Why I’ve Had To Change My Definition Of Friendship

beautiful african american woman checking her messages.

I crave that connection with that one perfect friend, who would reciprocate my feelings. But it remains elusive and I wonder now, if it’s even possible.

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is a bit of an elusive, weird thing: it’s my mother’s devotion to her best friend. My mother felt and “did”—and still does—friendship so exuberantly, so passionately, that when I was a child I could feel the love wash through our house when her friend was around.

Her relationship with her best friend seemed almost like romantic love to me: long talks into the night, visits to the theater, tearful conversations over the phone. They lived on opposites ends of the same street and one night, not being able to finish their conversation and say good-bye, they walked each other home back and forth, several times on the dark, quiet street, until the early morning hours.

To my mother, a friendship is a connection of souls, something to be treasured and protected and nurtured. Friendship is unconditional, never-ending. She was—and is—always there for her friends in very practical, physical ways as well: picking up kids from school, cooking meals, helping with errands, planning surprise birthday parties. Anything for friendship.

That rush of emotion I had when I was around her and her friend comes back to me often now that I am an adult. I crave that connection with that one perfect friend, who would reciprocate my feelings. But it remains elusive and I wonder now, if it’s even possible.

I do have friends—many of them very close ones. There’s Abby, whom I met when she became my boss. When I left that job a year later we both sighed with relief, ecstatic to finally be able to be true friends and share things that you wouldn’t share with your boss. We only see each other a few times a year now, but when we meet we can pick up our conversation right where we left off. Not having the luxury of time to warm up to each other, we dive right into the juicy topics: sex, husbands, kids.

I met Gabrielle during a prenatal yoga class and our friendship is one of those lucky ones that grew beyond being “mommy friends.” She is an awesome cheerleader and probably the sunniest person I know. She helped me through many rainy days at home with a cranky toddler.

And there are my two online loves: Dina and Lauren. We were brought together by our writing lives, but I think they would agree that our friendship deepened and moved beyond our shared interest. They are my muses, my support, my proofreaders, my champions, my purveyors of Twitter gossip, my companions in reminiscing about love lost and found. We talk online almost every day and I think that the ease of our friendship comes from having these long, deep conversations in writing. It’s just easier to write about difficult—or racy—topics than to say them out loud.

I also have close friends in writing groups and at work. I have friends who are like second mothers to me and friends who make the best shopping companions. I have friends for flirting and friends who tell me what’s what when I need it. And I try to be a good friend to all of them: offer encouragement or advice, or just listen. I try to do my share of proofreading, or check in when kids are sick or husbands are away. But there is a limit to what I can do because I live far from all of my friends: Abby and Gabrielle are three hours away, Dina lives two hours away, and Lauren is on the other side of the Atlantic. The things my mother did for her friend are just not possible: I can’t cook and deliver a meal. I can’t hold hands. I can’t bring flowers, or pick up kids, or meet up for coffee. At least not regularly.

I often feel that my distant friendships will never measure up to that one ideal friendship that accompanied my childhood. I want it, I strive for it, but it’s not something that I can will into being. My life is different than my mother’s was when she was my age—I had to move around, change jobs, change streets. And so I’ve come to realize that maybe I have to change my definition of friendship. My mother was lucky to find that one perfect friend, that soul mate. I am lucky that there is technology that keeps me close to distant friends; that a quick text can be reassuring and deliver comfort, that an e-mail can carry advice when an in-person heart-to-heart is not possible.

I’d like to think my friendships are just as valuable as the friendship my mother had. I certainly treasure them the same way. I realize that these relationships rely so much on language and the written word—there’s rarely any action to back up what is being said. So I have to choose my words carefully, think about the person I am writing or talking to, know exactly what my friend needs to hear or read in any given moment.

And I have to accept the same—that my version of walking back-and-forth on the street at night is now a quick phone call between preschool dropoff and work. That I have to wait a day or two for advice to come in a message. That silence from a friend means a hectic life, not an abandoned friendship. I have to trust that I am thought about and cared about and that the reaching out will come in time.

When I do see my friends in person I feel myself getting charged up like a battery, filling up with love and words and companionship. We drink wine and laugh and tell stories and we sometimes cry or eat quietly and enjoy looking at each other across the table. We go shopping and try on clothes together, like we can do this every day, like it’s not a special occasion.

Except it is. And that makes all of my friendships bittersweet and tender and treasured. Just like a romance.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer and mom to a five-year-old little dude. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kveller, and Full Grown People. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com.

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