By Stephanie Sprenger
I struggle to shake off the unrealistic notion that all friendships I form during adulthood should be “forever friendships.”
“I wish we could see our friends again sometime,” my seven-year-old daughter casually commented as we drove toward the foothills on our way to dance class. “Which friends?” I asked, wracking my brain wondering who she was referring to. “Um, I think they were friends of yours? Two kids, I think—they were older than me. We used to play and eat dinner together.” “How old were you?” “I’m not sure. Maybe three?” “Was Daddy there, or was it just you and me?” I pressed, trying to get a feel for during which stage of life this friendship had occurred. “Just the two of us.” Izzy confirmed. We rode silently for a while as I processed this. “Hmmm.” I said lamely. And then, “Was it two girls?” I asked carefully. “Yes!” she exclaimed! “That’s right!” “Was it Ellie and Hannah?” “Yes!” my daughter was jubilant, delighted in our triumph at piecing together her memory. And sure enough, their home was visible from our vantage point on the mountain highway. “That’s some memory you’ve got, buddy,” I replied grimly, pressing my lips together.
It had been five years since my daughter had played on the balcony with Ellie and Hannah while their mother and I talked in the kitchen. Caroline prepared curry from scratch while I awkwardly attempted to peel an apple by hand with a knife, a task I had never before attempted. She laughed at my botched efforts, and I bristled—surely this was why peelers were invented! But she was European, and had a different way of doing things—both in the kitchen and generally speaking.
We had fallen into a nice routine with our dinners together—just the girls. I was intimidated when it was my turn to cook for them, wanting to appear as sophisticated and capable as Caroline was. Prior to becoming close, we had been friendly acquaintances for several years. I spent time with Caroline and her husband Rob during weekly baby music classes, looking up to them in the way that one looks up to people who are barely older, but have crossed some invisible threshold that is just out of reach. They seemed like the perfect couple to me, and I simultaneously envied and adored them. I had no idea that their marriage struggles mirrored my own; the reality of their impending separation didn’t seem to fit with the idealized image I had created of them.
The accelerant to my deepening friendship with Caroline was our mutual divorce and single parenthood the following year. Suddenly, the playing field had been leveled, and we needed each other in a hungry, almost desperate way. We’d make plans to go out to lunch, and between bites, frantically share details of our dating lives, bond over the thrill of having undertaken this turbulent transition at the same time. Caroline had plunged into her life as a single person with both feet, with an enthusiasm and irreverence for convention that I was too inhibited to embrace. Although I was aglow from my own fledgling relationship, I had no interest in casually dating more than one person like Caroline was doing.
We spent many afternoons together, watching our girls playing in the summer sun in Caroline’s spacious backyard. We spent holidays together, posing our adorably clad offspring and snapping photos of them. We were young, fun-loving, non-traditional mothers. When we were both involved in monogamous relationships with new boyfriends, we enjoyed the harmony of attempting to build pseudo-family units with them. If we were both single, we embraced our independence together. But any breakup or reconciliation that was not balanced by the other disrupted the delicate equilibrium of our friendship. Perhaps adulthood, motherhood even, was no different than adolescence in that way. My old tendency to create friendships to mirror my own life circumstances and needs and then discard them after the next metamorphosis still prevailed.
When I reunited with the man I would later marry, after a brief relationship hiatus, I was deliberately vague with Caroline, knowing she would disapprove. As we sat at the playground one day, eating lunch with our girls, she said, “I just don’t think he’s right for you. You’re so much more fun and outgoing.” I was miffed, certain that she didn’t have my best interests at heart, but rather wanted to make me her single partner in crime. While she was always eager to have a night on the town with girlfriends or a date, I generally preferred to spend the evening on the couch with a good book or TV show. Maybe it was actually me who wasn’t fun or outgoing enough for Caroline. As the months dragged on, we continued to have our community dinners together with just “the girls,” never including my partner, and I continued to be brief when sharing details of our relationship. Caroline whispered tales of her latest escapades when our girls were out of earshot. Some of her stories made me blush, and brought out the inner Puritan I thought I’d clubbed to death in college. The disparity in our choices and values was undeniable. Our daughters’ age difference had become more apparent and problematic—my toddler’s lack of social skills and impulse control began to frustrate Hannah and Ellie. “I-zzy!” They would shout with exasperation, as my hapless child once again ruined a game or activity. Defensiveness boiled up inside me as I sprang to her rescue.
“Girls, remember, she’s only two. She doesn’t understand the rules; she’s not trying to wreck things.” Soon I grew tired of their accusations and my resulting attempts to defend her. One evening, I’d had enough, and after a series of complaints, I abruptly grabbed our coats. “I can see that Izzy is bothering your girls, and I’m tired of listening to them tattle on her. We’re going home.” I felt like a petulant child myself, but the dynamic had lost its fun. It seemed I had morphed into the irritable chaperone, thanks to my lack of patience with Caroline’s children and my out-of-character judgment about her life choices. I didn’t like who I was with her anymore. I began to make excuses when she called. We were busy. We had the flu. I was going out of town. She began to reach out more rarely; it seemed maybe she was taking the hint. I felt relieved, and yet still guilty. And then one day she sent an email: “It seems like you’ve been avoiding me. Did I do something to upset you?” I quickly replied, babbling about focusing my energy on my relationship with my partner, and how maybe I didn’t feel that she supported my choice, and the girls’ relationship had become sort of frustrating . . . and of course I’d just been so busy!
After several days, I heard back. When I saw Caroline’s name in my inbox, my heart started pounding. I felt my cheeks flush as I read, “You could’ve just told me so I didn’t feel like an idiot.” It was a slap in the face, and one I deserved. I had been a coward. Six years later, I still feel guilty for throwing away the friendship. I struggle to shake off the unrealistic notion that all friendships I form during adulthood should be “forever friendships.” Despite knowing that some relationships are more circumstantial, I am plagued by a sense of failure when a friendship ends—even if it has run its course and served its purpose. Sometime after I remarried and had my second child, my girls and I bumped into Caroline; we were genuinely excited to see one another, and she expressed her happiness that I’d had another daughter. We greeted each other warmly, without any lingering animosity or awkwardness. Perhaps the wisdom that comes with life experience enabled us to realize that the time for our friendship—the closeness, the trust, and that comforting sense of sameness—had simply passed.
Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.