All this time I thought I'd been missing a serious romantic relationship. That may be true, but if I've learned anything over the last few weeks, during which I turned 40, it's the realization that what I've been missing is true friendship.
It's not that I don't have a handful of close friends whom I love and trust. It's just that I rarely get to see them as they live far away and/or have kids and families that keep them understandably busy. When I do see or talk to them, time is limited and often interrupted and there's just never the right time for me to say, "Help. I need you."
The months leading up to my 40th birthday were heavy with self-assessment. I spent the bulk of my adult life trying to get what I thought I wanted, and failing. How do I want to spend the second half of my life? My head was spinning with options - the benefit of having nothing to hold you down, I guess.
I could decide to plunk down some roots right here, scrabble together money to buy a condo and throw myself into the career and family I have right now.
Or I could decide that having a child is my first priority and figure out a way to get pregnant like one of my single friends who just had her sperm donor baby. I'd have to change everything about my life, probably move in with my mom, and accept a new life that revolves around my child.
Or I could wage an all-out assault on the men of Southern California and throw a wad of cash at a matchmaker to find me a partner or else. (One phone call to such a service, after wading through the many companies essentially geared towards finding hot 20-something women for rich old men, quickly ruled this option out. When I asked how much the service cost she hesitated then said, without yet knowing anything about me, "Well, if you're like 39 and really want a baby, well, that's going to be reeeaaallly expensive." Pathetic. True.)
Or I could abandon my life here and start fresh somewhere new, probably the Bay Area.
Throughout the year, I've spent time pondering and poking around each possibility, changing my mind with every passing week, and growing more and more confused. When I did try to talk it out with someone, there was never enough time to do more than lay it all out, which I'm sure to many of the people I tried to talk to, came off as complaining.
But, see, I didn't just want to talk. I wanted to LISTEN. I wanted someone to stop and take a chunk out of their time to hear what I was saying, process it with what they know about me, and come back with their thoughts, ideas, suggestions or just ask more questions to help me probe deeper. It's a lot to ask and I don't think I even knew I was asking it -- until I got it.
The night before the birthday party I'd planned for myself, my dear friend from college came down from Orange County to stay over. With her husband and daughter at home and nothing but hours ahead of us, we talked. First about her own familial issues, then moving on to my stuff. This friend is a loving person, and a wonderful listener and her undivided attention and obvious compassion allowed me to really listen to what I was saying as I went through the same old tired list of what was confusing me. And what I heard was monumental. I heard that while I would love to have a family, I am certain of the fact that I don't want to have a child on my own. I was raised by a single mom and I know the hectic pace and cost of doing it alone, and that would make me a miserable, stressed out person and a terrible mother. One option crossed off the list.
That reduction of possibilities opened me up to another, one that I'd ruled out as a child and never allowed myself to reconsider. Adoption. I am the youngest of four children, and also the only biological child of my mother and father. I love my older siblings and consider them my "real" family, but I'd be lying if I said the fact that they are adopted (all from different families, and all as infants) played a part in the myriad difficulties they've had over the years, which subsequently made my childhood scary, unstable and maddening.
I loved adoption for everyone else in the world but me - until that night, when I finally had enough clarity to put it back on the table. Not for now, but for if and when I am financially stable enough to do it on my own. Or if I do eventually get married and am unable to bear children.
The simple act of excluding one possibility and reinstating another had miraculous results. Instantly, I felt the thousand-pound burden of the baby hysteria I'd carried for the last 15 years evaporate. I was free. And it would never have happened if my friend hadn't sat with me, listened with intent interest, and helped move me along as I worked it all out at the dining room table.
Then last week I drove to Arizona to see another very close college friend who was out from New York visiting her in-laws. I was thrilled to be able to finally meet her one-year-old son and spend time with her family. Then we'd stay up late and talk, and I'd end up letting out all my fears in a stream of emotional tears. She listened, but also challenged many of my self-defeating assumptions (a particularly well-honed skill of mine). But it wasn't until my last day there, when we were able to leave the baby, husband and in-laws behind for a one-on-one diner breakfast, that she let her brave act of love and friendship loose.
She started asking me questions about the end of my relationship with Geek Rebel, something I'd barely talked to her or anyone about. I pretty much slammed down the steel guard gates the moment he said "I came here to break up" outside my front door. I still had only quickly skimmed the lengthy email he sent the following week explaining why he did what he did so suddenly. I just couldn't bear thinking about it.
The more she asked, the more I realized I didn't have any real answers. She and I are very alike and, therefore, she's experienced many of the same conflicts with her own husband since we tend to pick similar types of men -- smart, quiet, sensitive -- to balance us out. The only difference is that she and her husband came out successfully on the other side after each taking hard looks at themselves and making real changes.
This is where the real friendship comes in. She said some things to me that were very hard to hear, and could easily have offended me. But they didn't because I knew what she was saying, as harsh as it might have sounded, was coming from a place of love and a sincere wish for my happiness. I fought her on it. She came back at me. I evaded. I pouted. She calmly continued. I listened.
Then I told her she could read the email from Geek Rebel, which I hadn't looked at in four months. As she read it at the table, my heart started pounding. I began to recall snippets from the email, not just the parts where he admitted his own wrongdoings, but the sections about what I'd done and said that essentially forced the break up. I hadn't been willing to go there before, but by the time she looked up from my iPhone I knew the time had come.
I thought about it on the five-hour drive home and over the next two days. This morning, December 31, I finally really read his email. And I responded.
Dismissed and Happy New Year.