real life

The thing about female friendships....

*This is an edited extract from my new book Mia Culpa: Confessions From The Watercooler of Life

I’m having two simultaneous and intense conversations in bed. One is with a close girlfriend. The other is with a woman I’ve never met. One woman is distressed, the other reflective. Both conversations are important. My husband is out for dinner and I’m relishing the opportunity to prop myself up on pillows, alone with my laptop, a packet of Smarties and a giant cup of tea.

My reflective friend has recently moved overseas and this is the only window when we’re both awake and able to talk in real time, even though we’re emailing. I miss her. She moved not for a job or a relationship but because she felt stuck. So six months ago, at 37, my friend impulsively decided to shake up “My Stagnant Life” as she wryly described it.

Things were not going according to the unwritten plan she had in her head; a plan so ingrained in her expectations that it came as a rude shock that motherhood and a ‘forever’ relationship may never end up on her CV. Her actual CV is stellar and for a while, work was enough but not any more. “I know everyone here,” she explained to her loved ones. “I’ve done everything in this town. It’s time.” And then she put her apartment on the market, sold her furniture on Ebay and rolled the dice on a ticket to London where she had a few friends and a lead on a new job.

A routine pap smear had sparked a conversation with her doctor about fertility and on the eve of her 38th birthday she emailed to tell me that she’s confronting some ugly statistics. After an initial freak-out, she’s now trying to imagine what her life might look like without children in it and tentatively thinking that it might be OK. “Or should I do the sperm bank thing?” she wonders after taking me through some details about a few dates she’d been on. We discuss that option for a few emails and while I’m waiting for one of her replies, another email pops into my box from a name I don’t instantly recognise.

Two women I know contacted me independently a few weeks ago within 24 hours of each other to ask for my advice for a friend who had just had a stillborn baby. Both women knew I’d lost a baby halfway through my second pregnancy and thought I might have some suggestions for what to do or say or send. Having experienced nothing similar themselves, they were stumped.

I guessed that they were asking about the same women and after linking them to a couple of articles I’ve published on Mamamia about pregnancy loss and stillbirth, I asked for their friend’s email.

I don’t know exactly why. I just felt compelled to be in touch with her. Possibly because I remembered how through my fog of grief for months afterwards, it was somehow easier to talk to strangers than the people who loved me most.

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That was unexpected because I’ve always been very close to my friends. But during those dark dark months, the only people I wanted to talk to were those who had been through something similar. Except I couldn’t find them because it was before the Internet had permeated our lives. So I had emailed this woman a day ago and now she’d replied.

It was an intensely moving exchange as I told her things about my lost daughter May that I’d never told anyone, not even my husband. She responded with intimate confessions of her own and as my other girlfriend logged off to go to work, this stranger and I continued to email for an hour, making each other smile and cry with black grief and blacker humour. Until she wasn’t a stranger anymore. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet. I hope so. But we’ll be forever connected regardless through shared memories of the daughters we never got to take home.

As my fingers fly over the keys, sending and opening emails, laughing and wincing, it occurs to me that the computer has joined cocktails, coffee and cake as fundamental conduits to female conversations. Not that we require conduits. Put any two women within two metres of each other and you have an instant watercooler.

Sometimes, when I meet someone new and I tell them I’m a writer, they ask ‘what do you write about?” Tricky question. It would be a lot like asking a woman who just came home from a girls’ dinner “What did you speak about?”. The short answer? EVERYTHING.

That’s why I’m always so bemused by anyone who still refers to ‘women’s issues’. That phrase makes me wince because it’s meaningless.

An average conversation between two women will move seamlessly from American politics to the difference between post natal depression and the baby blues, how you should go up a cup size when ordering bras from Victoria’s Secret online to hangover cures to controlled crying to the perils of going to IKEA alone to interest rates to Facebook to managing anxiety to childcare to sex to Bonds tracksuit pants to Gwyneth to Haiti to orange lipstick to broadband to Botox to pelvic floor exercises…and that just about covers the first cocktail.

I hear the key in the front door and look up from my computer. Walking into the bedroom, Jason is surprised I’m still awake, sitting cross-legged on the bed with my laptop and a long empty box of smarties. We start chatting while he gets undressed. “How was it?” I ask. “Great!” he replies. “Top night.” Excellent.

