Real Simple Managing Editor Kristin van Ogtrop wonders how to keep friendships alive—without quitting her job, her family, or her life.
I don’t know about you, but this whole no-time-for-friends thing really took me by surprise. When you are very young, you have all the time in the world, which is unfortunate, because the hours move so slowly and you are perpetually bored. Everyone around you is an idiot, which makes the long days even longer. All the adults you know complain about not having enough time to get anything done, and you know that if they were just a bit more creative in their thinking or at the very least understood how to program the VCR, they would find that they had a lot more time than they thought. And you keep wondering: Dear God, when is life ever going to start?
Then you hit the age of 25 and you realize that your days are numbered, so to speak. You begin to understand that time is no longer infinitely elastic, and that while you spend hours attending to one priority, you are stealing those same hours from another. And why did nobody warn you that you would be spending 30 percent of your time on things that are really tedious or difficult, like trying to find a rental apartment you can afford and a nice boy whom you can marry and stay married to forever? This is a terrible time of life, the mid-20s, because you still don’t know what real adulthood looks like. And since you probably don’t have children yet, you can devote entire afternoons to questions like "Who am I?" which rarely lead you down a pretty path.
My friend Silvia used to be a career counselor, and a few years back she taught our book group a little exercise, which was to draw our lives as pie charts. We were sitting at dinner, and after the exercise everyone blithely helped themselves to more wine and the conversation turned to genuinely important topics, like who among the women we know had gotten breast implants. I, however, was unable to think about breasts because my pie chart was so disturbing. Why? Basically my life consisted of three segments: kids, work, and sleep.
Let’s leave the husband out of it for a minute. And showering and watching silly people do dumb things on YouTube, each of which gets a little bit of my time on any given day. Where was gardening, which is one of my favorite activities in the world? And reading, also one of the biggies? And what about friends?!?
That last one was the killer. I may not spend enough time with my husband (no, we do not have “date nights,” as couples with great marriages are apparently supposed to), but at least I see him every day. And in the giant portion of my pie chart that is sleep, he’s right next to me. I can live with limiting my reading to bedtime, because falling asleep with the help of a book—which I do nearly every night, after about 10 minutes’ effort—seems better than falling asleep with the help of Ambien. Even gardening is something I can neglect. As much as it pains me to watch the skimmia in the front flower bed turn ever yellower because I mistakenly planted it in full sun, I know I can make a decision to do nothing about it and the only price I will pay is that of having to start over again.
Friends, however, are a different story. I can’t forget about friends for the next 15 years and then get a redemptive do-over once my youngest is off to college. I can improve my garden down the road; maintaining friendships, on the other hand, requires consistent attention and even the occasional aggressive pruning. I know this, and yet, with a few exceptions, friends appear to be about item No. 47 on my to-do list.
As it turns out, one important section missing from my Adulthood 101 manual explained how friendship would eventually become a choice—and that I would have to deliberately slice into other areas (buying science-project supplies for the kids, answering work e-mails, paying the occasional bill) to accommodate it. Or I would be forced, in order to maintain friendships, to sacrifice the small amount of time that I have to myself (which is such a narrow sliver on my chart that it is statistically insignificant).
At this stage of my life, working full-time and with three kids at home, I am surrounded by other people all day long. I think I have about 17 minutes of awake time per day when I’m not talking to a husband or a child, sitting in a meeting, or trying to explain for the 300th time why family dogs need to be walked, brushed, and fed and, no, it’s not just so Mom won’t lose her mind. I read helpful magazine articles about scheduling “me time” so I can learn to “just be,” which sounds lovely—but then who makes dinner and calls the pediatrician while I’m off trying to “be”?
And so I frequently have to choose between making time for a friend and making time for me. Usually I win. But is this healthy? And is it healthy to feel put out when the telephone dares to ring? I can’t tell you how often we hear the phone and before it gets to the second ring I am shouting to my kids, “Let the machine get it!” Terrible, terrible, terrible. I receive e-mails with the subject line “Girls’ Night Out!!!” and not only do I not think, Woo-hoo!!! as I’m undoubtedly meant to, but I just want to crawl under my desk.
Let me interrupt this rant to point out that I am not a misanthrope. I love people, at least as a concept. I have inherited my father’s tendency to engage in conversation with any stranger who crosses his path, because you never know what you might learn from the cute waiter or the checkout girl at CVS. (This, as you might imagine, is a source of extreme mortification for certain teenage children, who don’t understand why Mom can’t just silently pay for the pizza or the shampoo and get back in the car.) And my whole life would be a grim business without my close friends, no matter how often (or not) I see them. Without kindred spirits to help negotiate the dramedy that is the life of any woman trying to balance a job and kids and a husband who watches an awful lot of sports on TV—well, I’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning.
My parents, who still seem to know better than I do, even though I am now in my 40s, are no help here. They don’t seem to have this problem. They have tennis friends and bridge friends and work friends; golf friends and skiing friends; country-club and movie-club and gourmet-group friends. They have friends they’ve known since college and law school as well as many others they’ve picked up along the way. Their friendship universe is a giant Venn diagram, and when one segment of the diagram is temporarily weak, another picks up the slack. It has always been this way. When I was a kid, it seemed as if their life was one long dinner party, with brief interruptions for child care and work. They have made wise investments in friendships over time and are reaping handsome dividends. If I refuse to participate in girls’ nights out now, who will go to lunch with me when I’m 80?
Maybe no one. Or maybe one of the other nutty moms around me who love their friends even if they see them only every 18th Tuesday.
This past Saturday night, I had a rare dinner with my friend Mary, who is a crazy working mom very much like me, except for the fact that she is a lawyer (much harder than being a magazine editor) and has a heroic number of children (seven!). As we sat at her kitchen counter, Mary sheepishly announced that most of her Saturday nights revolve around the 6 p.m. piano lesson that she takes with one of her daughters. She admitted this, then laughed. Her husband rolled his eyes. And I hatched a plan.
When I turn 80, when the kids are finally out of the house and I’ve finally retired, and when I finally have more than 17 minutes to myself on any given day, I’m going to send Mary an e-mail. Subject line: “Girls’ Night Out!!!” Mary will understand why it has taken me so long to organize. And her reply will be Woo-hoo!!!