My mom didn’t do book club. She didn’t work outside the home. She didn’t volunteer. She didn’t play tennis or golf. She talked on the phone. All day, every day. The long cord wrapped around her legs, head tilted towards her shoulder to hold the phone in place while she peeled carrots and ironed my dad’s shirts. Chatting with friends was her life’s work. Never did the phone go unanswered. It was the other person living with us. Live conversation was consistently interrupted by the shrill ring that vibrated through the house. Inevitably, once the receiver was lifted, she performed a two hour disappearing act.
My mom thought call waiting was rude. Instead, she installed another phone line so I could talk to my friends and she would not be interrupted for hours on end. My teenage pastime became the phone as well. It’s what the women in our house did. As an only child, my mom referred to her friends as her sisters. So my friends became my sisters, too. My mom and I dropped everything for our friends. Simultaneously, we lost sight of who we were apart from them.
Parting, even briefly, was made easier with the invention of the answering machine as we could leave the house while keeping tabs on incoming inquiries. The pilgrimage to the second floor office (aka the voicemail room) was immediate upon arrival back home. Press play, take notes. Response time was prompt. Never keep a friend waiting.
The landline telephones were plugged into just about every room of the house to alleviate any risk of the call being literally out of reach. Every phone had a display screen with handwritten first names and a button next to each one so my mom’s friends were always just one touch away. Jeanie, Jane, Joyce, Janie – the list of J names was rather uncanny. Helen, Gracie, and Sheri provided some diversity. Almost all of these women dated back decades in my mother’s life. If you got your name on my mom’s speed dial, your inner circle status granted you immediate around the clock access, extravagant gifts, party invitations, and all the gossip.
Hosting a dinner party at our house meant a definitive three week lockdown. Two weeks prior to plan, prepare, and clean, and one week for postmortem sessions on the phone to rehash said event. Getting anywhere near my mom’s orbit in the days leading up to the soiree would set off an invisible, yet intricate radar system stemming from her core. I was chased out of the powder room. I don’t recall eating much as the kitchen was for party prep only. Crumbs were a serious trigger. A glass on the counter without a coaster was the death of us. So my father and I stopped hydrating, too.
Once the evening kicked off, the energy sparked like wildfire. Drinks flowed freely, the food was impeccable, the house looked immaculate, and laughter boomed deep into the night. Everyone who walked through that front door practically posed for the paparazzi as they were made to feel like rock stars on the red carpet.
Yet a layer of formalization draped over these relationships like a heavy blanket. I learned that you always catered to your friends’ needs first, at whatever cost. She would say her friends were her sisters, but that always nagged me. Putting friendships on pedestals isn’t how real sisters – those tied by blood – actually treated each other. But what did I know?
As an only child, my mother’s mini-me as she always liked to believe, my high school, college, and grad school groups became big familial units to me. Just like siblings, some friends ruffled my feathers, others totally got me. I embraced it all as we were members of these crazy, chaotic families I so desperately craved to be a part of. Yet for as much as I believed my friends were my sisters, I had no ability to actually deal with normal sibling conflict. I was quick to apologize, no matter where the fault lay. I shrank in the presence of anger, asynchronicity, or acidity with a friend. I made myself small and just disappeared for a bit, only to reemerge once the waters had calmed and my feelings were pushed down until no longer visible.
Now in the depths of middle age, I tread water in the turbulence of everyday life – aging and ailing parents, multiple growing kids, deeper career commitments and ambitions. I crave authentic friendships that hold a mutual understanding, ones that give each other the benefit of the doubt – a deep belief that we are all just trying our best and loving each other through the messiness of life. I look to friends to help carry me through the heaviness, not to be the heaviness.
My most recent friendship heartache took me by surprise. Through a text. She wrote, “I don’t know how to be your friend if I can’t be your best friend.” It all goes back to the phone. While no longer tethered to the visible cords, we are more glued to our phones than ever. Moving from the flip phone to the smartphone, from email to texting, from speakerphone to FaceTime, communication lines are constantly open, but does that mean we have to be, too?
My texting response times weren’t as speedy as in the past which led to hurt feelings. Messages sent were misread in the speed of life and false narratives were created. The phone literally lost its voice. Typing versus talking led to gross misinterpretations. From there, it all unraveled. Looking back, it’s because I quietly put down the phone to focus on my family and the major crises that were erupting within it.
I shared this recent turmoil with a dear friend who has known me since I was twelve. Her response – “This happens to you more than most people. You have a unique ability to make people feel special but when you have other things going on in your life that reshift your focus, I think your friends get hurt by that.”
Then it struck me. I have carried my mother’s torch of putting my friends above all else and created expectations I can’t live up to. The times that I tended to my family’s needs or my own desires are the times that my major friendship breakups occurred. They can practically be charted on a timeline simultaneous with any personal upheaval. What I’ve ultimately realized is that I don’t have the capability to be anyone’s best friend if I don’t give myself the same attention and grace I give to others.
So now I drift, just a bit, not tied to any one friendship or pseudo-sibling as I unearth my own aspirations. Releasing myself from the tight expectations I created has sent me into a tailspin at times. But unwinding has anchored me to a more authentic sense of self than ever expected. Funny enough, beautiful, balanced friendships have bubbled to the top. The truth is, real friendships can be put on hold when needed. And a true receiver will always pick up.
A former public relations professional, Lindsay now focuses on writing personal stories with her beloved Modernwell Writing Studio members. Cooking, community volunteering, travel and nature continue to feed her soul. She lives in Minneapolis with her three teens and husband of 22 years.