Kayleen Schaefer’s wonderful book Text Me When You Get Home: the Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship is a love letter to friendships between women. She writes about real life friendship, both in her own life and in the lives of a variety of women across locations and circumstances, as well as female friendship in pop culture. Now in paperback, it’s a must-read for anyone who has a friend, or wants to cultivate more friendships.
I caught up with Kayleen to talk about her book, why friendship is particularly important to single women, and the difficulties of building friendships.
Tell me about your book?
My book is about female friendship, specifically how powerful it is. It goes back and looks at the history of how women’s friendships were perceived way back in the Middle Ages until now, and shows the evolution and what I see as the triumph of female friendship–it’s a relationship that women are now elevating themselves and saying ‘No, my friendships are just as important as my relationships with my romantic partner, with my family, with my work’ and taking friendship to a level that it hasn’t quite been put on up till now.
While female friendship is important for all women, it’s perhaps especially important for single women. Would you talk about what your research turned up on that?
There aren’t a lot of studies on friendship which is odd because it’s such an important relationship but it’s just not that studied compared to romantic relationships which, actually, gives you a sense right there of how we were told to think about our friendships. My own genesis of valuing my female friends so much came from my personal experience of deciding I wasn’t ready to get married to my long term boyfriend. It was a shock to me at the time. I thought that was what I was going to do. My mom had gotten married when she was young and most everyone I knew around me, in my hometown, were partnered or married, but I wasn’t ready and you know instead of being like ‘He wasn’t right, I’ll just go on another 50 dates’ or whatever. I didn’t do that and I really looked to my friends and my friendships as relationships. It just opened my eyes to the fact that you could have way more ties than just one in our lives. In the book, I say there isn’t just one love story in our lives, and I really think that’s true. But it’s just a hard thing to wrap your head around because it’s just not what we’re told. We’re just raised thinking we’re just aiming for that one relationship and we’re not.
The fact is that the stats show we’re getting married later. The average age is late twenties, I think, but even so in cities it’s higher–so we’re spending longer than ever without a romantic partner and that opens up this space and time where we value our friendships as much or maybe more than the previous generation did. In the previous generation, they went from their childhood home maybe had a few years single, but then pretty much married much earlier than we do. And so those friendships were something that women were told to push aside. Even if they didn’t and even if those friendships were still important to them, there was this feeling that my loyalty and my fidelity is to my home and my husband or my partner and my children. I interviewed my mom and women her age and that’s what they said, that’s kind of just where they were pointed and what they were taught to do. Friendships felt selfish.
We have this open space and opportunity where we’re not told that and it doesn’t make any sense to drop those friendships when you do start dating someone or you do find a romantic partner. I think women don’t do that to do that, and they don’t want to do that, especially with these women that they relied on for so long like there’s no reason to do that, no matter if they are coupled or not.
I think many women find it hard to make friends, especially after leaving school and structure environments like that. What advice would you offer those looking to form meaningful friendships now?
I get it. It’s hard. You really have to put yourself out there to form a friendship–you have to be willing to say to the other person like ‘Hey, do you want to go with me for coffee or yoga or shopping or whatever–you have to make that overture and sometimes the person isn’t interested. I also think if you want to form a genuine friendship you have to be really open and honest about who you are. You want to show the best side of yourself also, but just like dating you don’t want to have to fake it for the rest of your friendship so you want to show that person exactly who you are.
The way that friendships come about is not a shock but it is sort of hard to wrap your head around. It’s just repeated interaction. Which is why you make friends at work or in your freshman dorm or your kindergarten class. It just has to be someone that you have access to on a pretty regular basis and that’s where that friendship will grow from. For adults it’s harder because we do have work, but then sometimes it’s just like work and home and then where are you supposed to meet people but it’s just some kind of regular activity that you do and if you find someone you think you want to be friends with there you just have to put yourself out there.
What do you see as the greatest challenges and the greatest gifts of friendship?
