It’s a funny thing, friendship; it means different things to different people, and different things yet again at various stages of life. “Who’s your best friend?” must surely be the most oft heard question in playgrounds the world over. Apparently, some schools now dissuade the idea of “best friends”, after years of some (no doubt pointlessly expensive) research came to the conclusion that the very concept could promote unhealthy relationships, isolation and possessiveness amongst children.
No law – official or otherwise – can dictate friendship or what it means to us as individuals. Many of us are inclined to be on our own, others need to know there’s just one or two people they can rely on, and more still, thrive in the knowledge that when they send out a “who’s around for birthday drinks?” text, they will fill a function room without ever having to double check the numbers. Good friends know when to give you space and when to text every hour, on the hour to make sure things are okay. They know when to stay away, and when to turn up unannounced with inappropriate amounts of chocolate. We all know that blood is thicker than water, but sometimes, you just need water (with the added bonus that it won’t stain).
It’s vital to have people in your life with whom you don’t have sex or an agenda. People who don’t have to love you, but do. I have long been wary of couples who claim not to need anyone else because they are best friends or (shudder) soul mates. Of course, we all give friends a free pass to disappear into a self-involved love cul-de-sac when they meet someone new, but we know they’ll come back, and we’ll be there to open the wine when they do; to share in their happiness or dry their tears. No matter how much you love your partner, they can’t be expected to tick every box; and if you never leave their side, what the hell do you have to talk about? Friends aren’t finite – there’s no potential for bigamy or infidelity – you can have as many or as few as you want or need.
I was at university in the 1990s and the ladette culture was in full swing, which misguidingly to us meant keeping up with the boys, being one of the lads, matching them pint for pint if it came down to it (which it often did). There were girls who claimed to be “more of a guy’s girl”. I was one of them for a while. I had lots of male friends – bright, funny, respectful, charming boys, without agenda or ruse. It’s only looking back that I realise it was my own deep rooted insecurities that made me avoid some of the girls; they weren’t unkind or excluding, but they were cool, smart and beautiful, and I didn’t feel like any of those things.
Fast forward 20 years, and although I still have plenty of male friends, like most women, in good times and bad, crises or calm, it is my female friends on whom I rely the most. The majority are friendships forged in adulthood, with just one or two who appear alongside me in awkward childhood photos. Then there is my sister, four years my junior (a gap which felt like a generation when we were teenagers, but now doesn’t even require breaking into another match when lighting candles on a birthday cake) who has become a close confidante and support (I have to say this, as she knows all the dirt. Keep your friends close and your sisters closer, I say).
Life is fast-paced. Blink, and half a year has gone by and you never did meet for that coffee, take the kids for that playdate or go to that new bar; but that doesn’t matter with good friends. Friends are not like love interests or colleagues. They don’t take offence when you say you’re too busy or tired to go out, and you can tell them you are actually washing your hair and know they believe you. There are friends who live across the miles you might only see once every few years, but when you do, the hours fly and the laughter flows, and it’s as if no time has passed. There are friends you can drop into unannounced and know they won’t pretend to be out; others you could leave your children with at a moment’s notice; there are friends who will be there with a meal for the freezer when you’ve had a baby or been bereaved, and ones who you know would take a bullet for you (albeit just to the lower leg).
Since becoming a mother, my female friends have taken on a new level of importance I hadn’t anticipated. The WhatsApp group messages to the mums I hoped would have all the answers, or the late night texts to a best pal looking for reassurance that I wasn’t doing a terrible job. Meeting up takes far more planning than it used to, life is hectic, and everyone’s schedule is different. Our time is no longer our own; it belongs to school runs, children’s dinners, the taxman, horrible bosses, batch cooking, the bank, homework and supermarket queues. Which is why making time for friends – even if it involves planning months in advance – is so important. It might just be a coffee, a walk, or one glass of wine too many.