What My Mom Taught Me About Friendship

My mom didn’t prioritize friendships while I was growing up. I’m determined to do things differently
A black and white photo of three young women in dresses, sitting on a bar, holding cocktails and having a great time (Photo: Getty)

My parents didn’t have a lot of friends when I was a kid. Sure, they went out—there was always evidence the morning after, of smoky jaunts to bars and dance clubs, the table overwhelmed by empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays. But as far as a circle of close pals, people who made up a network of love around our family of five, there were very few, if any, over the years.

That’s in part because my parents left their childhood and university friends behind in Pakistan when they moved our family to Canada in 1987. My two little sisters and I were their lifeline, and every spare moment they had belonged to us. Even as more family members joined us in Canada—aunts and uncles and cousins filling the gap and ensuring we were a little less isolated—my parents, especially my mother, hesitated to expand their social circle. We also moved a lot during this time, forever putting down and then tearing up new roots. The unspoken understanding was: Why bother making friends when we have each other?

Of all the lessons my mom imparted, this one was the most lacking. She has always been a feminist and an activist, someone who fought to uplift and empower women like her—racialized and marginalized women—and give them the tools and the community to stand on their own. But that sense of community seemed to disappear when it came to her own friendships. When I’ve talked to her about this over the years, my mother has sworn that she’s never missed friendship or felt lonely, but I’ve often wondered if that was true.

In Canada, my mom put herself through school at George Brown College, focusing on social work—something she was both passionate about and good at—while caring for us. She eventually worked overnight shifts and irregular hours at a women’s shelter. Her life outside work and family was limited; she had a few colleagues she was close to, but they never became true friends. They didn’t come around for long dinners, join us for family celebrations or become part of the fabric of our lives. My mom always seemed adamant that family was the enduring relationship to be cherished, nurtured and maintained.

This notion that friendships forged outside of family were less important always felt stifling to me, filling me with guilt when I wanted to explore relationships beyond the walls of our small apartment.

When I was 13, we moved from Toronto to Surrey, B.C., where we had more family. Despite our expanded circle, my mom still seemed lonely, isolated from our neighbours and the other moms at school. It put pressure on my sisters and me, as we grew older, to be stand-ins for the friends my mother never had, to fulfill the intimacy, camaraderie and closeness that friendships—especially female friendships—provide.


Without a model for how to build and maintain friendships, I struggled to connect with other girls at school. I felt awkward, unequipped and lost. I wasn’t sure how to create the bonds that I so deeply desired, ones I’d enviously seen in the coming of age movies and books about strong young women that I devoured.

Even as I tentatively carved out my own friendships, going for long, aimless drives with pals from school or wandering around our crappy mall with $5 between us, I always wondered: Was I doing this right? Was something in me broken, unable to nurture the seeds of friendship in the right way?

I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, over and over, determined to have this thing that was always missing from my mother’s life. It was uncomfortable at times. I had to learn to forgive slights and overcome anxiety by trusting in these relationships and trusting my friends to do the same for me. I was committed to making friends but, more importantly, I was committed to keeping them.

As I was building my own friendships, which as a teenager are necessarily intense and passionate, I often felt guilty for making social plans at the expense of family time. I still get pangs of resentment and anger when I think about a night out that was cut short when my mom called me repeatedly to pressure me into coming home for a family dinner I could have easily skipped. Her need for companionship was a heavy burden that my sisters and I shouldn’t have had to carry.

The friendships I made in high school buoyed me through college and young adulthood. My friends and I moved to Vancouver together, staying out late and then meeting up early to break down our exploits from the night before. We made new friends together, expanding our circle into something wonderful and sprawling. Some of us have since lost touch, but one of my oldest friends from high school gave a speech at my wedding, and has held each of my babies in her arms shortly after they were born.


Now that I have my own kids, I want to show them why building a community of people outside of your family is so necessary and affirming. I make a point to have my friends over often—including on holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas—so that these traditions encompass all the different ways that the notion of “family” is shaped, a mix of chosen family and the family you’re born with. I want to share the intimacy of our home life with our friends, to have my kids see other trusted, loving adults around and to witness what it takes to keep friendships alive and thriving.

They’ve seen our family support and be supported by friends through births and deaths and everything in between. I want them to know how crucial it is to put work into maintaining your friendships and to see up close why those friendships matter: to see the joy they bring, but also the comfort, the love and the care.

I also want to make sure my son and daughter have lots of friends of their own. Our door and our snack cupboard are open to all. There are always other kids in our house, from neighbours to pals from school to my friends’ children. My son especially loves to count how many friends he has, and nurtures his friendships with the same amount of enthusiasm.

It isn’t always easy, especially during the pandemic. I’ve fallen into learned habits, retreating into myself and feeling the urge to cut off anyone outside the family unit. It’s a tendency I’ve fought to overcome, something I have to push away, reaching out for my friends with intention. When I do, it only affirms the value of the bonds I’ve worked so hard to build. Even a brief text, an “I miss you” after weeks of not talking, brings an immediate feeling of support and togetherness.

My mom has finally come around on this herself. I had my daughter in the spring of 2020 at the height of the first pandemic lockdown. I felt isolated and heartbroken about not having my community around me in the same way that I had when my son was born three years earlier. To my delight, two friends organized a meal train for my family. Friends from all over the city dropped off food and treats at our door, showing up in the most caring, wonderful way, despite the fear and the circumstances. My mom was so touched and overcome by the deep love present in this act, remarking on what friends can mean after a lifetime of caring for them. If I teach my kids anything, I hope it’s this.


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