2018 is The Year of the Woman, or so I’ve been told, although as a child of the ‘80s, I’ve heard this before. The last “Year of the Woman” was 1992, after Anita Hill testified before the then all-male Senate Judiciary committee about Clarence Thomas. We’re reliving that difficult history right now and it’s taking its toll on us all, but especially on women. I’m finding that in the moments when I struggle most, I turn to my female relationships. I do not take them for granted.
That’s partly because there was a time when I lost my female support system. In 1990, I did a crazy thing and moved from MN, where I’d lived most of my life, to NC, where I knew exactly one person — my boyfriend. The women I love all had an unpleasant opinion: I was nuts. I was foolish. I was throwing my life away for a boy. My aunt, who considered herself my surrogate mom, was mad at me, as were my female cousins, who are really more like sisters. My girlfriends were in various stages of denial or frustration.
I was determined to prove everyone wrong, and I ultimately did. That boyfriend became my husband, we had two amazing kids and just celebrated twenty-three years of marriage. But I paid the price for not hashing things out with my people before I left. This was pre-internet, pre-Facebook. This was back when making a long-distance call was a real expense, and I was so broke that the only piece of furniture I owned was a yard sale coffee table. I was cut off from the women I care about most.
I quickly learned how difficult it is to make friends as an adult. I worked from home, so there was no water cooler chitchat. I was out of school, so that didn’t help either. When I went out, it was with my boyfriend and his friends. Even now, twenty-eight years later, I can remember what I was like then, riding around in the car on a Friday night with a bunch of guys who later became awesome men, but at the time? There was a lot of talk about tits and hooking up with women. My boyfriend would tell them to knock it off, but that meant they started talking about farts or football. I felt isolated and alone. Nobody understood me. A chunk of me was gone — not just from my heart, but from my brain. From my soul.
It took two years to wrench myself out of that place and make friends with Fran, who had moved to town with her boyfriend. I was drawn to Fran the way a barnacle loves a ship. She’s from MN and we’re the same age and liked the same music, so we had an instant rapport. But I also learned how fully I had underestimated the therapeutic value of a trip to Target or a movie night with a girlfriend. I was recharged. Back to human. Happier. And I don’t think it’s because Fran and I hail from the same state. Those dairy-drinking roots don’t go that deep. I want to think that women are tethered by something far deeper.
Is it the centuries of playing the role of nurturer? Is it the lower status we share in a male-dominated world? Or is it simply that we have shared experiences, ones that only we understand?
I’ve thought about those questions a lot over the last two years. This has been a slog for women. I have struggled every day, trying to fight despair and trying to explain WTF is going on to my kids. The only thing that has truly sustained me has been my female relationships. When I’m on the verge of losing it, they rein me back in. They understand the way I feel on a level that my husband simply can’t. He can try, but he hasn’t had to live through what a woman does.
It was also about two years ago that I started writing a new book called Secrets of a (Somewhat) Sunny Girl. It’s about two adult sisters, Katherine and Amy, who lost their mom when they were 10 and 8. Everything that was left unresolved from that time in their lives comes bubbling back to the surface when Amy gets engaged and they start planning the wedding. To give you a sense of how sad I was at the time, I’m a full-time romance writer, and I needed this book as an escape. There’s a ridiculously sexy Irish musician in it — Katherine’s lost college love returned – and well, sometimes a girl needs a fantasy to get through the day. But as I wrote each day, I realized that it wasn’t the hot guy who was feeding my soul. Female relationships were the core, and they were drawing me in like never before. Barnacle, meet your shiny new hull.
I always make a point of writing significant female relationships, but this book gave me the freedom to do more, and I went for it, creating eleven female characters and four male. I wanted to show what all kinds of positive female relationships look like – personal and professional, loving and adversarial.
That’s right. Female relationships don’t have to be rainbows and sunshine to be good. The dynamic between an ex-wife and the possible next-wife comes with its own impossible set of rules. But can two women in that situation find a way to help each other? They can if they want to. What about a grandmother and granddaughter who have a relationship strained by years of blame and regret? Can they find a way past it before it’s too late? I’d like to think it’s worth trying. What about two sisters who think they’re impossibly close, but the universe is hell-bent on testing the limits of their love? You have one choice, forward or back. Choose wisely.
I know that in my close female relationships, we do not always agree. We argue about the best ways to get the things we want and need. But we always support. We always listen, and we try our damndest to understand. We don’t want our problems solved for us. We need to be heard.
I’m not suggesting blind ally-ship with all women. There are plenty of toxic, terrible women I’d gladly launch into next week. I do not believe in a world built on estrogen-based solidarity. Only you know who has your back and who doesn’t. But you can learn from the women who are not your sisters, literally or figuratively. Even a terrible woman can be powerful. Soak up her ways. Learn her tactics. Make a choice to steal from her playbook or toss it in the trash. Then return to the women you care about and get back to the business of supporting each other. If we don’t do it, who will? Nobody. So get to it.
If you’re looking for romance reads with female characters that have each others’ backs no matter what, I’d love to suggest the following: