I took on a challenge a while back, one that has changed me in deep and profound ways as a mother, as a teacher, and as a friend. When my son began high school over three years ago, his circle of friends and their inner-connectivity were all at once right in front of me and I had a front row seat to the dynamics of teenage bonds and how they change and grow over time. I wrote in detail about what I was seeing during those days and that post has generated more chatter amongst my mom-friends than perhaps any other piece I’ve ever written.
It seems that girl friendships remain more complicated, more painful, more intricate and more beautiful than ever.
They cruise the human emotional spectrum almost daily, from giggly, heartwarming elation to often secret, painful exclusion. But oh, those bonds are so, so much deeper now than they were just a few years ago, and yet they still trip us up. How? Why? I decided to give the post a re-visit.
When I wrote this blog back in 2014, these kids were 14 and…petty. There’s no other way to say it. The stories I detail herein seemed ridiculous in those moments because they were ridiculous. But I’ve watched these girls grow into women since then, and now what I see before me are the adult bonds I spoke of back then with longing. My girls grew into themselves, and those flowers bloomed.
But for the Tweens entering into this dangerous foray for the first time… here’s a preview for you. The good news is, it gets better.
Enjoy. But get ready.
It’s like getting a part-time job. It entails a four-year commitment to over 500 teenagers for the following standing events: Homecoming Week, endless fundraising, regular T-shirt purchases, pep rally competitions, Prom and eventually their Graduation.
I made a decision to become Chairperson for my son’s freshman class, thus obligating myself to an enumerable number of hours with them. It has turned out to be a bit trickier than what I prepared myself for and I don’t mean the labor and organizational requirements. Psh! That part has been easy. What has shocked and astounded me so far is the friendship dynamics of fourteen-year-old girls who are at times inseparable …but all at once can suddenly ‘break up’ without notice. I am processing how that behavior sometimes meshes and often collides with my aging, sentimental, set-in-my-ways self.
I only have a boy, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that fourteen year old girls are, well, a horse of a totally different color.
It’s been a lot like bad blind dating. The first time I met The Girls, everyone was on their best behavior. Only later did I witness the other side of their gentle, soft, timid personalities. I have known many of them since kindergarten, so in many cases I feel like I have them all figured out already. I know their families. We all go way back, so to speak. I initially agreed to this “date,” this new relationship we were entering into with each other, thinking I had inherited a known entity of meek, humble, polite, hardworking little darlings. I eagerly bragged to envious bystanders how much I’d seen them grow and how I was sooooo looking forward to advising and encouraging them as they blossomed into young women under my careful, guiding hand. We started our projects together, formed our event committees and phone trees, built our group texts…and set about the work of being the best team of freshman leaders our high school had ever seen.
My rallying cry was, “Who runs the world? GIRLS!” I couldn’t have picked a better, more cohesive group of kids if I’d ordered them off a menu.
Then one night as I ogled a set of Best Friends Forever portraits on Facebook, I boastfully commented about how adorable they were, how I felt so much pride in seeing those titanic bonds they had with each other. It was then that Ben peered at the images over my shoulder and let out a guffaw, confidently stating, “They won’t be speaking to each other in a week.”
What did he mean by that?
I scoffed. How could it be? They look like they sincerely love each other in those pictures, and I’d heard them say so a dozen times.
Just as he predicted, the bottom fell out exactly…wait for it…two days later. Dissent in the ranks…betrayal! Intrigue! Backstabbing! The tender looks in their eyes, the gentle, familiar way they all sat on each others’ laps…it all looked so real, right?
In my opinion, if you hold someone’s hand and let them wear your bathing suit, you’d take a bullet for them. The four looked like sisters, just angelic in their awkward braces and their shiny hair, wearing matching sandals and blouses they borrowed from each other. But no. It was all a house of cards that came tumbling down right in front of my eyes. Honestly, it was like watching House of Cards. By week’s end, it was a full blown civil war, and the sectarian violence that erupted over who screenshotted what to whom had gotten biblical in an instant. Sides were taken and then retaken, lines were drawn, and the rest of us just sat back to watch the mushroom cloud dissipate.
I heard the story from several of the girls, firsthand. I nodded and waited for the plot twist that never came. By the third time I’d heard a different version of the story, I threw my hands up in frustration because I still wasn’t getting what I wanted…a bona fide crime.
In Woman World, you typically break up with your best friend because she sleeps with your husband or uses your secrets against you, not because she turned off her Read receipts and didn’t text back fast enough.
Ahhhhhh, but that’s when my darlings began behaving like real divorced couples; it chilled my blood. As the Cold War raged on into the second week, suddenly their stories changed and grew darker, more ominous. We were never really close, they said. We only took that picture to be nice, they said. So-and-so was never, ever my best friend; she wasn’t even really a nice person to begin with, they said. Blah, blah, blah. And then I heard something that prickled the hairs on my neck: We only let her in our group because we felt sorry for her. Oh. And now she is being thrown out of the group? Wow, I get it, and it’s freaking harsh. This is Survivor. It’s a damn game.
That poor child just got voted off The Island, and make no mistake…they didn’t just douse her torch, they dunked it. Welcome to Girl World.
