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My best friend is now my mom’s best friend

My best friend is now my mom’s best friend
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Cary’s classic column from

What is she doing at my parents’ house when I’m not there?


Dear Cary,

I’ve known my best friend for 22 years, since we were 10. We grew up right across the street from each other. It has been one of those great friendships that weather the seasons in people’s lives when you can’t keep in touch very well: We can always hook right back up as if no time has gone by. She has always been considered a member of the family, and my parents often refer to her as their adopted daughter.

This sounds pretty good, yes? Well, I’ve slowly come to discover that having your best friend unofficially adopted by your parents is a drag.

I think the first incident that ruffled my feathers was when we were in college. We were both going to go on a camping trip with my folks, but her finals were over before mine, so she decided to go ahead and meet up with my folks where they were picking up their new R.V. There are all of these pictures of her “in my place” with my parents and their new R.V. I didn’t say anything about this, though, because I thought it was petty to be a little hurt, and what good would speaking up do anyway?

The next incident revolved around my wedding. As often happens around big events such as weddings, many of our family members lost their minds, so we moved the wedding offshore and the only guests were my best friend and four supportive family members. Not surprisingly, when we returned home I was not on speaking terms with my folks (as they were not among the four). However, my BF continued a relationship with them, stating that she wasn’t the one who was mad at them and that they were also her friends.

I have long since made up with all familial relations and have had a more or less good relationship with the BF I was frustrated that her version of making time for me was to swing by my house for 15 minutes on her way home from work, but on the other hand she was there when my sister “came out” when she was a teenager and all hell broke loose and she came to live with us. And my BF was there the whole 12 hours I was in labor with my second son.

Before I get to the weird BF/mom triangle, I need to add one more angle to the back story: My BF is more like my folks than I will ever be. She is financially conservative and a saver. I buy $50 shoes for no good reason. She finished her undergrad degree in three years and then got a master’s. I took five years to get my B.S. and don’t have a job remotely related to my degree. Her house is always spotless. My house looks like you would expect if two adults, two toddlers, three cats and a dog all lived in 1,400 square feet. She always writes thank-you notes. I haven’t written one for anything received by either of my kids. In other words, she is just like my totally “perfect” parents, and I’m so not.

So, to the Mom + BF = BFF part: My BF was married a year ago July. My mom really stepped up and into the MOTB role on the wedding day because my BF’s mom was too busy getting sloshed. This seemed to create a bond between them. When my BF moved across the state (to be closer to her folks, ironically) she and my mom kept in touch. They e-mail back and forth every couple of weeks, and my BF and her hubby (whom my mom adores, natch) occasionally stay a day or two with my folks when they are on their way out of state — without even calling me to let me know they will be in town. When something significant happens with my BF (like a new job or something bad like an illness) she calls or e-mails my mom. I hear about it secondhand.

I approached my mom about this, and she said that I was being silly and that it is my own fault for not “keeping the conversation going” with my BF like she does. Did I mention that in addition to two toddlers I have two jobs and my husband is in school? Just taking the time to write you is a major luxury.

I can’t seem to get any advice on this because it is the weirdest thing any of my other friends or family have ever heard of. I can’t make the two stop being friends, and at this point I’m uncontrollably jealous at how my folks seem to respect her so much and how they seem to wish that I were more like her. It isn’t her fault that my folks dump this baggage on me, but does she have to condone it by being BFF with my mom? Honestly, I feel like “breaking up” with her. Then again, you can’t just find another 20-year friend on Craigslist.

Third Wheel

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Third Wheel,

This is about patterns. It’s about the patterns of what you want. It’s about the pattern formed by what you have always wanted and what you will never get and what you will always crave and strive for until you recognize what you are doing. It is about how you will never get what you have always wanted but other people will. Other people will get what you have always wanted, and they hardly even want it at all; they don’t even notice when they’re getting it; they don’t see how desperately you want it and need it. But you do. Or do you? Do you know how desperately you need your parents’ exclusive love? Do you know how desperately you needed them to be there for you when you were a little kid? Do you know how angry you still are at them for not giving you what you needed? Do you know how angry you have to be to exclude your parents from your own wedding, to move it offshore to exclude them? Do you know that you cannot patch this up just on the surface? You have to admit to yourself how hurt you are. This maddening jealousy is about how hurt you are, still, about your friend’s sitting in your seat in the R.V.

It’s about your best friend taking your place. And yet it’s not about that at all. That is, it’s not about who fills the void, it’s about the void itself. There is a void there where you are supposed to be in your parents’ esteem and affection and love and support. There’s an empty seat in the R.V. It’s about the empty seat itself. It’s not about who finally comes along to sit in it. Anyone could sit in it and you would feel the same. You would feel, “That’s my seat!”

