Ever since I can remember, I have invested heavily in my friendships.
Elementary school was marked by a town-over move that necessitated a school change. Once there, forging my way into already established friend groups was not preferred, but felt necessary. The road was long, winding, and punctuated by mile markers of that nuanced “mean girl” bullying that can still be difficult to describe with words. Quiet aversions of attention, closing out of circles at recess, non-invitations to after-school hangouts — you know the kind.
I remember confronting some girls, requesting (or even pleading) for their continued kindness; we would connect and get along well when there wasn’t the pressure from others in the group who were set on preserving its exclusivity. Looking back, I admire my ability to communicate this situation so clearly at just 11 years old. I don’t remember it being easy, but I never remember being afraid of it. It felt like an inherent, necessary part of relationship building.
Middle school saw the sustenance of friendships I worked hard to grow in the two years prior. This time the group insularity politics weren’t an issue; everyone was all in. The girls I was closest to and myself had a private blog that we would all use to communicate with one another incessantly. Our posts would ruminate on love, philosophy, religion and sadness, but most notably, they discussed our own friendships. I remember explicit expressions of closeness and gratefulness for one another. The intimacy of it was intense and formative. I remember these friendships, and how our continued affirmations of them gave me so much confidence and security. They were never perfect, and of course conflict arose on occasion, but to this day, those years of my life remind me how fortress-like friendships can be: structurally sound, secure, homes beyond home.
Fast forward to today. Two of my current best girl friends are from the aforementioned period of my life. One is from high school. Several more are from my time in college, where I found myself the only woman in a friend group of all men. As the universe would have it post-graduation, all three of my closest girl friends now live across the country from me. So now when I hang out with friends, I’m hanging out with dudes. This configuration has come to be my normal, but I would be lying if I said it was always easy. Because even the steeliest of feminists like myself must concede that girls and guys are different. And the difference affects how they engage in friendships with one another.
To be more specific, cultural conceptions of men and women, masculinity and femininity, are different. And thus, they influence the behavior and values of those who identify as such.
I started feeling the gender disparity in my friendships when my last remaining best girl friend in New York, left to return home to California. I was left to gauge the differences of friendship intimacy between me and my guy friends and me and my girl friends. The brutal honesty I had to share with myself was this: despite all the frank, candid, explicit conversations I’ve had with my guy friends, there were things I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with them. And it was because I didn’t think they would be able to fully understand as men.
I also had real feelings of being outnumbered, of being left out of conversations, of performing emotional labor and receiving nothing in return when I tried to articulate things I did feel comfortable enough to share. This all eventually culminated. Instead of confronting my guy friends transparently about the way I felt certain nuances of gender were impacting our relationships, I closed myself off further. I became passive aggressive and even quieter, which only exacerbated the issues I was coming up against. I had transferred the onus of the blame onto them, but was harboring the pain and conflict internally. There were no sincere attempts on my part to externally confront the issue, because this time I had fear. I was afraid that should I finally open up I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I had gone so long without saying anything at all.
I have been mining internally, desperate for my younger self’s resolve. I have been digging for artifacts of a past me who knew how to stage a meaningful confrontation when the situation called for it. I have uncovered them in fragments, dusted them off, and begun to piece them back together. I have begun to wield them again and find they are working like they once did — albeit a bit rustily.
I am not who I was in elementary school or middle school. Admittedly, I have a lot more unanticipated insecurities and inhibitions than I did back then. But I’m taking cues from my younger self because she had the right idea — investing earnestly in friendships is worthwhile, even if that investment means a confrontation from time to time. I have faith enough in the people I love to know that temporary discomfort is more than worth the foundations it builds. These are the foundations that uphold homes beyond home.