By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On this International Women’s Day, what a perfect time to reflect on the unique beauty of female friendships. Whether it is empowering women to succeed, change, grow or REST, for many of us it is our female friendships which sustain us through the years. (Thank you for always being there)
Ahead of International Women’s Day, a Chicago law firm asked me to speak at a luncheon on a topic near and dear to my heart: the power of female friendships.
I quoted from Rebecca Traister’s new book, “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” (Simon & Schuster).
“For many women,” Traister wrote, “friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end, after divorce or the death of a spouse.”
I cited research tying friendships to better health:
The Harvard University study that linked friendships to better brain health and function as we age.
The Center for Aging Studies report that found people with a large network of friends outlived people with fewer friends by 22 percent.
The Brigham Young University research that showed that as your number of friendships shrinks, your risk of mortality increases, and the correlation is almost as strong as the link between smoking and mortality.
I even brought up Aristotle, who placed friendship on par with honor and justice.
Female friendships, in particular, are geared toward empathy. We “tend and befriend,” wrote one UCLA researcher, which means we respond to stress by protecting and nurturing others (“tending”), and by seeking support from others (“befriending”).
After 20 minutes or so of my pontificating, we launched into a lively discussion about our own friendships and the richness and complexities they introduce into our lives.
We talked about how friendship has evolved as marriage becomes more egalitarian, marrying your best friend and soul mate is a rather modern venture, after all. We talked about the challenges friends face when we’re walking different life paths, kids versus no kids, working versus staying home. We talked about knowing when to stop being a patient listener and start speaking up because a friend needs to make a difficult change.
After the discussion, as the lunch dishes were being cleared and the women were putting on their coats, a lovely woman named Theresa approached me and told me the story of her mother’s life-sustaining friendships.
Theresa’s dad was a doctor in World War II, and while he was away, her mother gathered each Monday night for canasta with a group of other women whose husbands were at war. They crossed socioeconomic and social lines, unusual for her era, Theresa assured me, and they kept each other afloat. When one woman received a letter home, she shared it with the group, offering a glimmer of evidence that their husbands would return to them.
They continued to play Monday night canasta into their 80s, feeding those bone-deep friendships and feasting on them through life‘s lean and not-so-lean years. Their bond modeled many things to Theresa: loyalty, resilience, generosity of spirit.
My mom has her own husband-off-to-war story, and it also beautifully illustrates the power of girlfriends.
It was March 1970, and the U.S. Navy gave her and my pilot dad five days to get from their home in Florida to Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif. They drove across the country, stopping to take in a handful of national parks and arrived just in time for my dad to ship off to Vietnam.
My mom, pregnant with my older brother at the time, looked at the other wives gathered to say goodbye and thought, “Now what?” They had no place to live.
Fortunately, her friend Gail, who had just bid farewell to her husband, Lee, had family nearby. So my mom, Gail and another friend, Bev, plus Bev’s baby, Kevin, showed up at Gail’s mom’s house a few hours later and asked to stay for a while.
Gail’s mom moved into the guest room and gave my pregnant mom, Gail, Bev and baby Kevin her room. The women slept in the bed; the baby slept nearby. They did that for several weeks until each of them could find apartments.
“It was wonderful, really,” my mom says now. “We didn’t know how to be afraid.”
Each of their husbands returned home eventually, thankfully, and all three men went on to become commercial pilots based in various parts of the country. My mom and the wives pursued their own endeavors: Gail became a lawyer. My mom was a physical therapist. Bev became a professor at Florida Atlantic University
They don’t gather weekly or even annually at this point of their lives. But the bond is still there, and my mom credits them for turning an unsettling, unknowable time of life into a warm, wonderful one.
I thought about those stories, Theresa’s and my mom’s, all weekend, along with the anecdotes and questions from that luncheon crowd.
It occurs to me that what may feel like a challenge to our friendship in the moment, working versus nonworking, kids versus no kids, patiently listening versus speaking up, is almost always temporary. If we stay at each other’s side through it all, eventually the challenges fall away.
And all we’re left with are the riches.
What a gift.