Hey, Wanna Sit at my Lunch Table? Adult Friendships and Middle School Vulnerability

I am about to hit send on an email. My heart is pounding and I feel like I am back in middle school sitting alone in the cafeteria eyeing that kid I would really like to be friends with (who of course is at the cool table), but don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. I almost convince myself to delete the message but something stops me. So I decide to hit send even though the vulnerability of doing so almost makes me physically ill. There, I’ve done it. Yikes, I’ve done it.

This all started early this year. My daughter made a new friend at school and wanted to have her over. We’ll call this friend Anne. My daughter and Anne hit it off from the very beginning and seemed to form a really deep connection quite quickly. There was an almost instant level of comfort between them that I quite frankly admired. 

They became fast friends, which meant lots of back and forth to each other’s houses. In the process I ended up having frequent contact with Anne’s mother, who we’ll call Nicole. From the very start Nicole and I seemed to have an ease between us and before we knew it, drop off and pick ups would turn into twenty minute conversations at the door. We’re talking authentic conversation and not just small talk. No putting on of airs. Nobody pretending to have their shit together when they didn’t. 

“Anne, your mom’s here!” I would call up the stairs as I headed to the door. Ten minutes later Nicole and I would still be chatting and the kids were nowhere to be seen. When I asked my daughter about this she rolled her eyes and said, “Well Mommy, we know you guys are going to talk forever so we still have lots of time to hang out.” Oh, is it that obvious?

The twist in this story is that Anne’s family found out in March that they were going to be leaving in July for two years abroad due to an amazing job opportunity for Nicole. While I was happy for them, this news fell hard in our household. 

As the months went by and we became more and more aware of what little time was left to enjoy together, it became apparent that this would be a tough separation for the girls, but it also started to dawn on me that it was going to be rather a loss for myself as well. Over the years since we’ve had children I would estimate that I have met well over 200 moms through the kids’ school and activities, not to mention other people I’ve met through various avenues. Hundreds and hundreds of people, and how often does it happen that you meet someone with whom you would actually like to form a deeper connection? How often do you feel instantly at ease with another person? How many times have you felt comfortable being completely yourself in front of someone you don’t yet know very well?

Well, I can tell you that in my experience that is extraordinarily rare. So I had a choice to make. I could let them leave without saying anything, or I could go completely out on a limb and essentially invite Nicole from the cool table to come and eat lunch with me sitting over here all alone. I can think of few things scarier than this. 

I took my heart in my hands and sent that email because I knew that if I didn’t our communication over the next two years would likely consist of the logistics of keeping the girls connected and not much more. Impromptu conversations would no longer be possible. We would have to be intentional about connecting. 

Click. Swoosh. Wait. Oh, did I mention that I didn’t send this message until the day before they left? Oh yes, I covered my vulnerable little backside by leaving it until the last minute, knowing I would not see Nicole face to face again. I also put a bunch of other thoughtful sentiments in there to which she could reply so as to give her an opportunity to gloss right over the “hey want to be my friend” part should she so choose. You know, just to be extra safe and not make things too awkward if she didn’t feel the same way. Did I really just do all that maneuvering over what is essentially an IRL friend request?

Wait some more. I knew Nicole was super busy with preparations for leaving but when the time arrived that they would be headed to the airport I breathed a heavy sigh and figured, oh well, I tried. Then my phone lit up with a couple of pictures Nicole sent, one of Anne being goofy in the car and one of the two of them waiting at the airport with an update on their flight status. 

Well, obviously those photos were for my daughter. But then it came. A text message expressing appreciation for the kindness my partner and I showed Anne and for making her feel so welcome in our home. There was a heartfelt thank you for my email and a simple statement that Nicole too felt that we could be friends. My middle school heart stopped in my chest. I am not ashamed to admit that a few tears came to my eyes in that instant, for so many reasons.

One tear was for the relief that the whole remarkably stressful foray out to the end of what seemed a very flimsy limb was over. Brené Brown refers to this as the “vulnerability hangover”. If you haven’t heard this expression, check out her TED talk on the subject. I assure you a vulnerability hangover feels every bit as bad as one involving intoxicants. Another tear was for the possibility that we could still lose touch anyway given the distance and the busyness of life, and I feel like that would be an opportunity lost. But the biggest tear was for me. 

Why? Because the type of environment I grew up in rewarded vulnerability with ridicule and harsh criticism. In my world you didn’t stick your neck out. Ever. You kept your feelings to yourself, especially the good ones because you didn’t want them held up to examination and deemed unworthy. It has taken me a lot of time, a shit ton of therapy, and a very supportive group of friends to start to have the courage to do something as daring as clicking send on that one little, but hugely significant (for me anyway), message. 

So no matter what happens I will celebrate a courageous achievement for me and only me. When all is said and done I don’t know if Nicole will end up becoming someone more to me than just Anne’s mom. But in the end I took the risk because the potential reward could be an authentic friendship and there is nothing more beautiful and fulfilling than that.

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