What's Happening in Character?

We’re wired for friendship, whether we’re 5 or 45

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Apr 20, 2017 @ 14:04 PM

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Phyllis.jpgI still have the handmade pillow I sewed with a friend in fourth grade. We wrote “best friends forever” in puffy paint across the surface. I also have the "slam book" my friends and I created at a sixth grade sleepover. In it, we listed each other’s flaws, then discussed our findings. It amazes me that we considered that a good idea. At 12, peer approval was everything, and those comments stuck. It was 30 years before I cut bangs again. We alternately loved and tested one another, and it wasn’t always pretty.

That was back in the eighties, but not much has changed. As a school counselor, I know that girls holding hands in the hallway on Monday might be ignoring each other by Thursday. Boys playing tag at the beginning of recess might be shoving each other off a slide fifteen minutes later. The upside to all this boundary-pushing is that kids are learning about trust, conflict resolution, and resiliency. It’s good practice for future relationships. To an adult, the extreme highs and lows look exhausting. But although our own friendships seem sedate in comparison, they’re no less important.

I moved to Maryland 15 years ago, and I got pregnant three months after I arrived. At the time, I edited a daily publication, and I'd take the train downtown at 5 a.m. so I'd make my deadline. The early start worsened my morning sickness. Like clockwork, I’d get sick when I reached Metro Station. It was a miserable routine that I repeated in reverse on my way home.

My first friend at my new job, Liza, watched this play out each day. She would drive me home as often as she could, unfazed by my frequent need to stop for air. I was happy for the ride, but even more grateful for the friendship.

As I approached my due date, I started to feel lonely. I knew few people in DC to begin with, and I had no idea how to meet other new moms. I half-jokingly told Liza to quit her job and keep me company during my maternity leave.

When my son was born, I remember passing packs of mothers pushing strollers and wondering how they met. As the first of my friends to have a baby, it was all a big mystery--until I discovered the miracle of playgroups. I finally met equally frazzled women who considered the day a success if they took a shower. We counseled each other through baby reflux and food allergies and crushing fatigue. I hadn’t craved that much concentrated time with friends since I was a child, and we formed tight bonds. Although the days were tedious at times, the years passed quickly.

Fourteen years and three children later, I have an even deeper respect for the power of friendship. Our kids are older, time is in short supply, and our needs are different, but my friends still play a central role in my life.

My perspective on friendship has changed over time. I’m more likely to tolerate others’ quirks because I recognize and accept my own. I understand that different friends serve different needs, and I have realistic expectations. I let the small stuff go, and I grudgingly accept that friendships can fade.

I’m still wistful at times. At unexpected moments, I’ll think of friends who drifted away. The losses feel accidental. Maybe we moved, or didn’t put in the effort, or our lives fell out of sync. It was much easier to stay connected as children, when we followed the same path.

Today’s kids may never lose touch with each other. They document their lives online and stay in perpetual contact whether they want to or not. This makes it easier to hang onto old friends, but will limit their ability to try on new identities. It’s strange to think they may never experience the nostalgia that comes from recalling a long-lost friend.

Children’s friendships may be intense, but adults have more wisdom and practice. When I broke my leg after my youngest son was born, my friends swung into gear. Over the course of a year and three surgeries, they carted my kids to school and fed my family. And, just like the early years of motherhood, they visited me to break the monotony and lift my spirits.

As much as we lean on our friends, we’re wired to reciprocate and care for them too. Over the years, I watched Liza’s boyfriend David propose to her over charades on New Year’s Eve, then dance with her at their wedding. When their second son was a few months old, David got cancer. He fought the illness for a year, but died at 34. This was a different kind of loss, terrible in its permanence.

When David got sick, Liza’s network of friends mobilized. They took her kids to the park, picked up groceries, and stopped by with cookies and wine. In the weeks after he died, her friends took turns spending the night. I remember Liza saying, “I’m supposed to be the one who signs up to bring the meals, not the one who receives them.” We both knew that she would have been the first to organize help.

We all lead busy, complex lives, and it can be tricky to sustain existing friendships, let alone forge new ones. But as we tackle challenges and celebrate milestones, these ties matter as much as they did when we were young. It’s been 15 years since Liza spared me those nausea-inducing Metro rides, but she’s still an important part of my life. The lessons from those days linger, reminding me that small acts of kindness can turn a stranger into an old friend.


Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She regularly writes columns on parenting, counseling and education for Washington Post. She tweets @pfagell.

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Topics: Friendship