When I was younger, I dreamed of being grown-up and having a ‘squad’. I didn’t call it that, of course – not until Taylor Swift started mentioning hers at every opportunity a few years ago – but the idea was there, present in every Enid Blyton book I read and episode of Friends I watched.
I knew that one day I’d have my girl gang, a group of people who would all hang out and go through life’s ups and downs together, a gaggle of friends who were as close as family with whom I’d have adventures. That’s just what happened, right? Turns out, no. I went through secondary school without finding my Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. I didn’t then slot into a house-share of ready-made mates, like in Fresh Meat. And when I moved to London, determined to find a Tom, Jude and Shazza to my Bridget, so that we could eat M&S salmon pinwheels, drink wine and scream about f*ckwittage, I just... didn’t, no matter how hard I tried.
Don’t worry: I promise I have friends. Great friends, who are as close to me as family. I love them and I wouldn’t give them up for anything, but they’re not a gang. I don’t go out for big, giggly brunches, or even really see them together unless it’s a birthday or a big event. Their friendship means the world to me. It’s just not the kind of friendship I always thought I’d have. I’d blame the difference between reality and the media – it’s hard to spend all your time in each other’s pockets when you live at opposite ends of the city and work 10 hours a day – but it seems that loads of women have girl gangs. I know people who are still friends with the five women they went to primary school with, or who have bi-annual meet-ups with their mates from university, or who you’d never see socially without their two besties in tow.
And then there’s me, on my own, seeing lots of people individually, but never really being part of the group. On Instagram, I’ve watched in envy as friends shared photos of group holidays, because I’ve never had one. And while I do get people together for birthdays, I always end up wandering around and fretting over whether they’re enjoying themselves in the company of people they don’t know. That’s when I’m brave enough to organise a party. I’ve had two separate instances where I’ve organised a get-together and all my individual friends have had something come up that has stopped them from attending – so no one has turned up at all. That meant, when I got married, bringing together some very different people for my bridesmaids and hen party was quite nerve-racking – although, thankfully, everyone got on in the end.
For a long time, I thought that something was wrong with me. If people didn’t want me in their gangs, surely that meant I was awful to be around? I must be boring, or awkward, or just unpleasant. I even wondered if the reason I had lots of individual friendships but no gang was because they all took turns spending time with me because they felt sorry for me.
And I worried about what it meant for me, too. I’ve always had mental health issues, and it’s repeatedly been proven that strong friendships are vital for a happy brain. A 2013 study by Dr Robin Dunbar, currently the head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at the University of Oxford, showed that ‘people with larger and/or more integrated networks suffer less illness, recover quicker from surgery, are less likely to die’. My longing for a large group of friends became more serious than wanting a ready-made bowling team and started to become a concern for my wellbeing. As well as making me feel glum, was my squadlessness going to harm me physically, too?
Eventually, though, I realised something: I didn’t actually like hanging out in big groups. Get me in a one-on-one situation with someone I love and I’m chatty, comfortable and cracking jokes. Put me in a group and I’m quiet and reserved – only speaking if given the opportunity and feeling hideously awkward the entire time. Big brunches are great when a scriptwriter is making sure you all get to speak and your jokes always land – but less so when you’ve got five women talking over each other and being incredibly British and awkward about it.
I don’t think I’m alone. When I stopped fretting about not having a squad and started focusing on my actual, brilliant friends, I realised that having lots of individual friendships is more common than it seems – especially among the people who are important to me. We can’t all be the Spice Girls, and there’s nothing wrong with being a Thelma and Louise. Although I still feel wistful for that girl gang I thought I’d have, I’ve come to accept that it’s probably never going to happen – and that’s OK. It’s more important to have friendships that fulfil you, and for me that’s about the one-on-one rather than the one big group. And hey, with fewer people, there’s more wine and salmon pinwheels for me.
The To-Do List And Other Debacles by Amy Jones (£14.99, Ebury Press) is out now Do we all need a girl gang? Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org