by Caryn Berardi
I had just found a seat in the spacious hotel ballroom where the conference keynote address was about to begin when, despite an overabundance of empty chairs, another woman sat down next to me.
I know professional conferences are for networking, but I usually like to sit alone at the keynote program. In case the speaker is boring, I can scroll through Facebook without feeling self-conscious. But instead, my new neighbor said “hi.” I put my phone down and said “hi” back.
And so began a beautiful friendship between two women who lived in the same city, worked in the same profession, had babies the same age, and were both trying to figure out how to handle it all. We shared like worries: Are we taking care of our kids the “right” way? As we approach midlife, are we where we want to be (or thought we would be) in our careers? We even had an identical complaint about traveling with kids that we were convinced we could turn into a business idea. Somehow, we talked through all of this during a three-day conference. It was simpatico.
Flash forward two weeks: After a back-and-forth of emails and vows to report back with research for our business idea, the messages stopped and the friendship was over before it even began. We never even made it to Facebook friends. I don’t remember her name.
Though short-lived, I still think about this meeting several years later because it is emblematic of some of the “friendships” I have regretted losing most during this season of life: the friends who could have been. Or as I like to call them – the friends who got away. These are women I have connected with because we could connect the BIG parts of life together, like parenting, careers and marriage. But a lack of time, energy and/or proximity kept these relationships from fully forming.
Friendships feel so fleeting right now, popping in and out of life like dolphins breaking the surface in the ocean.
Instant connections are easy. They are based on a common thread like the t-ball team, music class or professional trainings. But once that class or event is over, there is so little time to invest in maintaining the relationship (especially when you haven’t even made the time to call your best friend from college who rubbed your back for four years while you cried over a break-up and/or eliminated that extra tequila shot you should not have taken).
And it is not just with chance meetings, but with people I see regularly, like the other mothers at daycare. I have met such wonderful women through my sons’ school and I do feel that a few of them have moved past the acquaintance zone (meaning, I actually know their names and do not only refer to them as “Billy’s Mom”). But recently one of these friends changed her child’s school and we no longer saw each other at drop-off, pick-up and Halloween parades. Our common thread was cut, and despite the best intentions, we have barely spoken since.
I know it can sound silly to mourn the loss of people I may have only known for one year, six months or even two weeks. This is especially true when research studies tell us that women lose touch with their old friendships in their 20s and 30s as they focus on career and family. As we enter our 40s, we begin to reconnect with those friends as both our children grow up and nostalgia for our younger selves grows stronger. In other words, we start calling our best friend from college more regularly again.
I’m still in the trenches with my kids, but as I get older, I understand the research. Revitalizing my older friendships has become more important as we begin to care for our parents, navigate marital changes and re-think our professional paths. Sometimes it’s nice to ask the friend who has known you since you were both 10 years old if her hips hurt as much as yours when she stands up.
And perhaps that’s what makes these friendships that got away different – there is no real foundation for reconnecting like there are with ones from the past. There wasn’t enough time to form a bond strong enough that it can be wheeled back in when life opens up again. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
And after wondering why I kept thinking about these encounters, I realized it was because I don’t want my days of making new friends to be over. It seemed like one more entry on the list of “firsts” I won’t ever experience again.
When I reflect on the people I’ve met in the last few years, they are not all just beginnings of relationships. A precious few have endured to become treasured friends, confidantes and supporters. It takes time, saying yes to a coffee when I’d rather read a book, and cleaning my house to host a Sunday afternoon barbecue so our families can also get to know each other. But as I watch these fledgling friendships develop, it is well worth it.
Every time I’m at the airport, wrangling my twin boys and all of our stuff through the gate, I think about my friend from the conference and our business idea. I wonder if she’s had more children, if she’s still a counselor, and if her husband got into the MBA program he was applying to when I met her. I don’t know enough about her to wonder about anything other than what came up in those two weeks.
I still attend the annual professional conference where we met. Perhaps we will find ourselves once again sitting next to each other at the keynote address and invite each other over for a barbecue and a second chance of friendship.
Caryn takes her 10+ years of experience in higher education as both an instructor and career coach to write about personal and professional development, as well as help businesses and universities tell their stories. A mom to twin boys, she also writes about her own parenting experience as a way to make sense of the joys and challenges of motherhood. Her work has appeared in national and local magazines, as well as sites such as HuffPost, ScaryMommy, Modern Loss and as a contributor to the anthology, Multiples Illuminated, Volume 2. Her home on the internet is here.