“May I ask you something?” reads a text from my close friend, Adrienne.
She always begins like this, asking if I have the space to hear something and engage. Sometimes it’s a struggle she’s grappling with, sometimes an annoyance, sometimes a joy. Only after I respond with a “yes,” will she share.
It’s early morning, so I’m not quite awake yet. I text back “Yes, of course. Let me get some coffee first.”
She sends a thumbs up.
I plod down the stairs past the window, seeing a fresh coat of snow from the night before has fallen in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. I plug in the Christmas tree lights, scoop grinds into the coffee maker, then press the start button. Waiting for the coffee to brew, I think how Adrienne’s simple practice of asking has been a model for respectful communication, boundaries, and self-efficacy. And how, in big and small ways, through their words and presence, my female friends have taught me how to live, shaping the soft space of self.
I’m not alone in this. A 2010 study, “College Women’s Female Friendships: A Longitudinal View,” by Ana M. Martinez Aleman, found that female friendships are “a site for assessing meaning of self and of reality, a site for the experience of different perspectives and viewpoints, and an opportunity for growth through interdependency.” And a more recent 2020 study in Feminism and Psychology found that female friendships are “a site of ease, escape and refuge.” Jane Fonda echoed this at a 2015 Sundance Women in Film brunch, sharing that her female friendships helped “keep the starch in my spine” throughout her long and incredible career in Hollywood, by just being able to “hang together and help each other.” Another Harvard study, this one from 2019, found that the most successful women were those with a close inner circle of female friends.
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This has certainly been my experience. 20 years ago this holiday season, I lost my mom to opioid addiction. I was in my early 20’s, and soon after she died, I would get married, move almost 2,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, Pa. to Park City, Utah, and start my family.
The first few years, particularly around the holiday season, without my mom were complicated. Some of her traditions brought me solace like decorating the tree with her and my grandmother’s antique tin ornaments, or making a countdown chain, as she did for me, out of red and green construction paper for my children. But many others left me with overwhelming grief. Even though I was no longer religious, I yearned to sit next to her in the warm glow of midnight mass. Or chat while making pumpkin pies. Or stay up late talking near the lit-up tree.
In most ways, I wanted nothing to do with my mother’s traditions. Nothing to do with her. I was angry at the choices she made. Angry, she was gone. Angry, I didn’t know how to save her. That anger would keep me from the memory of her for many years. Keep me from knowing how to incorporate her back into my everyday life. Keep me from her holiday traditions.
But on this morning, after my first cup of coffee, I text Adrienne back. “Ok! I’m sufficiently caffeinated. Good morning!”
She gives a “Haha,” and then, “What do the kiddos want for Christmas?”
I text back a screenshot of a shirt and game. She sends a heart.
Then a new text from another friend, Emily. “Time to chat this morning?”
I respond, “Yes! Let me get the kids to school. I’ll call when walking the dog.”
Pulling my boots on, my phone vibrates again. This time, it’s Jillian. “We’ll be in town for the holidays. Dinner at your place?”
“Yes!” I text back. “Call when you’re in town.”
In 2010 study “Women Doing Friendships,” sociology scholar Eileen Green examined the importance of leisure time and conversations, particularly with other women, as a crucial site of our self-construction. She argues that “leisure contexts, particularly those with other women, are important spaces for women to review their lives; assessing the balance of satisfactions and activities through contradictory discourses which involve both the ‘mirroring’ of similarities and resistance to traditional feminine identities.”
In the carpool line, pushing kids, backpacks, and snow clothes out the door, I pull up Emily’s contact and remember those first few holidays as a new mother—how she would come by, often with a six-pack of specialty beer. Or seedlings from her winter garden. Or cookies from the local farmer’s market. What she brought, in many ways, wasn’t important. What mattered was that she would sit with me and my colicky baby on the couch and talk, laugh, and cry for hours. And since then, we’ve spent years sharing words over walks, dinners, drinks, and travels.
I call her and just listen as she shares her challenges on traveling to visit in-laws over the holidays. She doesn’t need my advice, just some space around the ideas she is forming—strategies for healthy boundaries, ways to assure the downtime she knows she’ll need. She says it feels good to talk through it all. I share how it feels good to just listen. A 2021 study explored the biochemistry of these exchanges, finding that friendships among women release calming hormones, helping to negate the impacts of stress. Emily thanks me for listening, says she feels better, clearer about what she needs. At the end of our call, we start to plan a trip together for the spring. I tell her I love her. She says she loves me, too.
Back home, I have finally made it to my desk to work for the day. An email pops through from my friend, Nala. It’s her newsletter for her grief work titled, “Our loved ones are not lost! Talking to our ancestors.”
I click it open. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful exploration of the ways we use language to talk about our deceased loved ones—lost, gone—creating disconnection instead of connection, she argues. At the end of the email, she encourages her reader to talk lovingly to their dead. She reminds us that we are a mixture and a continuation of all those who came before. I am learning that I am the sum of all the women who have come before me. Definitely my mother. Especially my female friends.
This holiday season, I won’t cook her elaborate holiday dinners. I won’t go to midnight mass or trek my two young kids across the country for large extended family gatherings. But I will step closer to the memory of her because of the love and support of the women in my life.
I will schedule a phone date with Adrienne, including my children so they can thank her for the presents. Make her elaborate homemade thank you cards, tucked inside a gift we’ll send across the county. I will catch up with Jillian over a simple homemade meal while she is in town, savoring the time we get to spend together. Look for small gifts for Emily—books I know she will like, local bath products, a funny card about in-laws. And I will follow Nala’s prompting—make a small alter with photographs of my grandmother and mom, adding this year, a photo of my dad, too. I will light a candle for each of them, talk to them lovingly.
And perhaps this is the best gift we can offer one another, our presence and kind words. In a culture and season that can feel so transactional, being shaped and nurtured by your people’s compassionate attention feels revolutionary.
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