For Mother's Day, TODAY.com asked longtime friends Susan Gregory Thomas, a 42-year-old writer and mother of three, and Jacqueline Christy, a 44-year-old theater director and single woman who doesn't have children, to each share how kids have affected their 30-year relationship — and what's stayed the same. Both live in New York.
A decade ago, I had an instant, molecular transformation. When after 22 hours of labor, followed by an emergency C-section (don’t ask), I saw my little schmushkie gazing at me with her global eyes, I had one stunning thought: This is the exact person I’ve been waiting to meet my entire life. My relationship to my mother, my father, my brother, my then-husband—certainly my friends — all changed. How could it be otherwise? My world was alchemically recast in that moment, and so was everything in it. Except for one essential friendship.
Jackie Christy and I have known each other for 30 years, which is paleolithic by any relationship’s standards. But, in spite of its many natural fault lines, it seems not to have budged an inch. For example, I never really dated because I’m a spaz, whereas Jackie has always been the world’s most charming and adroit date (I know because I went with her whenever she wasn’t sure if she really liked the guy). I’ve been divorced and re-hitched; she has never married. I have three children; she has none. I’m 42 but recently passed as a friend’s mother; she’s 44 and still sometimes gets carded. Until last week, I thought that Lady Gaga was a drag queen; Jackie is out, looking killer, at some underground arts event every night of the week.
But in a way, that’s all just surface matter. With Jackie, I’m just me, and I delight in the pure Jackieness of her. No strings, no expectations. I don’t know about you, sisters, but that’s unprecedented in my book.
I’ve had many deep, dear friendships with women, but they’ve all shared an undercurrent of mother-daughter-sister drama. Such textbook Freudian transference is, in my experience, a subconscious reflex to which we female friends seem exquisitely prone. My closest friend in high school, for example, was like a younger sister who loved but resented me, a dynamic we both unwittingly hated but exploited, probably because it was so familiar to us in our own families. Later on, several friends wanted me for a doting, protective mom; later on still, I wanted a few to be my own doting, protective mom. Of course, we all failed each other.
But then motherhood emerged as the ultimate recalibrator. In friendships where we’d both become moms, albeit at different times, sometimes the rigid defenses of girlhood simply collapsed, as if the surrender inherent in motherhood made us more yielding in all things. (All that Standing Your Ground and taking everything so damn personally can look pretty gratuitous after you’ve pushed a person or two out of your body.) With other friends, however, the polemics (and insecurity) of first-time parenthood pushed us to the edge. After all, such is the current culture of American child-rearing that we often attach our very identities to our stances on co-sleeping, breast-feeding, and child care choices; friendship, sadly, is not always safe harbor.
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And with longtime friends without children, there is often a hint of sibling rivalry: You were all mine until they came along.
All this is as predictable as it is understandable. The real curiosity to me is how Jackie’s and my friendship has eluded that growth path, with its attendant jealousies, resentments and territorialism. What’s our mutant gene?
At least part if it can be traced to our having connected at the pivotal stage of early adolescence. Jackie and I got into a lot of astonishingly bad trouble together when we were young, came out of it, went into other troubles, came out again. We know each other’s particular byways into Dark and Light, and because of that, I think, we are particularly generous-spirited with each other.
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But it is also bound up in a kind of psychic twinhood. We’re both serious chatterboxes who relish solitude; we love feminism and clothes; we’re at once tougher and more fragile than we seem; we can seem like ninnies, but we’re paying attention; people tell us stuff, and we keep quiet; we don’t expect anyone else to adhere to the rigid standards we set for ourselves. That sameness between us almost yields the sense of parallel universes. Had Jackie gone my route, her life might look a lot like mine; if I’d stayed single, my life could be hers.
Maybe, on some level, I want to save Jackie just for me
But, of course, our lives could not be more different. Because of that, maybe Jackie and I preserved our affinity by unconsciously velvet roping it. Although we always loved teaming up as a duo at parties, we’ve reserved most of our time together in private. I like her friends, but I don’t really know them; my children have a general love of “Aunt Jackie,” but they haven’t spent much time with her. Although I wish we could all get together more often, I’m not bothered, offended, or longing. Maybe, on some level, I want to save Jackie just for me. Maybe I don’t want that Jackie-Susie essence diluted. Maybe it nourishes both of us in some primal way.
After I’d just had my second child, Jackie spent the day with me, as I nursed the baby, picked up my older one from preschool, and we all hung out in a messy tumble. Jackie, who had always feared that marriage and kids might sentence her to a quietly desperate life in the suburbs, giggled at our scene and paid me a huge compliment. “I see how it works now,” she said. “You’re still Suze, but with kids!”
Only Jackie could see that, in the way I know that she is a wonderful mother — even if she doesn’t have kids.
Susan Gregory Thomas is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared on msnbc.com, TODAY.com, in Parents, Babble.com, US News & World Report and The Washington Post. Thomas is the author of “Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds” and the forthcoming memoir ”In Spite of Everything.” She is also the author of the blog Broke-Ass Grouch and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, three children, two dogs and six chickens.
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