As I was reporting, I didn’t want to be so cut-and-dried like ‘Oh, your male friends are different’ but there is something about being with a group of women. There’s just this comfort and this vibe that like we all get each other and we’re here to support each other and we know what we’ve been through and we don’t even really have to say it, it just sort of like you’re all in this space together and you’re like vibrating a little bit because there’s this good energy and people you want to be around. I think being around a ton of women is inspiring and I think the last year or two has shown this as women have started to group up, not even just protests, but just to talk amongst themselves and there’s something about knowing you have each other’s support that can be very uplifting and very elevating. But that is what I think the biggest positive is from relying on your friends–there’s just this feeling that you are not by yourself.
I guess the biggest challenge is this end of friendships, which I didn’t even want to write about because I was trying to really create this like ‘Women can be friends’, you know, we’re not just trying to tear each other’s hair out. Frenemies are just not a real thing or they are something foisted upon us. So I was really kind of worried of touching on friend breakups and falling outs but of course that’s part of friendship and that’s the worst part. We don’t have any good rules for how to break up with our friends. There’s a thousand and one guides for had a breakup with a boyfriend–there are even scripts–but there’s no there’s no way to say it, you don’t know how to say it to a friend and you also don’t know how to mourn the friendship, you don’t eat a pint of ice cream on the floor. The person you would call is the person that you’re no longer wanting to be friends with or whatever it is, there’s just not a lot of support for ending a friendship. And you also feel like if you end this friendship you’re falling into that stereotypical trap of ‘women can’t be friends.’ I think it’s a very hard part of friendship, knowing that, you know, some friendships aren’t going to last forever. They have a certain beginning and middle and end. It doesn’t it doesn’t mean that you failed or that that relationship won’t mean something to you forever, but they can be finite.
I think that also sounds a little similar to dating in some ways. We don’t really have a script for relationships that end being a good thing anywhere with our other relationships.
It’s true and relationships can end too, obviously, and the thing with friendship also that I find so powerful is, with our other relationships these people are tied to us by blood or law or money, but friendships–that person isn’t tied to you. They just want to be your friend because they like you, just because they do. That’s something that I find incredibly powerful about friendship–it’s a relationship bonded by nothing but mutual admiration and interest.
What was the biggest surprise for you when you were working on this book?
Well, what I learned about the history was a surprise to me. Even as someone who grew up being told ‘girls are mean,’ ‘you’re supposed to compete with each other,’ ‘really all that’s important is finding yourself a romantic mate’ I didn’t know how far that went back. It goes as far back as the Middle Ages and the early modern times where women were actually told ‘You can’t use the word friend. The word friend does not apply to you because you are not pure of spirit and you can’t relate to another person the way a male can because men are selfless and women are evil and conniving and sex-crazed.’ It was just wild to me. When the professor I was speaking with first told me I was like ‘They couldn’t use the word?’ A woman wrote a letter to a clergyman saying like ‘I think I have friendships, but you’re telling me I can’t call them my friends’ and the clergyman wrote back and was like ‘Yeah, no, you can’t. It’s really better if you look to a guy, he can guide you.’ Like, wow. So that was shocking to me. Keeping women apart goes back a long way.
What are your hopes for your readers as you’re sending your work into the world?
I set out to write a book that validated our friendships and how strongly we felt about these relationships because I didn’t see anything out there that said ‘Hey, no, it’s all right to be devastated if your friend moves across the country,’ or like, ‘It’s okay that a breakup with a friend is heartbreaking,’ or ‘It’s okay that your friend is the first person that you want to text when anything good, bad, or even a nothing thing happens.’ That’s an absolutely acceptable relationship, and it’s, in fact, wonderful. And I just didn’t see anything out there and so those were the initial conversations that I had about the book that that’s what I wanted to do was validate how strongly we felt about our friends. And I started to see it happening in pop culture, obviously, too, which is the second strain, but I have heard since the book came out from a lot of women saying like ‘Thank you for acknowledging how I felt about my friends.’ It’s made them feel like–I don’t know–that, we value this relationship in a way that we shouldn’t–I heard from women who said ‘My career isn’t going the way I want it to,’ ‘I had a bad breakup’ or ‘Someone in my family is sick and all these bad things were happening but then I read [Text Me When You Get Home] and I thought: but I do have this. I do have these amazing friendships, this amazing support system and community–that’s what I want to do: make that just as important as any of these other things that we’re told are so important. Because it’s not easy to make and keep friendships, it takes a lot of work and women are putting in that time and effort and it’s important.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.