How Two American Myths Stop Us From Meaningful Friendships

Fears that our houses are too messy to have people over are rooted in our obsessions with self-sufficiency and constantly comparing ourselves to other moms. Letting this go can help us build community.

How Two American Myths Stop Us From Meaningful Friendships
Photo by Kelsey Chance / Unsplash

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I’ve recently done a short crash course in Afghani culture, and came across the concept that exists in Dari, Farsi, and Urdu languages, “aamad-o-raft.” My rudimentary research reveals it to mean, “coming and going.” It’s the idea that building relationships are based around regular reciprocation, and that both parties, regardless of age or economic status, have things to give and take from a relationship. This can manifest from having each other over for dinner, checking on each other, watching each others’ kids... this “back and forth” is the true sign of friendship. A version of this idea is present in many cultures around the world, and is also very much present in many immigrant communities and communities of color in the US.

By now you likely know that one of my chief obsessions is community building, mainly because white middle-class, non-religious American culture treats it with an underlying sense of disdain and has mostly forgotten how to do it. Building meaningful communities that allow for “coming and going” in relationships requires us to challenge two big, culturally dominant American myths that are all around us.

Myth #1: Self sufficiency is the most important thing

Propped up by Horatio Alger stories and the rise of the nuclear family post-WWII, Americans have held onto the belief that every lil’ family unit should be able to totally “make it” on their own, financially, emotionally, and logistically. Friends are lightweight “nice-to-haves,” more for chit-chat and companionship than meaningful people we need to be able to count on. This myth promotes the idea that chasing career opportunities is far more valuable than being near extended family. This myth tells us we don't need to build trust with our neighbors to let them watch our kids after school, we should instead try to earn more to hire a babysitter. No matter what life throws at us, the self-sufficiency myth tells us we should be able to do it all, and NOT being able to is a sign of failure.

I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning around this topic myself. In 2019, when we learned we were having twins, that was the moment I truly realized that the only way our family was going to remotely thrive was to ask for and accept help from our community. I promised myself that I wouldn’t reject any offers of help, even when my impulse was to immediately say, “that’s so nice, but we’re fine!” This is why we were truly blessed by three months of meal train meals, boxes and boxes of hand-me-downs and countless other examples of support when our twins were born.

Part of our resistance to accepting help may be that we fear putting people out. But consider this: maybe we actually put people out by refusing support. Putting up that wall of self-sufficiency actually stunts potential relationships. A friend recently lamented that her brother and sister-in-law always respond to any gesture of support with, “We are totally fine and don’t need anything at all!” including having takeout delivered while they were quarantining. It actually bums my friend out. “I like sending people things, and showing that I care through gifts and care packages. When they won’t accept anything, it actually feels like it puts distance in our relationship.” I think a reframe is helpful. Not only is giving is a sign of friendship, but accepting is, too.

Myth #2: We must constantly compare ourselves to other mothers.

There is undoubtedly huge amounts of unrealistic social pressure on moms, and part of what keeps mothers from uniting in community (and political) solidarity is judging each others’ choices and feeling like we somehow don’t measure up. There are endless ways we do this by thinking other moms are prettier/thinner/more successful/better parents/ more organized or more patient than we are.

Earlier this month at a super well-attended members-only Double Shift virtual hangout, we discussed what actually stops us from building these reciprocal relationships, even when we really want them. A barrier to getting this “aamad-o-raft” going is worrying that our houses are too messy.  People felt hesitant to invite people over to witness the everyday reality of their dwellings, but also too exhausted and spread too thin to “clean up for company.” And thus, the “comings and goings” and the intimacy of having people over for a meal feels like too daunting of an undertaking. This is so mundane and so real. Members described conflicts with partners over how clean the house should be before hosting guests, and we also heard about upbringings where cleaning before holiday gatherings were super stressful bummers. I’m so happy to air out this “dirty laundry” because I think it reveals a near universal fear in our society that stops us from building meaningful relationships. No, regular people don’t have Instagram perfect homes or (even clean homes!) and we can’t let this impossible standard stop us from having people over.

Here’s how I’ve addressed this in my own life. I love cooking, and used to regularly host tasty dinner parties with some mildly elevated food even after our first child was born. But since having the twins I’ve let my entertaining standards sink to rock bottom, and I am better for it. Now, I feel like having people at our house (because taking the twins most places is a nightmare) is more important than vacuuming floors and impressing people with an exotic recipe. My one cleaning “check” is making sure there hasn’t been some weird kid poop accident in the guest bathroom. That’s it. Otherwise, the house is what it is. We have no qualms about serving takeout pizza, Beyond Burgers, or for the “special occasion” of New Years Eve, build-your-own nachos. No one is going to be winning a James Beard award at my house right now, and I’m OK with that, because the payoff is the richness of better relationships.

Letting people see your messy house shows vulnerability. It makes guests think, “hey, maybe I can host people also without having to work myself into a frenzy getting ready. I can reciprocate and have them over to my place now without worrying.” This is truly the in-person, community-building version of posting pictures of your stretched-marked postpartum belly. And of course, if people you invite over are turned off by this laid back ethos, maybe you don’t want to be friends with them anyway?!?

So take a risk and invite someone over for dinner this weekend, will you?

Additional Resources:

Put a seashell on it: If you need a chortling-out-loud funny video on the stresses of hospitality, please watch Chris Fleming’s “Company’s Coming.” You. are. welcome.

Read: I love Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community; a fantastic meditation on many of these themes.

For members of The Double Shift, tomorrow’s thread will be stories of taking risks in community-building. I’d love to hear about ways you’ve put yourself out there, what worked and what didn’t. If you’d like to join us for great members-only threads full of thoughtful dialog, become a member.

Recent convos on deciding on family size and workplace transformation wish lists have been great.

Upcoming Member Events

Join us Sept 27th at 12PM EST for a spicy conversation about maternal gatekeeping with fellow Double Shifter and author of Equal Partners, Kate Mangino. If you liked my interview with Kate, Debunking Myths About Why Your Relationship is Unequal, you'll LOVE this hangout in conversation with her.

This topic was suggested by Double Shifter Mary, and we'll dive into one of the most fraught elements of the equal partnership conversation, maternal gatekeeping, which is the idea that mothers keep their partners away from certain household and childcare responsibilities in order to maintain control over them, which can hinder equality in the home. We'll definitely examine why the impulse to gatekeep is so powerful (hint: it's not a personal failing) and talk about solutions. This will be a judgment-free zone to learn, reflect ask questions and share stories, facilitated by a gender expert in our community. Regardless of if you are a reformed gatekeeper, diehard one, or just curious to learn more, join us for this great discussion. Members will get a hangout invite with the zoom link.


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