So, here I sit, embracing the Wrong Side of 35 (the less said about this the better), reflecting upon this decade thus far. It has, on the whole, been pretty pleasing: marriage, child, new house, fab job (after my twenties spent clambering up the ladder), and now, of course, W&W… Pleasing and busy.
It has also been surprising. The we-can-take-on-the-world confidence boosting security of marriage (who knew it would feel so different?); the all-encompassing fierceness of love for your child. (Years ago, I interviewed the actor Paul Bettany, not long after the birth of his first child. He told me that he was walking down the street, pushing the buggy, and had the sudden realisation that if a car came careering towards them, he would turn his back, to give his son “a second more of life”. At the time I though, “Nice line. Bit Actor-y.” From the moment I first held my daughter, I thought, “A car? I would fight hoards of marauding beasts and face down armies for you.”)
But what has surprised me the most – perhaps because it was the thing I hadn’t anticipated – is the changing face of friendship at this age. I was as ready as I could be for the milestones: I knew that marriage, motherhood, career would be world-altering – and subject to some degree of control. What I didn’t realise is how they would impact upon my friendships (i.e. this I couldn’t control). I thought I had been through the ‘establishing friendships’ stage – and that the ones which had made it this far were rock-steady.
“As we evolve out of our teens and twenties our personalities develop and our tastes change,” explains Dr Cecilia d’Felice, Consultant Psychologist, columnist, and author of 21 Days to a New You (Orion, £7.99). “For some there is an excitement in seeking out new friendships, perhaps more commensurate with our changing lifestyle; for others, perhaps less extrovert types, a consolidation of a core handful of truly bonded friends is more ideal.
Additionally, evolving personalities know more about what works for them in the their thirties. The group activity of teen and early twenties friendship structure is dropped in favour of shared values and pursuits, similar backgrounds, career development, mentoring, widening age range of friendships as we mature and the desire to find a mate, which all influence the choices we make when forming strong bonds with others.”
“I had always thought that it was in your teens and twenties that friendships would change the most,” agrees Layla, 36. “I had assumed that by now I’d be settled in your friendships, but it’s in my 30s that my friendships have changed the most.” And it’s exactly one of the aforementioned milestones which changed what Layla thought was her most solid friendship. “Children can bring you closer (if your parenting styles are similar) or, as I found out, they can drive you apart.”
“My friend Lou and I used to be like sisters, perhaps because we are both only children, we treated each other as siblings. I’d always assumed we’d be as close in our 30s as we were in our teens. However, when we had children everything changed. I went through PND and found her surprisingly unsympathetic. Perhaps I relied on her too much, expected her to understand and be there for me as she always had done, but she just wasn’t. She just didn’t get it. She closed off to me and I closed off to her and five years on, while we’re still friends, we are no longer the bosom buddies we once were.”
Yep. We’ve all been there. Sex and the City it isn’t. Over a glass of wine, Eva, 34, tells me about how, when – after years of dating hopeless/caddish/awful men – she met and fell in love with a charming, lovely, devoted man, and announced her engagement – and one of her closest friends seemed totally underwhelmed. “Her reaction was, “Really? Oh. That’s nice.” I couldn’t believe it. After years of supporting her through her relationship, including being her bridesmaid/beck and call girl at her wedding and listening to hours of baby talk when she got pregnant (even though she knew I desperately wanted these things myself) – all I got was a ‘that’s nice’?! There really is no other word for it – she was disappointed. I had always been, ‘Poor Eva’, the counter to her ‘perfect’ life. And now I was no longer to be pitied, it was as though I was no longer useful. I may not,” she says, with a defiant swig of wine, “invite her to the wedding.”
There is, of course, the flipside. My university friends and I are scattered around the country (at times, the globe), but we have an on-going email conversation that swings back and forth like a supportive, funny, loving pendulum. By some kind of freak of nature, three of us gave birth within a week of each other – support network ahoy. And I totally lucked out with my NCT group – I’ve made some ‘proper’ friends through simply having a child. It’s like having a girl crush when you discover someone you can really bond with – a thrill akin to the discovery that Fiona really loves Anne of Green Gables, too (when you’re 12 and both plan to marry Gilbert Blythe. This is a true fact.).
