Just recently, I became a grandmother again. The joy of seeing my daughter give birth to what would be the next generation of our clan filled me with pride. As a mother of a blended family, I have learned that the significance of family doesn’t always come with blood, but the love you cultivate in the relationship of family. During this past year, relationships and connection to kin has taken on new significance for me. Even friendships looked different this year, as we retreated to our homes and safe spaces. Our focus was on the tight circles that surrounded our loved ones and our lives. We placed our arms around our little world and unintentionally disengaged from those who fell outside of it, if only by a little. It was a time when I felt more alone than I had in a long time. I longed for my missing family and social connection and the meaning these relationships brought to my life.
As many likely did, my family explored the boundaries of our ancestry to research our origins. We wanted to know more about from where we came, and learn about the distant relatives mentioned by our aging parents each holiday and family reunion. Surprisingly, as we began to climb our family tree, we discovered branches we had never seen. As leaves on our tree, each photograph and census report hinted at stories and a history we had yet to uncover. Not only did we match our genetic leaves with others in our past, but we learned about our ethnic heritage and those ancestors who had a knack for business. We became detectives and uncovered the hidden stories about those who suffered loss and married again. School photographs shared confirmation of an education, and the births, deaths, and marriages told stories of hardship and the baby who didn’t survive. Most of all, we climbed our tree high enough to reach a branch we’d never seen before, living family we could meet and with whom we could share the love that would eventually deepen our roots and strengthen our family tree. We found new family who, with a phone call or an email, became our daughter, our sister, our grandmother, and aunt.
Discovering new family was scary, but exciting in a way we had not expected. In my midlife, I have often looked back at how much my tiny family before motherhood has grown from the sapling of my childhood to a craggy oak tree of motherhood and beyond. Whether by blood or by bond, this seasoned oak continues to be enriched by each family member who sprouted roots in this fertile ground. I hope that as we grow the shade we provide continues as well.
During this time of COVID-19 and the importance of limiting exposure to the outside world, I believe we have all spent a little more time focused on home. More of my friends and family put up holiday decorations earlier than normal. Wanting that feeling of coziness and safety among dear ones was key to supporting one’s emotional health. I was sent plenty of images showing Hallmark movie holiday décor and families in festive attire. Social media blurred its lens to display pictures that others in our community wanted us to see – that they were making it. They were surviving. That they were ok and looking ahead to healthier and happier times. But this season, not all families wore matching Christmas pajamas.
In many families, like mine, there is discord at home. Fractures in our faith in what is right and what is wrong have made me uncomfortable with those who tell me my mask makes me someone who doesn’t value freedom. I am afraid of the growing violence and hate disguised as support for our leadership. And most of all, I am concerned that friendships are being torn apart. At a time when my world is small, and restricted, my relationships with family and friends are what I have left to connect me with the outside. While my midlife self is decluttering my home of memories and emotional baggage from the past in order to live in the present, it means that I am more closely examining the four walls of my world. And right now, my world is my home. My door keeps sickness out and lets family in. My friendships help me sort out what to keep and what to throw away. However, in these desperate times, I am not feeling as safe in my community. The overly attentive mother is examining her midlife with scrutinizing detail, and what she is finding is not pretty.
The complexity and challenge of remaining healthy and compassionate when the world around you is crumbling can be overwhelming. The discourse of the day about vaccines, masks, and even safe holidays at home put me at odds with what normally makes me healthy and happy this holiday season. While I should have been decking the halls and making merry, I was fortifying my structure and engaging in debate that weakened my faith in my community. This new year, I have found cracks in my ceiling. I just hope that my roof, and the roof over us all, doesn’t come tumbling down.
When I was a child, making friends was as simple as telling the other your favorite color, food, and favorite television show. If you had things in common, you became friends. There was no complexity to the genuine nature of being a child. You were guaranteed a friend to play with a recess and someone who would come to your birthday party. No drama or politics to consider. You would share the latest events that took place over the weekend with your family. For me, it was stories like the one from a second grade friend about obtaining strawberry flavored lipstick, and the subsequent heartache when another friend tried to eat it. I have often wondered how life could be if adult friendships could be just as simple. We could have pre-printed business cards with our favorite food, favorite color, and a picture of us in our favorite outfit on a good hair day. No fuss, no frills and a friendship could be made.
Of course, life goes on and friendships become more complicated. Making time for important people is more difficult as work demands our time and children demand our attention. As adults, we engage in screening the people in our lives to ensure they match our values and our schedules. It is not surprising that quality friendships became difficult to develop and keep. At times when my nerves were frayed and my life unraveling, I often didn’t have the network of supportive friends I had also hoped to have a young professional and mother. As an introvert, it was lonely. Weaving the intricacies of a fulfilling and authentic life seemed to be more difficult without connection of kinship.
Considering this point caused me to step back and really think about what this blog was going to be about. It was difficult to focus on the point in writing this piece. Close and lasting friendships were difficult in my younger life and the lessons from that chapter in my life gave me lots to consider. What was it that I was trying to say? What did I really need to learn from this process? Nowadays with social media, many define friendships by connections – perhaps an electronic version of what we knew as children. I had plenty of those, connections I had made over the years. But how many of them would reach out regularly? Who would be there if you needed them? I have family and friends who are really looking at their networks, only to discover that it is still possible to be lonely in the midst of hundreds of “friends”.
It was only in my later life that I was able to appreciate how my life had become stronger with friendships that have lasted me for years. Not the casual acquaintances that are good for a chat at a local bar every once in a while, but true and deep friendships. Friends who wanted to add me to their lives and play a part in mine. Some friends developed into and remained friends, other wonderful people came and went. Some I had to let go of because I was hanging onto them for the wrong reasons. Good people come and go in every life, but a good friendship requires more that can’t be forced. Aspects like genuine interest, respect, timing of one’s life journey. My friends’ lives didn’t always match mine. Some were married and some were not. Some had children and some did not. Even now, I understand that that weaving these friendships in to my life was a difficult but worthwhile effort. The color they brought into an ordinary life made me an even better person that I could have been alone. As my midlife unfolds and I continue my focus on the moment, I can only look forward to weaving more threads into my fabric of friendship.