Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, is itself a triumph. Thanks to journalist Kayleen Schaefer’s unstinting insistence that female friendships can be the most significant relationships in women’s lives, women can unapologetically declare their love for their female friends.
People who become passionate about a topic can often trace their passions back to their childhood. Not so for Schaefer. Early on, she saw her female friends as competitors “for boys or grades or who looked the prettiest in group pictures.” In college, she joined a sorority not for the friendship but for her career; she had heard that sororities were good for professional networking after graduation. At work, she wanted to be the “Cool Girl” who fits in with the men as one of the guys. When she was in her early thirties, she even had a boyfriend who proposed.
She said no. “I looked around, and instead of being unsure, I was inspired. Surrounding me were a bunch of women who were doing exactly what I wanted to do: striving to do good work, setting themselves apart, and aligning themselves with other amazing people. They were also really fun. I wanted to spend whatever time I could with them.”
In Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, I opened one of the chapters by describing a series on relationships that was published by the Chicago Tribune:
“The relationship partners who were interviewed described how they met, what they valued about each other, and what sealed the relationship. They said the predictable things: “We fell in love.” “We are planning a future together.” “We use the exact same expressions, sighs, and body language without realizing it, often at the same time.” Many experts were consulted. Some of their observations were predictable, too. “They [the partners] are memory banks for each other,” one of them said. Not all parts of the series were about relationships that lasted. Break-ups were described, too. Several people told the reporter that they continued to dream about their partner for years after they split.”
That description sounds like the typical characterization of romantic relationships. In fact, though, the series was about friendships. Text Me When You Get Home is the book-length version of those sentiments.
“We’re not going to let the kinds of relationships we want to have be undermined any longer,” Schaefer declared in what could be an opening salvo to a female friendship manifesto. “We won’t accept that we’re mean girls or that our friends should be also-rans compared to our romantic partners or children or anyone else tied to us with an official title,” she continued. “It isn’t true. Our friendships — the ones we’re living every day — can stand on their own. They are supportive, enthralling, entirely wonderful, and, often, all we need.”
To make her case, Schaefer tells readers about her own most cherished friendship, and shares some of the best stories from more than one-hundred women she interviewed about their female friendships. She consults with scholars and other experts. She also offers brilliant discussions of female friendships in popular culture. She takes readers on a tour of the place of female friends over time in movies, TV, and books, pointing to changing portrayals of these friends as mean girls, one-note wonders, helpmates for boyfriend-shopping who disappear once the man is snagged, and, finally, as fully-realized, complex, and loving partners who can be women’s true soulmates.
Schaefer has a novelist’s eye for the revealing detail. For example, in describing the episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show celebrating Oprah’s fortieth birthday, she said this about Oprah’s response to her best friend, Gayle King: “…singers Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin, as well as her fiancé Stedman Graham, came out to surprise her, but she didn’t start crying until Gayle appeared.”
Scholars and activists have discussed ways in which laws could be created or rewritten to fully recognize the significance of friends in contemporary life. Schaefer does not get into any of that, but by telling her stories and other people’s, she lets her readers know how they can stand up for their own friendships. They can, for example, list friends as emergency contacts and as beneficiaries. They can ask other people about their friends, and not just about their romantic partners or kids. They can create rituals that recognize the special significance of friendships. They can show that they appreciate that the loss of a friend can be just as devastating as the loss of a spouse or family member.
I have several shelves packed with books on friendship. The books include anthologies, memoirs, novels, academic books by psychologists, political scientists, philosophers, linguists, and sociologists, as well as some breezy offerings. If I had been asked about my ideal book about female friendship before reading Text Me When You Get Home, I would have described something different. For example, I would have wanted a book that was more deeply informed by the social science research on the topic. I would have wanted more attention paid to the place of friendship in the lives of people who are single. (There is some.) I would have liked some recognition that savoring time with friends is not inconsistent with savoring solitude.
And yet, of all the books I’ve read on the topic, I think Text Me When You Get Home may well be my favorite. It is a quick, delightful, and insightful read. Get a copy for yourself. Then buy more copies for your closest friends. That can be a particularly meaningful way of conveying what the theme song of the Golden Girls taught us to say, “Thank you for being a friend.”
Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship
Dutton, February 2018
Hardcover, 275 pages