Growing up, I had a friend named Jenny. I was 7 and she was nearly 12, and for some reason, everyone thought this was weird.
Jenny was well-read and tall. She seemed impossibly sophisticated to a second-grader like me. We were both imaginative, and spent hours together creating mystery stories about children who solved crimes. Jenny also had great advice for how to deal with bullies (basically, she told me to ignore them, which was hard, but effective for me about 70% of the time). In short, she was exactly the kind of friend I needed in my life. And yet, not everyone saw it that way.
Despite our rapport, the rest of the schoolyard seemed to think Jenny and I were freaks. They thought there must be something wrong with her if she found a 7 year-old like me interesting, and they assumed I must be desperately searching for an older sister surrogate to protect me.
I heard the message that everyone was supposed to hang out with people their own age loud and clear. The insecure part of me that wanted to fit in internalized that message, abandoned Jenny, and sought out friends closer to my own age. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. I still miss Jenny. I probably always will.
It's approximately 23 years since Jenny and I ended our friendship under the pressure of the playground. Now 30, I'm at the age where things are getting harder. Privileged as I was, I spent much of my early adult years in graduate school, where I delayed real life, and everything still felt possible. Toward my late 20s, however, I began making major life decisions for the first time, and as a result, I began having some meaningful failures — actual mistakes that take time to unwind, like an incompatible domestic partnership, or choosing the wrong career path.
This year has been one of transition for me. After my engagement ended and I realized the academic career I had been training for wasn't a good fit for me, I felt disillusioned. I felt old, however irrational that feeling is. I wanted to devote my professional life to my dream of being a writer; I wanted to keep alive the hope of finding someone new to love, but I feared I was not strong enough to accomplish either goal.
When my peers would tell me over glasses of wine to get back up on the proverbial horse, I knew they were right, but I wasn't sure whether or not to believe them. My peers are talented, brilliant, and beautiful, but all of us are still figuring this life thing out, suffering first-time miscarriages, divorces, career changes, moves to different cities, health issues, and more. We all tell ourselves we'll figure things out, but we don't have the perspective to prove that to ourselves or to one another. When we tell each other, "Everything will work out in the end," it's the right thing to say, but it feels like a platitude. That's because anything profound can sound like a platitude with a lack of conviction.
My anxiety about starting over in my professional and personal life is something it was difficult to soothe for weeks. A good cup of tea sometimes did the trick; so did buying an overpriced lipstick. But at the end of the day, these were only temporary distractions from my fears. What has helped me conquer my worry, however, is my friendships with slightly older women.
No longer will I let the peanut gallery in the playground tell me that I'm only allowed to be friends with women of a certain age, and that this certain age is my own. I cherish my friendships with women of all age groups. My friends who are just a little older than me have been there, done that. They have suffered through broken marriages, navigated career changes, dealt with infertility, fought sexism in the workplace, managed financial setbacks, survived cancer, and conquered countless other challenges. While some are cerebral academics and others are colourful artists, or enthusiastic high school history teachers, the one thing all my slightly older girlfriends have in common is they have survived and thrived.
While my peers and I are trying to become the sort of strong women who are able to weather life's storms, it's nice to meet women a decade or more ahead of me who have already done so. They have faced the sort of insecurities that currently plague me, and found a way to go all Game of Thrones on their asses, beheading their fears like it's the season finale.
Recently, a friendship with a slightly older woman actually saved me. Her name was Lydia, and I met her just as I was worried I would never stop floundering. Lydia and I crossed paths when I was traveling for work, and as soon as I saw her, I knew she was the sort of dynamic woman I grew up wanting to be. An accomplished filmmaker in her 50s, she's a confident, successful woman with a bright smile and a knack for storytelling. We instantly connected.
The day we met, Lydia recounted her unexpected but beautiful path to motherhood. Her deep love for the child she adopted in her 40s was so moving, my eyes welled up with tears as she described it. I tried to stop myself from weeping, for fear of embarrassing myself in front of my colleagues, but it was fruitless. Before I knew it, I was full on crying into my lunch.
"That's such a beautiful story," I squeaked. "I hope I become a mother one day. I'm worried it will never happen for me now."
Just like that, I had shared my deepest fear with someone I barely knew, a fear I didn't even know I had.
With tears still rolling down my cheeks, I opened up to Lydia. Though I barely knew her, I filled her in on the most intimate details of the breakup I'd experienced weeks before. I told her I knew parting ways was the right thing for us, but I was 30 now, and a small part of me worried I would not recover in time to have the life I wanted. What if I was so overcome by self-doubt or sadness that I could never write another novel? What if I became so unable to trust I could never fall in love with someone new, no matter how amazing they were? These were anxieties I had explained time and again to friends in my age group. Of course, they reassured me everything would work out, but none were able to speak with the authority of experience that Lydia possessed.
"You'll be fine. You're a catch!" Lydia declared as we shared chocolate fudge. She spoke with so much confidence I found myself believing her, believing that perhaps I was not broken, only bruised. She then proceeded to tell me about how she met her life partner directly following a major breakup, when a friend secretly gave him her number.
"Just give yourself a time limit for grieving and then move on," Lydia advised in a sympathetic yet stern tone. It was the first time someone had told me not to wallow forever, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. It was as if I had finally been given permission to move on, to reclaim my personal and professional life, to forgive myself for picking the wrong career and the wrong person.
Before connecting with Lydia, I hadn't placed any limitations on grieving for what I'd lost. I now realize, like a goldfish placed in a bigger habitat, my sorrow was expanding to fit the emotional space I gave to it. Of course, one doesn't want to ignore one's feelings, and a little wallowing in one's pajamas while watching When Harry Met Sally is par for the course, but like any project, a breakup is something you have to want to finish, or it will never end.
Over the course of our week together, Lydia told me about her career ups and downs, her breakups, her makeups, and the happy life she ultimately built for herself, all because she kept on trying. Her story made me want to put on my big-girl pants and try again, too. I was never in danger of dying, but Lydia saved my spirit. She saved my sense of hope and my conviction that, with hard work, you can live the life you want. For this, I will be forever grateful.
At the end of my trip, as Lydia and I parted ways, she gave me a big hug — the sort of hug that says, "I know you can do it." And she was right. I can. Learning from women like Lydia has made me stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I encourage you not to dismiss the idea of befriending older and more seasoned women. I encourage you not to assume only people your own age are cool or can understand you. Abandon the notion that our friends are meant to come from our immediate peer group. If you want to be your best self, remember that with age comes wisdom, and wise women make fabulous friends.