I get up to make us tea and when I return to the bedroom we begin a familiar exchange. “So, was Andrew there?” “Yeah, he was actually.” “Who else?”  “Um, Johno, Craig, Phil, Chopper….Spud, Sam and Parky.” So many nicknames, it took me years to learn their actual ones, most date back to high school where this bunch of blokes first met. Twenty years later, they still see each other semi-regularly when they go out for drinks or dinner, like tonight.

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“So, how’s Ava?”

Blank.

“You know, Johno and Benita’s baby?”

“Um….” I can tell he’s stalling, waiting for the right answer to fall from the sky into his head.  I persevere. “How is her hip? Remember she had to have it put in plaster to correct that dysplasia thing?”

“Uh, I guess she’s fine. Johno didn’t say anything.”

“Did you ask?”

“Well, no but…”

“What about Sandra? Did she end up resigning after that thing at the Christmas party? Did Phil say?”

“Ah, no…. I don’t think he mentioned it.”

“Are Parky and Joanna back together? Have Craig and Margie decided to do another round of IVF? Has Chopper come out to his boss at work? Did Spud’s appartment sell at auction? That girl that Sam met on the Internet, what was her name…Shani, did that work out? Oh, and Craig’s Mum – is she out of hospital?”

Blankety blank blank blank.

Why am I surprised? Why am I always surprised? How is it that my husband can spend five hours having drinks and dinner with a bunch of guys he’s known for decades and come away without having gleaned a single piece of intel about their lives?

I don’t ask for much. I’m not expecting detailed details. But among our friends there are many big things going on right now; babies, divorces, new relationships, engagements, IVF, career crises, relocation, real estate…

“Babe, you know what it’s like. We just didn’t talk about any of that stuff.” he shrugs.

But I can’t let it go. “What DID you talk about then? Surely in five hours you have to exchange SOME information about SOMEthing? Tell me one new thing you learned.”

Pause. Thinks. A flash of relief.

“Craig’s got a new car. A Peugeot.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Often, when I’m catching up with a girlfriend I haven’t seen for a while, we joke that we need a written agenda, a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer to make sure we don’t miss any vital installments of information.

But blokes seem to be able to spend hours and hours talking about…. well, I have no idea what they talk about because they rarely seem able to retain any of it by the time they get home.

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I’ve tried to resist my urge to interrogate but it’s hard. My natural inclination is always to gather information, even about people I barely know. I’m just interested. Curious. At the female water cooler, we discuss everything from politics to pelvic floors but the biggest topic of conversation is invariably our private lives.

I know a mountain of intimate details about the lives of women I barely know. I know that one of my children’s teachers has a sister with depression and is sometimes bedridden for weeks. I know that the woman who runs my local coffee shop has had six miscarriages and has finally given up her hopes of ever becoming a biological mother. She’s investigating adoption and we’ve discussed which countries allow single women to adopt. I know intimate details about my hairdresser’s cycle and the various hits and misses she’s had with different forms of contraception. I know that the husband of one of my child’s school friends has a drinking problem. I know that another mother is in recovery from an eating disorder. I know that a woman who gave me a massage one time had just lost her elderly father and was fighting with her estranged brother over the will.

And none of these people are even my friends. The things I know about my friends and their loved ones could fill this book 20 times over. And they know just as much about me.

Sharing information is what women do. It’s how we process our lives, by presenting them to others for input for empathy or just to hear ourselves speak them out loud.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s rooted in the primitive female need to gather. While cave men hunted meat, cave-women gathered salad. They also gathered information because they had lots of time to talk while sitting around sorting bush leaves and preparing roast mammoth.

But hunting? That required silence. A lot like watching cricket. This is why I am not allowed to watch cricket with my men-folk. Because I’m not silent and I ask too many questions about the players and their personal lives. At least now I understand why I do this. As my husband observed, “When you talk as much as women do, you need to have an enormous amount of information on hand.”

That’s why, when the roles are reversed and I come home after dinner with girlfriends my husband is cautious about expressing too much interest in what was discussed.  He keeps his questions broad and non-specific. Or pretends to be asleep. Because it would take hours to download what I’d just uploaded and he wouldn’t remember it by the morning anyway.




You can buy Mia Culpa or any of my other books (including Mamamia: a memoir of mistakes, magazines & motherhood) here now…..

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