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Tanya Sweeney: My female friendships are cracking under Covid

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Honestly, what did we ever talk about with our friends before this pandemic? The epidemiologist banter features heavily in the rare face-to-face conversations I have with my friends. “How are you?” is met with a flat sigh, as if to say, “Not much since the last time you asked”.

We meet for takeaway coffees, shivering in the park as we blather on fruitlessly about R rates, cocooning and contact tracing. I know why we do it: we are still trying to make sense of things and, somehow, find our way out with information. But these interactions are starved of the essential nutrients that keep friendships healthy: Hugs. Gossip. Wit. Talk about what we did last weekend. Holiday plans. Shared experiences. The gentle shove that dinner and a bottle of wine can send a friendship. I miss laughing with them until my cheeks cramp.

And that’s just the situation with the friends I’m lucky enough to see in real life. Many of my friends have pulled up the drawbridge and retreated into their own bubbles of self-care. As parents, many of us were finding it hard enough to summon the time and energy for quality encounters to begin with.

Zoom calls are a scant substitute for the real thing. Online, our conversations are stilted, full of words but somehow quiet and starved, sometimes streaked with tears. Occasionally, and in our less edifying moments, there has been an oblique nod to the pecking order of suffering, in which the conversation goes a little like this:

Me: “Well, at least you can have a lie-in, and not have a small person jump on your head at 6am.”

Friend: “Well, at least you have someone.”

Me: “That someone took a poo on the couch earlier. At least you didn’t have to deal with that.”

Friend: “At least you’re not going out of your mind with loneliness.”

Me: “We’re all going out of our mind with loneliness.”

We have worn out the phrase “We must do a Skype soon” to the point that it’s lost all meaning

Lockdown is so very different for all of us, and besides, we’re new at this. It’s hard to acknowledge that different people are experiencing this crisis in different ways when you’re in a self-sorry mood to begin with. In some cases we are experiencing compassion fatigue, and it’s hurting the friendships we’ve built up for years. A Facebook “like” isn’t enough.

We have worn out the phrase “We must do a Skype soon” to the point that it’s lost all meaning. It’s the 2020 equivalent of “We must meet for a drink”, although somehow harder to come good on.

To admit to it is tantamount to saying you’re doing the whole woman thing wrong, but I feel like several of my female friendships are suffering, or at the very least severely dehydrated. We’re letting go of each other without much of a fight. Either we are okay with that, or we just don’t know how to solve it. But I miss them. I’m not the same person I was without them, before all this.

There has been plenty of lip service paid down the years to the bulletproof quality of female friendships: one of the most powerful, edifying and unshakeable bonds two people can have. Pop culture is stuffed to the seams with cuddly, Vaseline-on-the-lens examples of women and their ever-lasting friendships. In many ways it has supplanted the typical heterosexual relationship in terms of sheer heady romance.

And I’ve felt that lovely, dizzying, platonic romance. There were times when a pal and I have found a noisy corner of a bar and chewed over the meaning of life. There was the “friend blind date” I had, a set-up by a mutual acquaintance, where I nearly proposed marriage to her, she was so wondrous (still is). There is the friend I go to gigs with, who puts an arm around me when I cry along to the music and deftly defuses any situation where I start shouting at gobby chatterboxes. There’s the friend I have an easy shorthand with after years of intertwined lives.

I’m not ready to give up on some of the friendships in my life that appear in critical condition

Female friendships are certainly much easier in your 20s, when everyone is living in the same city, in the same salary bracket and lifestyle. You have nowhere else to be, except with each other. No wonder things become heady and romanticised. It’s easy to invest and celebrate when these women are the most important relationships in your life. But life can and does get in the way.

I thought that becoming a parent had taken enough of a claw hammer to some of my platonic friendships. The disinterested ones – people for whom you were a partner-in-adventure, but maybe not much more – ebbed away almost immediately. For everyone else, you become more time-pressed than ever, not to mention exhausted. You have pretty much one small, puking, pooing thing on your mind for those first few months, and trust me, it barely makes for delightful, escapist, sparkling conversation. Those languid evenings over dinner or drinks take on a slightly more frazzled, urgent energy. If children are in tow, you can pretty much forget the art of conversation.

I’m not ready to give up on some of the friendships in my life that appear in critical condition. I’m trying to see this as a fallow period: a slow season, rather than an inexorable slide into nothingness. I just need to feed my friendships with some of the vital stuff; stories, laughter and stretches of time, shared face to face. Thanks for everything you’ve done for us Zoom, but this time, it’s just not enough.

Walking sort of like an Egyptian may not be enough any more

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