In the last month, two of my friends have finalized their divorces and one of my dear friends lost her husband suddenly after a brief illness. They all have little ones at home. They are all incredibly brave and they have all been there for me when things were rough for me. When I was going through hard times, I wasn’t a mom (but I am now). These women are going through real heartaches while also showing up as a source of strength for their children. Do you have any ideas for showing up for our friends who are struggling with grief and loss in their 40s as they are also raising kids and doing their best to keep this grief and loss from having a long-term negative effect on their children?
Meals and thoughts and prayers just don’t quite fill the void… — A Forty-Something Friend
A couple days ago I read a HuffPost interview with Ada Calhoun who has just published a book — Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis — about this very idea — or at least, your question is super relative to her thesis that today’s 40-something women are under a unique kind of pressure different from that of previous generations of women. I have not read the book yet (though I plan to!) but I understand that the argument for Calhoun’s thesis is twofold: First, we are a generation of women who was/is expected to “have it all” (because of so many opportunities afforded to us through our parents’ success as well as through feminism’s influence on our culture); and, second, we are shouldering many of the same kinds of challenges previous generations of middle-age women dealt with – aging parents, sick spouses, marriages ending, our own aging bodies and peri-menopause, for example – but doing it while parenting young children because we’re having babies much later than previous generations, who, generally, were done raising young kids by the time they hit middle-age. As you allude to in your letter, this is incredibly challenging, AND we’re under so much pressure to gracefully balance being good mothers, good daughters, good spouses, and good employees because it’s the expectation, of course, that we’ll not only have it all, but we’ll be grateful to have it all and we won’t squander the opportunities we’re so lucky to get (that previous generations of women weren’t as lucky to have). It’s a lot. Even for women who don’t have kids!
If you notice, I say we’re under pressure to be good mothers, good daughters, good spouses, and good employees, but I didn’t mention the pressure to be good friends, and that was deliberate. I don’t think there IS cultural pressure to show up for our friends, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote about the importance of showing up for our people. It’s something I had come to notice as being UNexpected (but so appreciated!). That essay I wrote was picked up on Huffpost and “went viral” – probably more than anything I’ve ever written, save for maybe 30 Things That Will (Probably) Happen in Your 30s. To this day, I still get emails from people reading it for the first time or who read it years ago and, like you, still think about it and want to let me know how much it’s influenced them. It struck a chord with people – not just those of us entering middle-age, but in people from different generations, and I know it’s because it spoke a deep need we have — especially women who do so much caregiving — to be emotionally supported ourselves, to have our emotional reserves filled instead of just emptied, and how that kind of support is most seamlessly transferred between and among friends and peers.
I’m hesitant to add another pressure to our already too-full plates, but when we prioritize the needs of our friends, showing up is mutually beneficial because the expectation is that the favor will be reciprocated when the tables turn. This is a much different dynamic of reciprocity than exists between generations in families, where it’s somewhat expected that kids will grow up and help care for the parents who cared for them. The reciprocity between friends is much more immediate (and, not to mention, carries less baggage). It’s also different than showing up for work obligations where what you get in return isn’t generally emotional support, but an income and, if you’re lucky, personal fulfillment and career sustainability.
So, we know that showing up for friends is super important for our emotional well-being. But, with everything else, it also requires boundaries. We are still balancing all this other stuff, right? We can only do so much. The key, I think, is to make what we do have the biggest impact (and to stop doing so much if it feels our own emotional needs aren’t met by the same people we keep showing up for). And that brings us to your question (finally!), LW: you want to know how to make the biggest impact, with your limited time and energy (and I’m assuming your time and energy is limited because you’re a woman in your 40s and you’re a mom and that’s how it goes), for your friends who are suffering right now .
You’re not going to move in with these friends and help them raise their kids, but you can do other things to show your support. You mention meals as not filling a void and I disagree. People gotta eat! And when we’re struggling, getting food on the table is often the hardest thing. Bringing your friends home-cooked meals – or better yet, organizing a meal train in your community (here’s a site that will help you do just that) — is not only a very practical kind of help, but also it’s a wonderful expression of care and love. Any kind of childcare help you can offer that might give your friends some much-needed time to take care of themselves (and that might mean just having a good cry!) would be great and could include: school pick-ups and chauffeuring to activities; hosting playdates (and offering to pick up and bring home); babysitting for a few hours on a weekend. Checking in frequently — through phone calls and texts — is so important. Also good: carving space in your schedule for your friends when all of your kids are in the care of someone else (their other parent, a family member, a babysitter) and your friends can blow off steam or talk or just be — for a couple of hours, at least — with no expectation to meet someone else’s needs. If you can make this a regular thing — say, once a week — that’s even better.
There’s really no right way or wrong way of showing up for a friend (unless, of course, the showing up you’re doing is all about you). Making a heartfelt effort goes such a long way. Even when our efforts aren’t perfect, just the act of caring makes a difference, especially for those of us in a stage of our lives when we’re more frequently the care-givers and when receiving special effort and care from others is a treat. (As I’m writing this, I’m suddenly having a flashback of my mom making a birthday cake for herself every year when my sister and I were kids. Someone give a mother a birthday cake! Throw a mother a birthday party! Take a mother out for a birthday lunch. Give a woman friend some flowers!)
Anyway, LW, I suspect you are already showing up for your friends in far more meaningful ways than you’re giving yourself credit for. The simple fact that you’d ask how you can show up more and better indicates a thoughtfulness that is too rare in our culture. It’s my hope that by having these kinds of conversations, we make showing up for friends another expectation, not to add gratuitous pressure to our already-burdened lives, but to help give each other fuel before our tanks hit empty.