I met them one scorching day at the Maternal and Child Health Centre.
Prepared, I had packed a bottle of expressed milk and did what I could to feel like myself. Lipstick. Brushed hair. Curled beside me in her pram, the strange new appendage of a crimson-faced baby. In the circle of women I sat stiffly. I rocked the pram with my foot, hoping she would not cry. Many days and nights had been spent moving my body to her rhythms, clasping her small frame to my chest. Sometimes I swayed when she was not even there. Inside me, joy, fear and exhaustion vied for position. Sitting there, waiting to introduce myself, fear predominated. I rehearsed in silence, pretending to listen. It was important to reveal as little as possible.
The idea of feeding in front of a group of strangers appalled me—I imagined her throwing her head left and right, revealing my breast, milk shooting out and landing on their faces. It appeared no one else had these concerns—many lifted their tops as they sat down, continuing to talk with serene expressions.
My speech prepared, I listened to the others, searching for a connection. In one, I recognized a friend. The way she spoke, her diffidence and reserve, reminded me of myself. In another, I saw the flip side of my struggle for control. She was open in her distress, telling her birth story at high volume, her curly hair dishevelled. More honest than me. She had been through a harrowing time even before she arrived home. Something about a fire in the ward, being evacuated to another hospital. Then a baby who would not be put down or comforted, tied to her hip in a sling and screaming at all hours. Forced into attachment parenting against her will. Rather than feeling compassion, her desperation frightened me, made me hostile.
It is amusing to think how she must have viewed me—uptight and aloof. Much later, she said she was incredulous my nails were varnished. How did I find time amidst newborn chaos to paint my nails?
We continued to regard each other with suspicion. In the park I watched as she picked up rubbish before we left. The rubbish of fifteen people. That was the moment. It was not so much the act itself as her manner—casual, absent-minded. Her kindness was not considered but innate. From this, I have learnt to withhold judgement.
In the weeks and years that followed, there were no limits to the things we confided. When I told one my daughter was going into childcare one day a week, she cried. The larger group contracted, until there were just the three of us. Our families grew, and coming together became a still intimate, but chaotic experience. We shouted over our babies’ tears and arguments, their constant demands. Over time, our meetings became less frequent, but still an integral part of our lives. They chose to go back to work and impressed me with their determined resilience. My path has meandered in a different way—one I think they are beginning to understand.
My two friends are ambitious and strong, capable and wise. Often they take on too much. They have shown courage but are not immune to outbreaks of despair.
When women come together it is with intensity. Any breach of trust can trigger evaporation. This is the nature of our friendships. Quick to form and sometimes, gone within a short time. Lack of consideration, cruelty, prolonged silence, or all three, and it is difficult to go back. What comes together can just as easily come apart.
Before I found myself at the Maternal and Child Health Centre I was befriended by my art dealer. She called me at work and asked me to an exhibition. My imagination had not conjured up this possibility. It did not help that she intimidated me. As someone more knowledgeable who was selling my paintings, I never thought she would want to be my friend. For years, we just spoke for hours on the telephone. In some ways, it was more intimate than meeting in person. When you cannot see someone’s expression changing with your words, you tend to say more. A method to accelerated closeness.
Friends can give us courage to find a hidden part of ourselves. At the age of seven I became friends with a girl everyone shunned. She had a large frame, blond braids and a dreamy round face. Removed from the petty interactions of her classmates, she drifted alone in the playground, unconcerned by solitude. She did not fit in and this attracted me. We drew maps in the dirt of fairy villages and tunnels to the centre of the earth. Like me, she lived in her imagination. One day she placed a tortoiseshell patterned headband in front of my eyes and asked what I could see. I was bewildered— all I could see was the swirling brown plastic. Hesitating for a moment, I gave my answer, unsure if it would meet with her approval. It did. She did not mind if I made something up, only that I liked her enough to play her games.
Another close friend supports and understands my creative work. Our travels and experiences together have left us with shared stories. She has listened to the vast sea of my thoughts and ideas, encouraging me to keep trying. Both passionate and vulnerable—her emotions run close to the surface. Where I am careful and considered, she is impulsive and hedonistic. We are like sisters, opposite sides of the same coin.
There are no secrets. Sometimes we talk so much I am amazed there is anything left to say. In our twenties, I visited her in London and we travelled to Italy. We found ourselves at a surreal party in the Tuscan countryside. It took place at a sprawling villa, with a stone balcony jutting out onto a mist-covered lake, over which hung a silver moon. Inside we took in the flocked green wallpaper, immense rooms crammed with antiques, and crackling fire. The hosts were most likely high up in the Italian mafia. The champagne, and other substances, flowed freely. It was otherworldly, beautiful, and depraved. The next day we journeyed by train to Venice, and our eyes absorbed the winding canals, and jewel-like artworks at the Peggy Guggenheim museum. In the cobbled streets, we haggled over fake Prada backpacks, convincing ourselves they were the real thing. In Paris, we were invited to another party where tequila made us certain our French was fluent. We did not have an itinerary, or any hotel bookings. These experiences, and many more, bound us together.
We are no longer in our twenties, with the world of possibilities this entailed. Within this fact is mourning. Our lives are what they are. They have narrowed. We can help each other find meaning and change, yet what was once a myriad has become a smaller number of paths. The positive side is self-knowledge—having fewer choices is a relief. We know what we do not want. This is a kind of bliss.
There are the friends you thought you knew. Unrecognizable characteristics can appear in a friend. Perhaps this is unfair, but trust often dissipates. We cannot reconcile our misguided impressions with the true picture. It makes us uneasy. The person we thought they were was a yardstick—part of our definition of ourselves. When they reveal unfamiliar traits, it feels like the ground underneath has shifted. Sometimes it is an ironic illusion. The friend is the same, but we have changed, causing a shift in perception.
After such an awakening, is it possible to find a way back? To build a relationship on different terms? Lessons learned could inform the friendship, giving new intimacy and understanding. Taking the relationship to a level it had not enjoyed before. This depends on the willingness of the unchanged one to embrace a different dynamic. Dominance forced to become acquainted with equality, or conversely, passivity with assertiveness. As we age, these reversals become harder to achieve.
I have learnt to hold friends with a light hand, allowing onward movement when the relationship no longer serves. They are like a fluid lesson—in emotion, a shared interest or dream.
I saw my two friends the other day. We managed to coordinate our busy schedules to have coffee and catch up for a couple of hours. Our once tiny daughters are at school and our meetings are occasional. They are infused with our passions, laughter, and anguish. Nothing is hidden. We talk over each other in our eagerness to share, to tell, to reveal our current selves. To be validated. The desire to unburden ourselves is boundless—there is often more we have not had time to say. Sometimes we escape for the weekend. Sharing a pivotal time in our lives has interwoven us. I feel we will not come apart.