The experiences of your thirties can bring you even closer to your friends. Alex and I had always got on well when we worked together, but having my daughter a few months after she had her first son meant that not only did we become much closer, but she became that friend I never knew I needed ‘til I needed her: the one who has Gone Before and Survived; provides support and excellent advice; who tells you ‘this too shall pass’, ‘of course you can give her a bottle, just go and do it’ etc.
In other words: sometimes friendships are forged, or deepened, by timing, You undergo a profound personal experience – and so do they. “When we are having our children, we will most frequently desire the friendships of others going through the same experiences,” agrees Dr d’Felice. “It doesn’t mean that our childless friends are not important to us, it is just that at this point in our lives, being with other parents is reassuring and supportive as they know what is really going on. Likewise those who are very committed to their careers will often socialize with others pursuing the same path as they can understand more the long hours, the sudden changes of plans because of work commitments or the absenteeism caused by international travel or deadlines.”
And, by their very nature, these life events that tend to cluster in your thirties compel you to reassess: what is important? What is my priority? Who is my priority? Because I sure as heck don’t have time for everything and everyone. “When time is short you spend it with people you really, really like,” Alex points out, when we discussed this feature. And those people might not be the people you had anticipated. You might find that there are people who have been friends for so long that you have forgotten why you are actually friends with them: friendships based on time rather than shared interests or mutual compassion and support.
“God, yes,” says my friend Philippa, feelingly. At 37, she is a teacher and mother of three. Suffice to say, time is not her friend. “I had been friends with Rebecca since we were at school. I dutifully caught up with her every few months for a drink; exchanged sporadic emails. It wasn’t until my husband pointed out that I always went to meet her like a toddler being forced to have a bath – and returned in a massive grump, that I realised our friendship had become a habit – and not a healthy one at that. She quietly undermined my life choices (“Working part-time? Well, I guess that if your career doesn’t really matter to you…”, “I’m so glad I don’t have kids”) and trumpeted her own. And, if I’m honest, it made me less disposed to be supportive of her choices. I am ashamed to say, childishly, I have simply stopped replying to her emails.” (Toxic friends and spotting them – therein lies another piece – Alex?)
Friendships – particularly female friendships – do require maintenance. The choice we have to make is whether a friendship is worth the maintenance (even if the friend in question has been one since you were five-years-old). I should add that diverging life paths are not necessarily a divisive factor. One of my closest friends leads a far more fabulous life than I could ever contemplate: jetting around the globe doing charity work, whilst I bumble around my corner of England, doing not a great deal it seems by way of contrast. Nonetheless, I love and value her dearly – and we are both hugely supportive of the other’s choices. I would drop everything if she needed me, and I am pretty sure she would do the same.
“It is often said that true friendships are the ones where despite changes in life events, responsibilities and demands, they can be picked up at any point and reconnect without censure or recrimination,” confirms Dr Cecilia d’Felice (on whom we are starting to develop a ‘we’d like to be friends with her’ crush). “What is important is that we love our friends unconditionally, offering understanding and support rather than judgment and criticism. In the main friends are all trying to do their best, given the realities of the lives they are creating.
People tend to come into our lives just as we need them, either to support us, to show us something new about ourselves, to create with us, to love us, to challenge us. Some of those connections will be lifelong, others will be shorter-lived, but no less valuable because of it. If we think more about enjoying every moment of the friendship for as long as it lasts without expectation, then we are likely to get the most out of the connection and to offer the bond we have forged a commitment to be loving and true whatever the outcome of the future. In other words: friends come and go but a true friend is a friend for life as we carry them in our hearts and feel their good energy whether they are with us or not.”
Photograph: Nina Lynn