A few weeks ago, I noticed a post about a “Secret Sister” holiday gift exchange on my colleague’s Facebook page. “It’s about creating positivity during a tough time leading up to the New Year,” Shari wrote. “Anyone in?”
Within hours, Shari received more than 30 replies from women accepting her invitation. “So excited!” one woman commented. “Totally in!” said a few others. It was sweet to watch Shari’s post drown in a sea of warm female friendship.
For a brief and embarrassingly sad moment, I wondered what it felt like to be Shari. With holiday cheer at a premium these days, a game like Secret Sister and the coronavirus pandemic do really intersect: As a woman without a core group of female friends and connections, I’m reminded of my own lack of community, my world condensed even further by the unprecedented time we find ourselves in.
Still, I threw my name into the hat. “I’m in!” I responded. (To be clear, while this game shares a name with a well-known pyramid scheme, it was a redesigned and low-key way for a small group of writer-colleagues to share their favorite books. There are definitely scam-versions of this game. Don’t get involved with those.)
Within minutes, Shari sent me a message with instructions. I was to send a gift of no more than $10 to a woman named Victoria, who lived not far from me in Michigan.
After I ordered the gift, it was time to advertise the exchange on my own Facebook page and tag as many women as possible. I posted the details to my feed but opted out of tagging my few female connections. I didn’t want to appear desperate for companionship.
Like a teenager whose social media value is measured in likes and replies, I couldn’t bear the thought of my call for Secret Sisters accumulating nothing more than a chorus of crickets. When no one responded after two days, I took the post down.
Science has long pointed to the importance of female friendships, with one study even finding that women with early-stage breast cancer have better survival rates if they have strong social ties. The Internet is replete with pandemic-era accounts of the power of female bonds during times of crisis. Science and culture are unambiguous about the value of these connections. So what was wrong with me?
Even happily married at 40, living in Michigan as a writer and teacher, the fear of female friendlessness gnaws at my deepest insecurities. Will I grow old without a core group of female friends? How could something like an innocent holiday staple, intended to create positivity and togetherness, inspire such self-loathing?
Watching a holiday gift exchange unfold during the pandemic reminded me how hard it has been this year to maintain the few female relationships that I do have. Because most of my adult life has consisted of a string of relocations, nearly all of my friendships are long distance. This comes with its own difficulties and feelings of strain and loneliness, and emotional distance is too often inevitable. The pandemic has exacerbated those challenges.
I’m lucky. I have a loving husband, and we spent our first five years in a long-distance relationship, separated by a time zone. Now that we’re in the same home, our time sheltered-in-place has been uneventful but also a gift. Our offices share a wall, and we honor each other’s space and privacy.
Still, I know better than to rely on my husband for a level of connection that culture says is unique to female friendships. Expecting him to fulfill a litany of deep relationship roles wouldn’t be fair to him or me. There’s an ever-present low-grade loneliness in knowing that my female connections are few and far between. They’re dealing, I’m sure, with their own pandemic-induced lifestyle changes — including an unspoken reduction to their own inner circles. But a strong network of female ties — women with whom to share in these unprecedented difficulties — would have made this year more bearable and less isolating.
In reality, I don’t remember a time when I was not trying — and failing — to form solid female friendships. The act of “making friends” never came naturally to me. I was a painfully shy child who couldn’t figure out how to bond with other little girls.
Eventually this issue self-corrected to some extent. College presented easy pathways toward female connection until lifestyles diverged after graduation. One friendship with a woman named Nicole stands out in particular — she was the first friend with whom I shared the words “I love you.” After graduation, we lived three states apart and spoke on the phone nearly every morning before work, during which we would often plan our next overnight gathering or day trip.
When my grandmother died, I experienced my first broken heart over Nicole’s unwillingness to walk with me in my grief, and I felt as though I had been duped in the friendship department. I also became deeply insecure; forming meaningful female bonds seemed elusive at best and, at worst, mythological.
Not all of my friendships failed so dramatically, but even the healthy ones have been impacted by the mobility of being a teacher. I was nearly 30 before I felt like I had formed solid female connections, and I chided myself for leaving them behind to advance my career. We remain in touch and have toyed with planning a reunion, but it’s been nearly a decade since I have seen them. Two career moves later, most of my female friendships are defined by distance, change and the occasional text message. It remains hard not to feel like a failure in the friendship department.
Several days after I removed the Secret Sister post from Facebook, and feeling sorry for myself, I received a text from my friend Kim. We were neighbors when I lived in Wisconsin from 2014 to 2019, and we stayed in touch after I moved.
“Christina,” she wrote. “I think of you every day. Stay safe and healthy my dear friend.”
“I think of you all the time, Kim,” I replied.
When I received Kim’s message, it had been more than a year since I had seen her. Kim is a 66-year-old widow and was my closest friend during my five-year stay in the Upper Midwest. In the beginning, we bonded over our city-girl identities, me being from Brooklyn and Kim from New Orleans. I had met her children and grandchildren. We saw each other often, sharing our deepest feelings, hopes and fears over homemade appetizers and glasses of wine.
I scrolled through our messages. Notes we exchanged in honor of special occasions, get-togethers, holidays, simple hellos. I paused on a text she sent me for my birthday last summer.
“May this day and all that follow bless you with love and perfect health,” she wrote. “You deserve all things wonderful. Love you!”
Tears sprang to my eyes. Kim always remembered my birthday, and never required a social media nudge to remind her. At the beginning of our friendship, I asked her why she wouldn’t at least create a Facebook account.
“That’s no way to connect with people, sister,” she scoffed in her charming Louisiana drawl.
For so many, covid-19 has downsized life in indescribably lonely ways, and I understand now why I gave a silly social media post the power to make me feel inadequate and hungry for female friendship. But Kim reminded me that important sisterhood is there when I need it.
I’ll soon be sending her a holiday gift of chocolate and other goodies, and this time, I’m not including a card. She’ll know it’s me. We’d been not-so-secret sisters from the beginning, our friendship transcending the pandemic.