Is there any experience more fraught than that of looking through a forgotten photo album with kids? You never know what you might find — or what you’ll have to explain. One rainy day, my five-year-old daughter and I found ourselves curled up on the oversized, tufted sofa with a pile of albums next to us. She looked through the pictures of her as a baby on a mat, kicking Twinkie-sized feet up towards the camera, then snapshots of her trip to Disney World, her first time flailing in a wave pool, water vest ballooning around her little body. Soon, she found an older photo of her sitting with Valerie, a woman with glasses and an arm wrapped around my toddler’s shoulders.
“Who is that?” she asked. She traced the fall of Valerie’s iron-gray locks.
And I had to explain to her that Valerie was a friend who was present for many parts of her life, but wasn’t anymore.
She was puzzled. “You mean you stopped being friends with her?”
Then I talked about how friendships end and how sometimes, the friends you thought were good for you weren’t actually the ones you needed to keep around.
“Like Jasmine?” she asked. Yes, exactly like Jasmine.
A few weeks ago, my daughter came home in a quiet mood. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that Jasmine, another little girl in her class who she’d always been close with, announced she no longer wanted to be friends. Jasmine didn’t offer a reason; she only turned away and swept half the girls in the class with her. I asked what my daughter did next.
She said, “I cried softly on the mat. I don’t know why she would break my heart.”
And, like that, Jasmine was written out of my good graces. I was fully prepared to keep her on my list of kids-who-will-not-be-named, until one day, my daughter came home talking about how she and Jasmine wanted to go on a playdate together. Nary a word about the previous mat — crying or the harsh words between them. Forgiven and forgotten.
I would have been content to leave it at that if this wasn’t a pattern I’ve seen happening in her young life. Before Jasmine, there was Sarah, a girl at preschool who lobbied criticisms about my daughter’s clothes, her handwriting, and even her food habits (“That’s not healthy,” she’d say). But now, when my daughter lays eyes on Sarah, it’s a kind of romcom, fly-through-the-air-yelling-each-other’s-name, heart-clasping reunion that leaves me confused, once again, about the state of their friendship.
But I’m no stranger to the frenemy, that strange and toxic breed of friends that can turn on a dime, using your secret revelations to stab you right in the back. Popular culture is rife with frenemies, from Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s years-long friendship breakups and makeups, down to that neighbor dad who’s always one-upping you with the holiday decorations, all while waving from across the street. Doubtless, everyone has a frenemy. Maybe some of us are the frenemy without realizing it.
In high school, my best friend was a girl named Alice, who was loyal to a fault (she was always picking fights with girls who looked at my boyfriend the wrong way), but could also say the most cutting things that made me reassess everything from my sartorial choices down to where I was applying to college. When we finally left high school, Alice disappeared from my life (and from the internet, a fact which still annoys me to no end; I’m convinced it’s her final act of goading). And though I felt some pangs of loss, I felt more pressingly the overwhelm of relief. Because ending a relationship with a frenemy is paramount to ending a relationship with the worst parts of yourself, the ones that tell you, over and over again, that you are just not good enough.
But saying goodbye is easier said than done. From my vantage point, I can see which of my daughter’s young friends might one day grow up to be frenemies. The ones who will thoughtlessly hurt her and take more than they give. I wish I could save her from this particular growing pain; it looms on the horizon as surely as a sunset. But the lesson of the frenemy can only be learned one way: by living through it. She’ll have to negotiate boundaries and discover how to measure her own self value against the valuations of others. There will be hard conversations ahead, ones she’ll likely run from until there’s no choice but to face them head-on.
What I can do is reassure her that she is seen and loved for the interesting, complex, and flawed human she is. I can hug her after she cries about a friend’s betrayal. I can brainstorm strategies for standing up for herself, widening her own circle, and shifting her perspective. But none of that is a substitute for the necessary pain of learning about the pitfalls of a frenemy first-hand. Or the sense of accomplishment one receives in asserting boundaries and moving on, with newfound resilience and wisdom.
For now, as her mother, I’ll maintain my position as her “soft spot to land.” By being one of the many friends in her life, a steadfast brick in her Wall of Love, I hope to give her an example of what a healthy friendship can be. And in return, I’m sure to learn something from her about forgiveness and fresh starts, the gift of which is always humbling.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.