism, this need for everybody to herd themselves into one box or one particular group is just so poisonous because it means you never get to have an honest, open conversation because you're always doing that measuring up and that benchmarking, I suppose. 

What we've basically been talking about is how you start life with your tribe and then we grow up and then we don’t all fit and the tribe is no longer a tribe. We’re no longer the same. 

I think this is a big teething stage, but I think we'll be fine. It would be silly and sad to lose a friendship that has meant so much to us for such a long time in our lives over the fact that our lives are currently different. 

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I agree. Thank you Molly!