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Why Is It So Hard to Maintain Friendships In Your Thirties?

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A few months ago, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a photo of three of my best friends from college having lunch together in Queens, forty-five minutes from my house in Connecticut. Confusion descended, quickly morphing into a gut-punch. How was this possible? The four of us were a unit, maintained by an active group chat in spite of our scattered geographic locations. One friend in the group, Evie (names have been changed), lives in Denver—how had I not known she was in New York? My friend Margot had recently moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley, but the Instagram photo told me she was in the city. 

I studied the picture more closely and saw that my friend Rose’s husband was also there. (They live in Manhattan). The two of them and Evie were wearing US Open bucket hats, emblazoned with crisscrossed tennis rackets. My heart sank as it all clicked. How had I been excluded from a plan like this, one so carefully prearranged it involved Evie getting on an airplane? I lived in Connecticut—that was, as far as the Tri-state area goes, the same region as New York City.

I’d moved to the suburbs from Brooklyn five years earlier. I hadn’t exactly wanted to leave my life in the city, where most of my friends still resided at the time, but I’d been excited to move in with my then-boyfriend, who lived and worked in Stamford. We’d spent the previous year and change doing semi-long-distance, and as a writer it made more sense that I be the one to relocate.

And so I’d found myself in an apartment in Connecticut at the age of twenty-nine, thrilled to be cohabiting with the man I loved, but also a bit unmoored, and missing the proximity of the friendships that had always fed me, that had—at points—saved me.

Such moments when I’d needed saving weren’t exactly happy memories, but I recalled them with bittersweet nostalgia. There was the time, mid-heartbreak, when a friend and I lay in the park and read Letters to a Young Poet aloud, cover to cover. There was shared pizza on the floor of my apartment after getting fired from my job in PR; the afternoon a friend and I curled up in bed and wept watching The Notebook, commiserating in hopelessness during a stretch when finding Allie-Noah type love felt implausible. Perhaps most unforgettably, there was the pivotal conversation with Margot on top of a ski lift, in the frigid cold, that propelled my career as a writer.

After my move to Connecticut, life seemed to pick up speed. My boyfriend became my fiancé, then my husband. We bought a house. We had a wedding, then two babies in three years. My world changed in such monumental ways, in such a relatively short period of time. In retrospect, I’d been ready for all of that change, so much so that I never really questioned it. Marriage and children were things I’d wanted always, deep in my bones; they were uncomplicated desires that resembled needs, that cut straight through doubt, unwavering.

Fast-forward to me, Instagram-scrolling from the floor of my kitchen that Sunday in early September. My husband was out for a bike ride; I was home alone with the kids. My one-year-old sat in her highchair, squishing banana between her fingers and slinging wet chunks to the ground. My three-year-old was in a general state of destruction: refusing to eat his lunch, trashing the house. It was almost one o’clock and I was still in my pajamas, still hadn’t brushed my fuzz-coated teeth. My eyes were glued to the photo on my screen, my best friends living it up at lunch before Djokovic. Why the fuck had no one called me?

A raw nerve had been hit. Of our foursome, I was the only friend with children. No one else had the faintest understanding of my day-to-day, of the physical and mental exhaustion, the endless labor, the meals, the dishes, the laundry, the logistics, the way my head spun so fast and so loud I could never really hear my own thoughts. I’d become a reductive presumption, a person not worth inviting because of her role as a mother. From the detritus of my suburban home I was a forgotten woman dying a slow death—I was Libby in Fleishman is in Trouble——and I deserved to know why I hadn’t been invited.  

This was my spiral, the story I’d decided to tell myself about what had gone down. And from my perch on the floor, amid a sea of banana slime, I opened my texts and sent a single ‘middle finger’ emoji to the group chat. 

What had actually happened, I learned, was this: Evie and Rose were going to the US Open with a different friend. That plan had come together last-minute when Evie had an unexpected layover. Margot happened to be down in the city for work that weekend, and she’d had a window to meet Evie and Rose for a brief lunch.

I put my phone down, frazzled. I spent several minutes peeling food off the floor, then got to my feet. This was exactly the problem with social media—it never told the whole story, not even close. And this was also the problem with friendships in adulthood, the convoluted evolution of relationships that had once felt uncomplicated.

It isn’t lost on me that the security I feel in my friendships with these three women is what allowed me to lash out, to spew something reactive and groundless. When you’re a functional adult in your thirties, how many people are actually exposed to your truest—and worst—self? I can count them on two hands. My spouse. In weaker moments, my children. My parents and siblings. And a very small number of close friends.

