Suddenly, as if in a flash, my winter vacation in the East Coast is over, and I am back in the warm, lonely (for me) South. Any illusions I might have had about being quite happy alone, and quite content with a virtual social circle, were all shattered as I chatted with and pottered around friends and relatives over the past three weeks. This was, aside from trips to Pakistan, the longest vacation-road-trip I’ve ever taken since I came to the US. We hopped from home to home: we stayed at four homes and visited numerous friends in the process. We drove from Georgia, stopped with relatives in Raleigh, NC, and with friends in Yorktown, VA, and moved on to Fairfax, VA, and finally stayed with my cousin in Columbia, MD. Lawrence, while driving through, stopped to chat, and the trip was topped off with a hotel stay in High Point, NC, where one of our friends happened to be attending an event. I just couldn’t stop having fun.
From the time I woke up to the (late, late) hour that I went to bed, I looked to affectionate faces and happy, desultory chatter (or political debate, which quickly dissipated into desultory chatter again). I ate so much, thanks to the amazing cooks I stayed with, that my pants were quite tight when I tried to squeeze into them today. I have not, in my memory, had so much dessert and so many sit-down real, organized meals over such a long period. But more than anything else, the comfort of people was better than the sweetest dessert in the world.
Suddenly, I’m back in Athens, where my social circle is small and relatively new. It is a warm and generous circle, but it is small: not being affiliated with an organization means I don’t have a way of meeting people, so I have about – hm, well, three main friends, and when one of us is busy, the loneliness becomes overpowering.
The togetherness warmed everything, including parenting. I realized just how much I am personally drained by constantly parenting Raihana while living in isolation myself. I realize why people – especially women – seek out mothers’ groups, though this doesn’t make the 9am Tuesday local moms’ group any more convenient. A moms’ group wouldn’t be a replacement for my greater DC area + Toronto circle of friends: these friends are like old wine (or, as a non-drinker, I imagine old wine to be).
Mothering is emotionally straining. It is rewarding, and wonderful, but it is also work, and parents need rejuvenation as much as anyone else – perhaps more. The pressures of life being what they are, friends usually “back off” a little once a friend gets married or has a baby: “she’s busy now; I should give her space.” This is true, because one’s schedule is not one’s own anymore. But this assumption is also false, because both marriage and parenting are work as well as fun, and you need time off both in order to survive.
Once you graduate from college, making, maintaining and keeping new friendships becomes more and more difficult. The old friends (which, for me, includes my cousins) you have are more precious than anything. You can breathe and relax, as well as bloom with them: you can laugh and cry with them, and you can even burp without serious consequences. You can be a little cranky, and it won’t matter an hour later. These friends become like family, except they lack the extreme closeness of family that can be a source of friction at times. You are close, and you are close enough to instinctively know which toes not to step on. You know that you can joke about everything except Issue X with this friend, and you can be naughty and silly but you can’t be crude with that other friend, and with that other friend you can be as crude as you want but you can also share his profound religiosity.
Once you have a child, your social circle is strained. You know which homes would be strained beyond the limit by the presence of a baby complete with diapers, spillable sippy-cups, and food-throwing habits. You know which homes are equipped with extra carseats, safety gates, and booster-dining-seats. You know which homes have the rooms where the baby can’t get into trouble even if she tried. Gone are the days when you could crash with the single friends in their pretty, chic studio apartments (unless you travel alone – and in our world, mothers are considered a unit with small children far more than fathers ever are).
So you grab hold of what you can of your friends – the ones that haven’t moved abroad, or the ones that haven’t moved to the other end of the country, or the ones that haven’t disappeared into a vacuum of work or personal issues, or the ones that haven’t drifted away. You grab hold of the ones you have – the mamujans, the Junaids, the Ayeshas, the Usmans, the Malihas, the Tariqs, the Hassans and Rabiahs, and all the others who welcome you back when they see you after two years – and you hold on tight and never let go.
Thank you, all, for your hospitality and your warmth and your love. You reminded me to let go, smile and be happy.