This is not about the friendship between your friend and your mom, although that is a subject that could be taken up on its own. If your friend wrote to me about this, I would ask her about her own mother’s alcoholism. There is a story there too. But that is not your story. Your story is about your own unhappiness. If you were not unhappy, what would it matter that your best friend is also close to your parents? That would be a lovely thing, would it not? Would it not, in the most perfect of worlds, be just a warm and loving extension of human friendship to family, a beautiful melding of the familial and the personal? But no, you want something from her that you did not get from your parents, and now instead of giving it to you she’s giving it to them, so it is deeply painful to witness their closeness. You are in competition. You are competing with her for your parents’ love and moreover now you are competing with your parents for her love! You are the odd one out in the triangle. It shouldn’t be that way. If you’d gotten the love you needed originally it wouldn’t be that way.

But you never got what you needed, so it will always be this way. It’s always going to be this way for you until you face this awful, wrenching childhood thing: You are a little empty and will always be a little empty.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t get what you needed when you needed it. So face it and cry it out and scream about it and beat your fists against the wall and then toughen up and be who you are. You are messy and unorganized and impulsive. So fucking what? Who cares? You have the right to be who you are. You don’t have to be like your mom. And being like your mom would never get you what you wanted anyway. Because it’s too late now. You’re not going to get it. That chance is gone. Your chance to get that wonderful, enveloping, loving feeling of being completely the center of some strong, loving mother’s attention, to be the stable center of your parents’ stable lives, to live in the center of their undivided attention just long enough to be given the inner confidence and peace and stability that you see all around you but are not able to attain — that chance is gone. You’re not going to get that. You are who you are now. You have hurts. You have hungers. You need attention and warmth. This need you have is like the need for food. You need it every day.

I’m guessing that this crops up in other areas — in your marriage, with your kids. So here is what you can do. You can recognize that this gnawing hunger is the work of generations. Families send not just their genes but their hungers through the generations. This happens sometimes because of economic and social conditions, illness and poverty, overwork, racism, alcoholism, wars, scarlet fever, malaria, exodus and displacement, survival responses that are appropriate under dire circumstances but otherwise neurotic; it happens because of trauma and abuse, too many children to feed, violence, fear, infant mortality, crippling depression, the myriad devils of the human. And it gets transmitted silently through looks and blows for centuries, through tales and attitudes, through habit and practice, through sheer ineluctable personality.

So when you contemplate this hunger you must see that this hunger is the hunger of generation after generation. You may also recognize that this hunger is in part a spiritual hunger. That is, though it may be rooted in material circumstances, it will not be cured by material circumstances. You just have a need that can’t be filled. You are suffering, that’s all.

So here is what you do: You take your revenge by giving your children what your mother did not give you. You get some therapy and you strengthen yourself. You say to yourself, I am going to get stronger within myself. I am going to identify those hungers that I live with day to day and find ways to fill them day to day. You parent yourself. You give yourself the things you need that others did not and will not give you. You say to yourself, I recognize that every day I wake up and I need more. I will never get enough. I need to be fed every day. That’s just the way it is.

And you recognize that if you do not find a way to take care of yourself in this way, you cannot be of use to others. You do not do this for selfish reasons. You do this for your children.

It is possible that this is not true about you. If it is not true about you, that’s OK. It will be true about someone. That is the way this works. I am speaking from my heart. It is true about me. And it is true about many people I know. So if this is not true about you, it is true about somebody, somebody who is overhearing this and thinking, yes, he is like me, I recognize this hunger.

And if this is not true about you, then surely something like this is true about you. There is something true about your suffering and you must find what it is. You must find the pattern that is true about you, the pattern of your being, the things that you crave and cannot get. That is the pattern that will drive you to keep doing things that make you unhappy. That pattern is what you need to confront. It is your strength if you face it. It is your weakness if you run from it. It is your footprint, your mark, your signature. It is what you are and cannot escape. It is the only thing that matters.

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3 Comments

  1. Cary, answers like these are the reason I hope you continue to write this column for many, many years. You really hit the nail on the head, with such an insightful, compassionate answer.

    I hope your words helped this LW.

  2. Yes, so true.

  3. What a wise, beautiful answer. Thanks for the elegant, thoughtful suggestions for dealing with those voids, Cary. I can’t imagine anyone reading that and not feeling some pang of recognition. LW, I hope it helped you.

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