I’ve never been much of a big group person. I’m better one-on-one, face-to-face, mano-a-mano (which translates to hand-to-hand, so that might not be relevant). However, there’s a trendy phrase floating around encouraging women to “Find Your Tribe.” It’s often seen in memes with five to ten 20-something women looking cool and confident in their peasant skirts and form-fitting tank tops dancing around a campfire. My first thought when I see them is that that doesn’t seem very safe; those breezy skirts would go up in a flash if a stray ember were to land on that gauzy fabric. Granted, maybe I’m just jealous that those girls can pull off a cute, artsy look in billowy skirts, whereas I’d resemble an actual peasant preparing to stomp grapes out in the vineyard. My second thought in response to their fireside traipsing is whether or not alcohol is involved. Even though they’re all consenting adults and it looks like no one’s going to be driving anytime soon because they are clearly out in the middle of nowhere, I just wonder if my friends and I would be as inclined to hold hands and parade around an open flame if we were completely sober. I think not.
Anyway, as a mostly non-group person, the idea of a tribe has never been that appealing to me. I think it’s the word itself that hangs me up. When I hear tribe I picture old westerns and stereotypical Native American camps filled with teepees in which entire families lived under one roof (of sorts) in one central area. And just outside one family’s teepee were 20 other teepees with 20 other families that shared the same daily living space. It was wall-to-wall (buffalo hide-to-buffalo hide) people 24/7. That, quite simply, sums up my worst nightmare. Where would I go for my me time? Where would I read in peace? Where would I eat ice cream from the carton? Where would I hide and recharge?
So you can see why I scroll right by those “Find Your Tribe” memes. But I do get it. They’re suggesting that we find people with whom we mesh, then make a conscious effort to spend time with them, and of course I’m on board with that.
When we were little, our tribe probably consisted of neighbor kids and school friends. We saw them every day, so it’s not surprising that we teamed up with them—they were the ones we had the most access to. When we got older and had our own kids, our tribe very likely became other moms who were going through the same joys and trials of having kids in first grade then fifth grade then high school. It was nice to have that common ground and a sounding board to see if their little Timmy was driving them crazy the way our little Johnny was driving us crazy.
“He only wants to eat macaroni and cheese.”
“Mine only wants chicken nuggets.”
“And he puts ketchup on everything.”
“Tell me about it.”
We loved the affirmation that it wasn’t just us. There’s comfort in knowing that we’re not in this alone.
When my son was 16, he went through a particularly quiet phase. Any questions posed to him were generally met with a one-word response or maybe a head nod or were ignored all together, not so much out of rudeness but it’s just what he as a teenage boy needed to do.
It was during that time period that we had this actual conversation:
Me: How was your day?
Me: Do you have homework?
Me: In what?
Him: Why do you have to ask so many questions?
Me: You don’t tell me anything–I HAVE to ask questions.
Him: You probably know more about what’s going on with me than I know about what’s going on with you.
Me: Oh! Well, what do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything!
Him: But I don’t care.
I laughed…out loud…for a long, long time.
He had no idea why.
But it still cracks me up.
I was so excited. I thought we were going to have a real heart-to-heart conversation at last! But it was the ol’ bait and switch, and I didn’t see it coming at all.
When I shared the story with friends who also had teenagers, they laughed equally loud.
They totally got it. It’s a good idea to keep a few parents of teenagers close by for that kind of reassurance. I’ve noticed, though, that my “tribe” has changed a lot over the past few years. I don’t see very many of the moms from my son’s earlier school years. We’re not picking up kids from school and sitting together at basketball games and hosting birthday parties and running into each other on an almost daily basis anymore. Routine was the glue of our friendship, apparently, not so much our personalities. The same goes for certain work friends, women whom I saw and chatted with and enjoyed every day for years, who have moved on to new jobs and new routines, and we haven’t really kept in touch.
A tribe, then, must be based on more than convenience and common interests. The fact that we both live in the same neighborhood or both have teenagers or both work in the building on the corner of 24th and Main doesn’t necessarily make us tribe worthy. A true tribe, the kind we start to recognize and really appreciate as we enter into new decades, becomes more about people who get each other. For me, that means people who know that I’m going to say what I think when I’m asked for my opinion—and sometimes even when I’m not. It also means people who not only get my silly quirkiness but bring a healthy dose of their own to the table.
What I’ve also realized recently is that the tribe forming in and around me is made up of people willing to wait it out. For some reason, despite sometimes very little encouragement from me, these folks have stuck around. They were willing to take what I had to offer, even when it was only crumbs, and accept it as enough. They didn’t push. They didn’t ask for more because they had a hunch that I didn’t have more to give at the moment…but somehow they also had a hunch that the day was coming when I would. They knew it before I did. Because they’re my tribe. And members of a tribe get each other. They help us see what we can’t see. They help us practice what we need to practice, like taking care of ourselves and laughing out loud and loving one another. They say, “Yes!” when we really need a “Yes!” They say, “Absolutely!” when we ask, “Do you want to?” And they say nothing when words can’t say what needs to be said. I still remember dropping my head in Katie’s lap and sobbing uncontrollably one day, pouring out bottled up tears and grief on her jeans. And she just let me, providing silent, steady comfort until I’d emptied out.
I don’t know how we find our tribe, but one day hopefully we look around and realize it’s there. We may or may not be wearing billowy skirts. We may or may not really seem to have much in common. We may or may not even see each other all that often. Nevertheless, we are a tribe and it’s a blessing to know that we get each other.
This is an excerpt from Women of a Certain Age (Spring 2021).