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Lithium Author Kayleen Schaefer writes her friendships like love stories

Jan. 10, 2022
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I keep a box of love letters I’ve written and never sent on a shelf in my bedroom. The oldest ones date back to middle school, dedicated to crushes. The most recent are about my best friends, with titles like “Dancing to Paramore at 1 PM with Gaby” and “Breakfast with Rachael: Most Important Meal of the Day.” 

I spent my formative years nurturing my romantic life, searching for stability and consistency. Only last March, when the chaos of daily life fell away, did I realize that my most fulfilling and consistent relationships have always been friendships. But without the distractions that kept my friends and me from examining our relationships too closely, I found my friendships tested in a way that not all were able to endure. 

Last December, after a painful falling-out with a friend, I turned to Text Me When You Get Home, a book by Kayleen Schaefer detailing the evolution of female friendship. The book is just as much an intimate exploration of Schaefer’s own relationships as it is a cultural analysis of the way women’s emotions have been understood, interpreted, and depicted. 

There is a thread of vulnerability throughout all of Schaefer’s books, especially because she chooses subjects often overlooked and heartachingly personal. She wrote Text Me When You Get Home both as an ode to her friendships, and to understand why it took her (and the world) so long to recognize female friendships as valuable. Her most recent work, But You’re Still So Young, was borne of the same desire to acknowledge unspoken, universal experiences. 

When I spoke to Schaefer on the phone for Lithium’s “Renaissance” issue, we picked up where Text Me left off: her journey into motherhood. 

“I was worried about this transition of figuring out how to be a mom, while knowing that my friendships are essential to me and wanting to maintain them,” she admitted. “I write about it a little in my new book [But You’re Still So Young]. I was on a walk with my best friend Ruthie, and I was pretty pregnant, and I was like, ‘Ruthie, I don’t want things to change.’ And she immediately was like, ‘I don’t want them to change either.’ It was definitely a concern that we both had.” 

After watching scores of millennials take a longer, meandering path to adulthood—missing conventional milestones like attaining financial independence, getting married, and becoming a parent along the way—Schaefer wrote But You’re Still So Young to let them know they aren’t alone. The book follows the stories of eight millennials, each redesigning what adulthood and their 30s look like for them, essentially blurring the line between personal and sociological. Gone are our parents' singles events, replaced by Tinder and deeply unfulfilling pre-marital (as opposed to post-marital) sex. 

Similarly, in Text Me When You Get Home, Schaefer draws from literature, media, and a range of interviews to examine how female stereotypes have shaped the way women view themselves and one another. She highlights how women’s friendships aren’t written about or acknowledged nearly as much as their romantic relationships. They’re portrayed as competitive and untrustworthy, teaching women at a young age to turn away from each other and toward men. Schaefer’s formative relationships mirrored much of what she saw on screen. Her high school and college friend groups were filled with competition; everyone was striving to be the smartest, the prettiest, the most desired. 

“I think it just needs to be put out there that the reason these stereotypes exist—that women should be competitive, that you can’t trust women, that girls are mean—is to keep women apart,” Schaefer said to me emphatically. “You have to really think about who benefits when women are kept apart. Women don’t, men do.” 

It wasn’t until Schaefer’s long-term boyfriend proposed to her—and she turned him down—that she began to imagine a life not centered on marriage. Before then, Schaefer worked for the men’s magazine Details, regularly played with an all-male poker group, and sought validation from men rather than support from women. She, like many women, was taught that in order to be taken seriously, she had to give importance to the subjects that appealed to men. When she started writing for women, she found her voice. 

The traditional nuclear family structure, popularized in the late 1940s, is far less dominant in America today, allowing women to redefine the systems of support in their lives and look for love outside of romantic relationships. Across the board, women are increasingly financially independent, with younger generations getting married later, if at all

But privilege isn’t a prerequisite to valuing women and their friendship. Many women, especially low-income women of color, can’t afford to not depend on the women around them for childcare, finding jobs, and companionship; their support systems are just less likely to be considered friendships. And though single women might still be perceived as lonely, many can assure you that they aren’t.  