Margot, who was not attending the Open, called me when she left the lunch. I popped in my AirPods and turned on Blippi for the kids. I hadn’t talked to Margot on the phone in a while—months, maybe. I told her the reasons I’d been feeling hypersensitive; she listened with compassion. Tears pricked my eyes because I missed her so much. I missed all my best girlfriends, all of us scattered around the country, living our different, wonderful lives. 

The next day, I sent the group an apology for lashing out, along with a link to an article in The Cut that had just published that morning titled “Why Can’t Our Friendship Survive Your Baby?” The article would soon go viral. It came as no surprise—the piece is both triggering and thought-provoking, relatable from a range of angles. The author points to the loneliness on both sides: for those who are parenting, and for those who are childfree.

On a personal level, the article was catnip. Throughout my thirties, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the ways my friendships are changing, an introspective obsession that inspired my new book. The final product is a novel that I hope will resonate with anyone who’s experienced fraught change or toxicity in a friendship that once promised to last through anything.

My writing process was cathartic, and clarifying in the ways the emotional unpacking inspired my own interpersonal confidence. I got candid with myself about unhealthy friendships I’d spent my twenties glorifying. I could finally metabolize the foundational cracks that had grown easier to see in my thirties, when said friendships began to falter under the pressure of a decade that isn’t conducive to closeness.

There is some degree of selfishness required in exiting dynamics that feel negative or one-sided or even just tedious. There is sadness and guilt. And yet: it’s a liberating move.

Clarity is there on the flipside, too. More than ever, I value my true friends because I know who they are: the ones I’ve been able to grow with, even when our lives have moved in different directions—when geographic proximity is no longer, when the abundance of keg-fueled nights has waned and memories aren’t easily replenished. These lasting friendships are fed by reciprocal effort, by tolerance, by radical honesty.

I now better understand why that nerve was hit. It wasn’t that I was threatened by my friends having lunch without me, although I do feel protective of the friendships I’ve worked to prioritize. But ultimately, my reaction was tangled up in my role as a mother, as a person who continues to grapple with the ebbing of her autonomy, the loss of that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants independence I once took for granted.

In my early twenties, I packed up and moved to San Francisco on a whim, without ever having visited California. Now, I can’t even run to the post office without checking in with my husband—will the family be okay without me for fifteen minutes? Outside of our weekly 28 hours of childcare, I need permission to take a shower. I know, rationally, that it won’t always be this way—my children are very little. It is a precious, fleeting, sacred collection of minutes and hours I will never get back. But even with this perspective, even as I know I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Queens for a last-minute lunch, there is still a stubborn, irrational part of me that wants to pretend otherwise. That wants to act like spontaneity stands a chance. 

A week or so after the US Open snafu, Rose reached out to say she was having a very last-minute, belated birthday dinner in the city the following evening. I knew she hadn’t wanted to do anything for her birthday. I knew this dinner, at a Korean barbeque spot she loved, would be very casual. I knew she was being extra mindful to include me in city plans after the other day, and I also knew—with a stab of hypocrisy—that I didn’t want to go. It was mid-week, my daughter had been sleeping like shit, and I was feeling particularly run-down and slammed with work.

Really no pressure, she added. We can celebrate in CT, too.

Rose and her husband had recently bought a house twenty minutes from ours. They were moving soon. She’d be my first close friend from college to move out to the suburbs, and I couldn’t wait. 

The “tired suburban mom who never does fun things in the city” in me appreciated the invite to her birthday dinner. I declined, for the sake of my own well-being. Because I am a tired suburban mom who (hardly ever) does fun things in the city, and that’s okay.

A part of me mourns the version of myself that would hop on the train and charge brightly into the night, untethered, hopeful, like a kid in a Bob Seger song. But I mourn a past reality, not an alternate one, and therein lies the bittersweet sting, the weight that sits heavy on my chest. Because the truth I understand is this: that degree of freedom requires a heedlessness that is mutually exclusive to motherhood as I know it, to the kind of parent I am and plan to continue to be.

There is beauty in surrendering to new rhythms in a new season of life, to choosing self-preservation over self-interest. When it comes to friendship, I trust myself to hold onto the people who are meant to be in my life. I trust that we can venture to opposite ends of the earth and still walk the path together.

Carola Lovering is the author of the new book Bye Baby, out March 5.

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