Having endured years of cruel treatment at an all-girls school, Celia Walden grew up preferring the company of men. Then came a mid life epiphany…
‘The new girl’s starting on Monday,’ my male colleague whispered. ‘She’s tall and blonde and…’ gleeful pause. ‘You’re going to hate each other.’
Twenty years on, I’m still as fascinated by this statement as I was in the moment. Maybe because the assumption that women are all born rivals is still being made everyday–largely by men for whom that rivalry somehow remains endlessly titillating. Must be all that naked mud-wrestling we do. Or maybe because, after years of buying into that myth, if everyone’s expecting me to hate the tall blonde girl she must be a ‘threat’ toe very thing that I am.
After decades of being a dedicated ‘man’s woman’, however, I now finally believe in the idea of a sisterhood. Because at 45, I’m something I never thought I’d be: a girl’s girl. As tempting as it is to blame men for every mistaken belief and absurd insecurity we’ve held on to into adulthood, I can’t put those early years on them. No, my mistrust of women stemmed from my single-sex school days. The whispers in the corridors, designed to be overheard: ‘What does she think she’s wearing?’ ‘Who does she think she is?’ That history lesson when I resolutely ignored the sniggers behind me, only to find out later that the Regina George character from my own private Mean Girls biopic had spent 40 minutes splattering the back of my shirt with ink. Then there was the rumour another girl decided to spread in my mid-teens, involving me, three boys from the local boys’ school,- and what apparently happened after a party at one of their homes. The rumour I only found out about when it reached one of my closest friends, and I felt completely powerless against, knowing some lies can never be disproved.
Bitchiness is a killer. And because I grew up with two brothers who were so straightforward in comparison and wore their hearts and hatreds on their sleeves, it seemed easier to keep women at a distance. Aside from the handful of cherished female friends I kept close over the years, I limited my interactions with them, avoiding cliques, women-only clubs and the kind of teenage girls’ nights where you were scared to leave the room, conscious of the snide comments that tended to be made about others in their absence.
Despite the more positive experiences I started to have once I’d left the catty confines of the girls’ school – a female boss who championed me and supportive female colleagues – the mistrust continued in to my 20s, cemented by odd occasions when I felt so baffled by female behaviour that I would go to bed angry. The night a fellow female journalist crossed the room at a party to compliment my dress, hair and writing–the whole ‘sisterly’ charade – not knowing that I’d been forwarded a disparaging email she’d written about me days earlier. What’s that about? Why bother? Were we all destined to be stuck in a Clueless-style arrested development well into middle age? To quote the film: ‘Oh, she’s a full-on Monet. From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big ol’ mess.’ Given that women share the same obstacles in the workplace and beyond, and that certain men count on that kind of petty bitchery to keep us in our place, that behaviour feels like an own goal of the most depressing kind.
I made a lot more male friends than female over the next decade, enjoying their banter and lack of agenda to such a degree that when it came to my hen night, I decided to throw a ‘men’s night’ instead. OK, so I wasn’t going to be able to match these guys shot for shot, but at least I wouldn’t be forced to don a Bride to Be tiara and sash and gorge on willy-shaped cupcakes.
Then I became pregnant – and something weird happened. And I mean weird on a ‘chest-bursting scene from Alien’ level. Because, as any mum-to-be will tell you, Ridley Scott couldn’t make up some of the stuff that happens to your body when you become a swollen gestational vehicle. Test audiences would decry it as ‘too far-fetched’. And to compound that weirdness, I found myself surrounded by a breed of woman I’d never come across before: tough career women whose faces would melt at the sight of my bump, their eyes glazing over with emotion as they volunteered all sorts of intimacies about their own pregnancies; A-list interviewees who would take down my email in order to send over links to the best stretch-mark creams and parenting books–and then actually do that.
Suddenly, the woman in front of me in the Costa queue wasn’t just letting me go first but insisting Gin Gins ginger chews were ‘the answer to morning sickness’. The Barclays bank cashier was telling me about the feta cheese cravings she’d had with her second baby. Random women everywhere were reaching out to stroke me. Now, I understand why some women might find all that intrusive, but I loved every second. I needed that epiphany to understand our basic commonality – that women are all intrinsically linked to one another.
Only when I had my daughter did I realise what that deep bond was based on: empathy. The ability to put ourselves in another woman’s mind and body, to rejoice and grieve for her – that’s our superpower. I had the revelation in the cereal aisle of Waitrose (always the way) as I watched a mother wrestle with a toddler in the full floor-flailing throws of a nuclear meltdown. Taking in her frazzled face, the white knuckles gripping her trolley, and the brief moment in which she closed her eyes to block out the agony, I knew exactly what this woman was thinking: I can’t do this. And I would have given, done, said anything to help her. So I did what we all do and tried to distract the toddler out of his fit, pulling faces and waving my hands around like a lunatic. But in the end, all I could offer the toddler’s poor mother was a smile. We’ve all been there. Because those silent messages of sisterly support had meant everything to me.
If motherhood hadn’t broken down the barriers and allowed me to make a whole new set of friends that have enriched my late 30s, and now my 40s, in a way I could never have imagined, the ageing process would have. I wasted a lot of time putting on a front for other women, trying to hide my flaws. But getting older exposes all of that as a pointless sham. It both reduces us and elevates us to more than the sum of our parts. And now that I’ve failed and been caught lacking professionally, parentally and physically; now that my jawline has slackened and my laughter lines are more entrenched, I no longer feel I need to pretend to be perfect in the way that I once did.
Many more experiences are going to reinforce those female ties over the decades to come–not all of them joyful. They might be infuriating, sad or traumatic experiences at the hands of men, like the ones I describe in my thriller Payday, in which three very different women who have been humiliated and belittled by the same man forge the darkest of bonds. Or they might be complex and painful experiences of a more prosaic kind: the menopause and the debilitating women’s afflictions and diseases thrown at us by that least sisterly entity of all, Mother Nature. But knowing we’ll share them is a comfort. And as much as we love to hate social media for its trolls, its ‘fakeness’ and its ‘glossiness’, I see and feel so much genuine female warmth on those platforms every day.
As for all the new friendships there for the making, well, that’s as exciting to me in middle age as the idea of falling in love once was. Remember the feeling we had in our teens and 20s, when every social gathering was an opportunity to find ‘that special someone?’ I have that now. All the time. Only the special someone’s a woman I haven’t met yet. One who might just enhance my life briefly – or last the distance. Because that tall blonde girl I was supposed to hate? She’s been my best friend for the past 20 years.
Celia’s novel Payday is published by Little, Brown, price £12.99. To order a copy for £11 until 10 October, go to Mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free delivery on orders over £20.