Friendship also isn’t a consolation prize for single or financially insecure women. Expecting our romantic partners to be everything—attractive, a best friend, a good provider, a good parent—is often unrealistic and can yield resentment. “The broader your support system, the better,” Schaefer reiterated a handful of times during our call. And yet when women pivot away from depending on men, financially or emotionally, it’s perceived as a threat. 

During our interview, Schaefer complained that her book, despite being about empowering women, is often misconstrued as anti-male. She frequently has to defend her stance and emphasize that she isn’t telling her readers that friendships are better than romantic relationships, but that they should be treated with the same level of seriousness. 

“After reading Text Me, some guys were actually like, ‘I’m so jealous of these friendships, how cool, I don’t have friendships like this,’” Schaefer said. “Those are the more evolved men. Other men have been like, ‘this is really intense, or a little too strong.’”

Schaefer’s experiences with internalized misogyny are universal—as all women have had to grapple with the incessant, untrue messaging that other women are untrustworthy. The movies Schaefer uses as examples of the mean girl trope, like Heathers and Mean Girls, were a bit outdated by the time I was growing up, but the TV shows I watched still harped on the supposed toxicity of teenage girls. Gossip Girl, 90210, Pretty Little Liars, and The OC sent a clear message that friendships are what keep you company between boyfriends. Even if the shows’ friendships had longevity (Gossip Girl’s Blair and Serena were friends again by the end of the show), the stereotype still held true. 

These influences reinforced the idea that if I wanted safety and companionship, I needed a boyfriend. Yet, while a bottle of wine and a pint of ice cream may be the tried-and-true remedy to romantic heartbreak, there’s no clear antidote for the heartbreak of losing a friend. 

“We don’t have good ways to talk about our friendships,” Schaefer mused. “In a romantic relationship, there are all of these quizzes and how-tos and articles about what to say if you’re feeling disconnected from your partner. We don’t have instructions on how to say to a friend, ‘I feel like you’re not there for me,’ or ‘When you didn’t call me for weeks, that let me down.’” 

Reading Text Me When You Get Home finally made it clear why navigating my female friendships has been at times confusing. Though the sanctity of female friendship is not unrealized, it has yet to receive mainstream validation. Schaefer counters this by highlighting previously overlooked stories of women creating networks of support. She writes about Katherine Philips, a 17th-century poet known as Orinda who formed a society where women could share poems honoring female friendship. One chapter of Text Me is dedicated to the behind-the-scenes friendships that bolstered renowned creative people and their work: Julia Child’s pen pal, Avis DeVoto, proofread countless drafts of Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Judy Blume, after getting married and moving away from her best friend, channeled her loneliness into writing young adult fiction. 

“I wish I understood sooner what women can give each other,” Schaefer writes in the first chapter of her book. “These friendships are marked by all of the signposts of romantic relationships, except they’re platonic. But they are love stories, complete with lingering dinners, lots of talk of how wonderful we think the other is, and an understanding that this is a continuing courtship—we’re not letting the other person go.”

The way I relate to women is wholly different from the way I relate to men. My most intimate sleepovers and electric dance parties have all been with women. There is a warmth—which Schaefer describes in her book while recalling a housewarming she hosted at her apartment—that comes with friendship based not on attraction, but intimacy, admiration, and understanding. My best friends are my kindred spirits. Text Me When You Get Home reminds us of the crush-like thrill of realizing your friend might be becoming your best friend. 

It isn’t necessarily what Schaefer says, but rather what her book serves as—a signpost for how far we’ve come in honoring our female friendship—that makes Text Me When You Get Home so radical. Schaefer has immortalized true, honest, fact-checked stories of female friendships that can never again be ignored.