The Math of Friendship

Math has always been my hardest subject. I still count on my fingers and only know my times table by rote. If my life depended on solving a quadratic equation, I would be absent in the body and present with the Lord. But no math vexes me quite like the math of friendship with my married friends. If I contribute X amount to the friendship, I should get it back in equal measure. I give 100, I get 100. But in reality, it feels more like I give 100 and I get 63 back. For the single woman, friendship with married women can feel like a poor return on investment.

In my mind, I initiate contact at a ratio of three to one. I show up with at least twice as much enthusiasm, and deftly rearrange my time to help them out at home or simply spend time with them. Sinner though I am, self-reports of my generosity are likely exaggerated, but knowing that doesn’t stop me from doing the math. When I’m the one in need, I look for help from them and find it … less. Where I think I respond quickly, they seem to me to respond slowly. Where I don’t hesitate to show up, I sense their exhaustion—which in low moments I translate as reluctance. It can feel like the formula works only in their favor, rarely in mine.

My friends have good reasons for reallocating their investment in friendship. They don’t care about me less or love me less, but their emotional reserves are more readily depleted and immediately filled by their spouse and their children (if they have children). Single and childless, I feel loneliness more deeply, but I also have a surplus of relational energy because I don’t have to first spend it on those in my household.

I spent a long time feeling crushed under the inequality. I was hurt and took my anger out on my friends, nearly losing friendships in the process. I railed against the Church’s idolatry of family and the God who both took my friends from me and then didn’t seem to fill up what was lacking in their absence.

Yet the further up and further in I trek with the Lord, the more I’m reminded how much he loves me more than I’m able to love him. And he still calls me friend—a wonder! If the Christian life is about becoming more like Jesus, is it possible that part of that is learning to love my friends consistently even when they’re not able to show their love for me in equal measure? Not because they don’t want to or because our friendship is toxic, but because that’s the New Math. We’re both giving what we can, but it won’t look like it did before they got married.

I remind myself often that though I may not be married and though close friendship feels scarce at times, I still have a family among God’s people. I’m still working out what this actually looks like. I think of people around my age as spiritual siblings, and I hold an abstract idea of spiritual mothering. Maybe when I’m older, I think. Old enough to be a college-aged woman’s mom. Then I can really get into this mentoring thing.

Like a good church sister, I click the heart on my friends’ Instagram posts of their kids, of their tender reflections on being a mom, of caring for these little ones entrusted to their care. I think about how these sweet children will never quite know the fullness of their parents’—my friends’—love for them. They won’t know the friendships Mom let run a little empty, the dreams she set aside or reordered, or the absolute pouring out she does on their behalf. How can children know? How can they ever return that extravagant love?

Watching my friends invest in their kids teaches me what it means to love my friends without reservations. They delight in who their children are, not what their children can do for them. They cheer their kids on and are gentle with them—even firm in love when needed. They whisper words of comfort, and serve even when they’re weary themselves.

While my friends are being shaped by motherhood and learning just how deeply they are able to love their children, am I not learning the same through their journey—how to love her when she simply doesn’t have the means to reciprocate? Maybe this is what it’s like to be a spiritual mother to my friends, even if they’re my age or older. Perhaps I learn the art of spiritual mothering, not only by mentoring younger women, but by dropping out of Friendship Math 101 and pouring myself out for my friends without keeping score.

Lucy Crabtree
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