In The Sisterhood I talked about family members – those women who are duty bound, by virtue of shared genes, to help you out in a crisis. But now in part 2 I’m going to address the more common-or-garden sisterhood figures who include (but are not exclusive to):
- The friends (old and established or recent and transient)
- The colleagues
- The peer group
- The women you don’t like much but who might get you out of a corner some day.
Don’t get me wrong, a woman isn’t automatically a member of your sisterhood because she has ovaries and there are obvious weaknesses in the model of female solidarity: There is, in the workplace for example, a curious reluctance to pass on the benefits of a hard won equality. Women who will choose not to shortlist a female candidate for a post due to the fact that she ‘will probably accept the job and then fall pregnant’ (love the idea of falling pregnant – “There I was, walking along the street and Whoops! I fell on a penis”). As a female GP I have heard colleagues debating this very subject (not the falling on penises bit although some A+E conversations have started that way) and I am always surprised when it’s the female doctors (often mothers themselves) who are the most vehement in their denouncement of these fertile perpetrators of economic crimes. I would argue the case a little more, and often do, but I can see their point. Hiring a new partner who then immediately needs nine months off used to be a royal pain in the arse but now it’s the difference between surviving as a practice or going under (I’ll spare you the GP recruitment crisis talk ). And yes, I know gender discrimination is illegal in the workplace – if it helps, in the majority of circumstances we’ve ended up recruiting the young female partner, often because they are the only types going for the job in the first place. And yes, they do usually go and pop out a baby or two but then they come back to the practice so riddled with anxiety and guilt that they work considerably harder and longer hours than they are paid for, trying to fit a full time job into ‘part-time’ hours whilst combatting the nervous exhaustion of early motherhood – so, a great result all round!
Women are not always happy to empower and enable each other and yet our rights have been hard fought for by those who owed us nothing and chose to sacrifice themselves for our futures anyway. And while nobody is ever going to be as calculatingly mean and vicious to you as another woman can be (men just can’t compete on this score – sorry chaps) the flip side is that everywhere you look there are women out there supporting each other, emotionally, practically and selflessly.
Over the recent months there have been a couple of occasions where I have witnessed this at first hand: Earlier in the year a friend had a sudden family crisis and had to spend significant periods of time visiting her sister in hospital. Within hours of a call to arms the cavalry swung into action. An emergency package of chocolates, flowers, magazines, booze and treats was delivered, family meals were cooked on a rota, childcare was arranged. Everyone did as little or as much as they could manage because this woman was our friend and we wanted to help.
A couple of years ago one of my very best chums who lives a few hours away was diagnosed with breast cancer – a similar local cavalry came to the rescue and we, her friends further afield, provided what support we could from a distance. The diagnosis meant that we all redoubled our efforts to stay in touch and to see each other more often and so the bonds are strengthened further.
Another example is a high functioning alcoholic who admitted to a group of close friends that she was no longer coping – this was clearly a secret she had kept for many years and was a very difficult thing to share but once she had there were women around to support her, pop round at possible crisis points (often when her husband was working abroad) offer advice and make life easier by deflecting attention at social gatherings when she turned down a drink.
My mum (to return to the focus of this blog despite having deviated slightly into the realms of quasi-feminist anecdotes) has a best friend, the wonderful Marge Beverage who I referred to in It’s a small world . This legend of sisterly companionship has been my mum’s best (and sometimes only) friend for almost 40 years. The friendship continued despite Marge moving house – she and my mum continued to meet up every single month without fail. When mum was first showing signs of dementia (and dad was doing his best to ignore them) Marge must have realised that something was wrong but nobody thought to alert her (I assumed dad had done it, he assumed La la la, nothing to see here). It wasn’t until I saw her at Dad’s 60th birthday party that I realised she had been worried sick. She had been watching her best friend become more and more confused and withdrawn. She had asked mum whether she was OK, whether she was depressed, whether all was well at home – and mum, I imagine, had been completely bemused by the questioning and had offered no explanation (because for her there was nothing to explain). At the end of each shopping trip Marge had been going home to her husband in tears, not knowing what to do or how to help.
And yet, at the point where other people might have given up, she ploughed on, resolutely continuing their shopping dates and providing just the sort of regular companionship that mum needed most. Again, after the diagnosis when mum’s conversation and mobility decreased Marge didn’t walk away, she didn’t reduce the frequency of their meetings. In fact she sent me a Christmas card that year saying how much she loved spending time with mum and how happy she was that they could still see so much of each other. The shared shopping experience changed of course and Marge took on the role of shopping carer. She helped mum buy presents for her grandchildren or oversize elasticated clothing for herself. Once the retail therapy proved too difficult she took mum to have a manicure in the shopping centre every month instead (to the point where dad didn’t bother getting her nails done at any other time, hence the talons described here A little tale of painting nails.).
She has gone above and beyond what could reasonably be expected of a good mate – I remember only too vividly the horror of getting mum in and out of changing room cubicles, the awkwardness of helping her find her debit card, typing in the PIN number myself whilst trying not to look like I was robbing her blind. It can’t have been a barrel of laughs but it is only in the past month that Marge has admitted defeat. She was tearful but realistic when she broke this to my dad, having correctly identified that mum was no longer getting anything out of their monthly meet-ups. In a way the ending of this ritual feels tragic having been such a significant feature of mum’s life but the positive thing to take from the story is how powerful their relationship has been. The degree to which Marge persevered is testament to the strength of their bond and I’m sure my mother loves her for it.
There are examples of sisterly solidarity occurring up and down the country – friends who support each other through addiction, bereavement, divorce and illness. There are men who do this too but one only has to look at my dad’s situation to see the limitations of many masculine friendships – he is a sociable and gregarious man with many good friends but he has no Marge Beverage in his life and the support he has comes almost exclusively from his daughters. If the situation had been reversed and mum had been caring for a husband with early onset Alzheimer’s I think a wider support network would have stepped up. It’s not easy being a bloke these days, particularly a bloke who is also a carer. Which is where I have another little recommendation The Selfish Pig’s Guide To Caring (I’ve used the Waterstones link because Amazon’s world takeover just gets me down). I have basically held my dad down at gunpoint to make him read this and he agreed in his non-comital way that it was ‘good’. That is praise indeed from a man who doesn’t read. It is more than good – It is written by a man about caring for his wife who has Huntingdon’s disease and it is FAB-U-LOUS. If you know any carers, but particularly carers who are chaps of a certain age who might not want to share their innermost thoughts on the matter and may not have anyone to share them with, then make them read it. Hugh Marriott I salute you.