Predictably, the mama-calls started coming in too, just to clear it all up for me. I listened slack-jawed as the so-called adult versions of the epic breakup further complicated what was already mind-boggling. I tried to sort it all out; I tried to help them; I tried to figure out who in the hell was going to run my next class meeting. Me in my infinite wisdom and life experience thought to myself, You are just the person for this job, DQ. You are the Patron Saint of Loyal Friendships, referring to my own very tight-knit circle of girlfriends, without whom I would not have survived divorce, suicide, and a sick child over the years since those events trickled into my life.
Seeing everything as a teachable moment, I texted the Chicklets pictures of me with my own posse of Yayas, accompanied by long, poetic accounts of how many times they’d rescued me, how often they’d lifted me up and taken care of me, the many times they knew I needed them even when I didn’t know it myself. I waited for absolution, certain that my sage advice would instantly change their minds and they would rush frantically back to each other to hug and cry and make up. I intended to take all the credit. But alas! Fourteen-year-old girls don’t process life advice and relationships in this way, and I wasn’t dealing with pushovers. These are Alpha females, each one stubborn and resolute. My sappy pining bounced right off of them. In fact, they had no tolerance whatsoever for my pontificating, instead insisting that I was only getting her side of the story.
Wait, what? (I had very clear memories of hearing everyone’s side of the story, and I had the used minutes from my unlimited text and share data to prove it.) I wasn’t expecting what would come next, but then it came. They accused me of playing favorites, and in an erratic, whiplash inducing shift, I was suddenly interjected into the whole mess as a side-taker. Me…the first fatality in the if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us philosophy. Me! In Girl World! It happened that fast. I never even knew what hit me.
Now I was off The Island too.
I’ve pondered long and hard about what transpired those first few weeks. In fact it is still playing out as we get ready for the first day of school. It is still ugly, it is still biting, and it is still hurtful to many people on the perimeter of it, including the residents of Boy World. (The males in this friendship dynamic wisely continue with their fishing and football and whatnot, not even attempting to sort it all out. Boy World is muuuuuch better, lemme tell ya). It hurts my heart to see it continue. I had a long overdue dinner with my own girlfriends the other night as my Chicklets crouched back home, ready to attack from their respective corners, banishing the outsiders like lepers and bringing new victims into the fold. As we munched our hors d’oeuvres in Woman World and discussed this disaster, we reflected and shook our heads gratefully, saying to each other, “Oh my God, thank you for not voting me off The Island when I was being a bitch last week.”
I am sad for the Chicklets, and for all girls who don’t know the beauty a real Girlfriend brings to one’s life. I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to make them see. I failed to teach them about The Bigger Picture: that every person’s behavior is rooted in something private, something we may not know about. There are girls in that group who have known real pain. They each hurt about something, and while they are aware of the pain they recognize in each other, they are not always mature enough to process it and use it for good. They have no idea how to lift and heal each other at this age. They know nothing of how forgiveness works. Now, forgiveness is hard to grasp even for a grown woman, and I know this better than anybody. It is the one virtue I struggle most with in my own life, which is why I recognize their resentment toward each other as the arch enemy it is. As I watch these girls maintain a death grip on their own respective grudges, I think to myself what a long haul they have ahead of them having to carry those grudges. Like me, they will trip and stumble through decades of difficult relationships before they get it because right now they just don’t know any better. At some point I hope they learn, like I have, to let go of things that are just not important, let go of people who are just not important, and to finally understand when to let people get away with being flawed and human.
Seriously…these little, stupid, petty things that other people do to irritate us really. don’t. matter.
I wish instead I could see them be self-aware and humbled. I hope for a day when I recognize compassion blossoming within them, and they become the kind of friends to each other that I have found in my own mature, grounded relationships. I am lucky enough to be friends with insightful women who possess the gift of real loyalty, women who have the nurturing power of oracles and medicine men, women who love me and forgive me and make me better. There has been no greater force in my life for my own healing than that which came from my best friends. They’ve known me at my meanest, most hateful, saddest, and most unforgiving moments, and yet they stayed by me anyway. They loved me through those times and I came out the other side indebted to them. If you asked my girlfriends to describe their contribution to my life, I hope they would say, My job is to make her feel worthy and smart and beautiful, because she doesn’t think those things about herself. I hope she knows I love her and she means something to me.
That, my friend, is what a girlfriend is supposed to do. That is her job. The Chicklets don’t get this yet. One day, they will.
I know I am supposed to say, “They’re just kids,” and I suppose it’s true. Being a teenager is like hazing for life, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Each of these girls, and all girls all over the world who are unfortunate enough to be fourteen could change this pattern by making one small switch in their thinking: do your job. Don’t reflect on the hurtful words uttered in anger, ignore that nasty rumor that you know isn’t true, rise above the competitive jealousy of comparing yourself to others. As a girlfriend, your job is to control yourself and your own words, to forgive the people you love for the part of their life that you may not understand, and to remind your girlfriends, even those who might not deserve it at the moment, that they are good at something, that they are valued. It won’t make mean people nice, it won’t make the world fair, and it won’t influence people who are addicted to negativity. But it will make you a good friend, and more importantly, a forgiving kind of person, and the world sure could use a whole lot more of those.