I Saw My Friends Growing Up Without Me. Here’s What I Did About It

Your mid-20s are a weird time. Half the people you know are putting down mortgages and popping out kids, and the other half are squatting on photographers’ futons in squalid Berlin studios. One thing they have in common? It sure feels like they’re growing up without you.

Like many people living interstate or overseas, I returned to my hometown last Christmas. My friends and I had stayed in touch since I moved, of course, and we still feel as close as ever – so I thought I knew what to expect.

Not quite.

The five girls I’d shared every school lunch break, awkward teenage party, first beers and first jobs with had suddenly over a period of two years transformed into elegant, home-owning, child-raising, thesis-writing, nut-milk-smoothie-making young women – a far cry from the kind-of-geeky, mostly single, sharehouse-occupying 24-year-old student pals I’d left behind.

And it sucked. Because though I may have left the country, I was the one really left behind.

If I had that Christmas again, here’s how I would have reacted.

#1 Meet them where they are, not where you think they should be

The last time I saw one of my friends, she was pregnant, crabby, bloated and craving chocolate. (Not too much different from how she was all through high school, to be honest – she’d just added a baby to the equation.)

I knew she’d had the baby, but I didn’t think to ask her anything beyond, “So it really hurt, right?”, or really do anything different from what we’d usually do when we would hang out.

She was the one who gently vetoed our café date plan, reminding us she’d need to be at home for her daughter’s nap. Listening to her fret about a friend who’d posted a photo of the girl on social media without permission had me suddenly recalling my own plans for a soppy, public Facebook post.

Watching her with the baby made me realise that even if she’s still the same person, she’s got wildly different priorities now from when we were uni students, and I’m not being a great friend by expecting her to stay the same.

I needed to meet her there – both to be a supportive friend, and to make the whole thing feel less foreign and unfamiliar for myself.

#2 Anticipate jealousy

It’s been four years since we finished uni, and I still have exactly zero idea about what I want to do for my job. Work decisions feel terrifying and huge, because I don’t know what I’m moving towards, and I’m immediately and fiercely jealous of anyone who seems to have it sorted.

When I left home, most of my close friends were muddling through the final few semesters of generic degrees and seemed to feel the same way. But this time, suddenly, the friend who had been languishing through a science degree was ripping through her PhD. The mate who chose a uni course at random is in her sixth year of working as an occupational therapist and loves it.

And I was beside myself with jealousy. But I should have realised the progress they’d have made in the time since I’d seen them.

Anticipating my inevitable jealousy and recognising my own sore spots would have made me much more attentive, supportive friend, and taken the sting out of feeling left behind work-wise.

#3 Say it aloud

Maybe not right when you’re meeting a six-month-old for the first time (lest you get confused), but if your friends are as close and supportive as mine, they’ll totally get your fears. They’ll also deploy whatever comfort or validation your big baby mind needs to feel better about being left out.

#4 Mark your own milestones

I live on a sunny, tropical island, and have a fair idea of how my life looks from the outside. But inside, I feel like a hapless adolescent playing holiday while I try and tackle the big decisions my friends are happily coasting through.

Right now, I want the flexibility and freedom of living in someone else’s place, even if we can’t get rid of our kitchen cockroaches

So next time, I’ll use the time on my flight home to reflect on my year, reassess my goals, and acknowledge my successes – especially when they look different from my friends’.

Sure, I don’t have a house deposit, a draft manuscript, a baby, or even a consistent exercise routine, but last year I successfully conquered my fear of living overseas, made a hard decision about leaving a job I loathed, and challenged social anxiety by meeting new people. I’m proud of that, and remembering it would have cushioned the sting of jealousy I felt with my friends.

#5 Check your perspective

Halfway through a conversation about kitchen tiles with my occupational therapist friend, I suddenly panicked about the derelict state of my own, rented kitchen. Perhaps I also want to buy a house and plan a wedding, like she is?

But I don’t actually want nice tiles (not right now anyway). Right now, I want the flexibility and freedom of living in someone else’s place, even if we can’t get rid of our kitchen cockroaches. Being presented with an engagement ring would leave me terrified, not overjoyed. Even before I hear my friend’s birth story I thought children weren’t in my future, and finishing a PhD seems the only thing more painful than giving birth.

Thinking of this identified and dissolved my envy: suddenly, I had permission from myself to feel completely happy with my own life and feel proud of my friends for following their own paths. And I hope others left behind can feel this way, too.

Sophie Raynor is a writer and list-maker from Perth living in tropical Timor-Leste. She loves ethical development communications and taking about sweating, and tweets at @raynorsophie.