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When my sister and I would quarrel as young girls, my mother always told us, "You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family."

She didn't mean it negatively, which is how I mostly took it. I thought she was telling me that I was lucky to be able at least to pick friends I like, because I was stuck with my family. That wasn't, I think, her point at all.

Now I know what she really meant. She meant that your family will always be attached to your life. No matter what happens, that relationship is there. When you have no one else to whom you can turn, you have your family. Guaranteed. They can pick their friends, true, but they're saddled with you and aren't you lucky that they are.

I love my sister, and my brothers and their wives, and my husband's family, too. I am blessed to be able to think of them as not just relatives, but dear friends.

Still, I treasure the few women friends whom I've managed to hold onto through the years.

When I am thoughtless, rash, dull, needy, self-involved or busy, my family tells me straight out, or turns away for the moment, or instantly forgives because of our common history and shared future.

Friends have a choice. They don't have to tolerate my flaws, they can just stop being in my life, for whatever reason. And I, in turn, can just stop being in theirs, if they get too demanding, or disappoint me, or aren't doing much of interest to me lately.

If you have a hard time building trust and taking the risk of making new friends, it doesn't get easier with increasing age. As we approach middle age, we have husbands and children, aging parents, jobs and activities in our community and church and children's schools. Our secrets and troubles and joys take on an intimacy and an importance that was not there in our childhood years.

When you've trusted a friend with a private sorrow or delight, and they've let you down by sharing your woeful secret with others or jealously turning against you in your time of happy success, you may forgive them, but can you ever really trust them again?

In our teens, we rotated best friends, depending on our needs and their needs and our social calendar. We blissfully exchanged confidences about boys, teachers and parents. We traded outfits and makeup, and we talked on the phone about all that had happened in school just hours before.

Back then, being hurt by a friend meant taking the hit and finding another girl with whom to talk about it. School provided a natural friend pool; whenever you needed to, you could just dip in for more.

Now, losing a friend has a finite quality to it. At 40, when you lose a friend, it's likely to leave a huge hole, perhaps never to be filled again. Ann Landers says wives in a troubled marriage should ask themselves, "Are you better off with him or without him?" before ditching the relationship in toto. Middle-aged women need to ask themselves this before dropping a precious friend.

We're no longer in school, where if we threw a wad of paper we'd hit six potential friends. Our friendships now are not as continuous as we might like. We have categories of friends: work friends, neighbor friends, parents-of-the-kids'-friends-friends, and other acquaintances that seem to change when circumstances change. Rare is that soulmate, the friend with whom you can completely be yourself, crummy stuff and all, and feel sure you'll be accepted, loved and respected in the morning.

Confidences now take on a towering importance. Instead of whispering into the phone that our parents are being real jerks (again!) for insisting we clean our room before going skating next Saturday, our secrets are likely to be more personal, laced with shame, and hard to admit.

Our husbands might be drinking too much, or maybe we are. Maybe there is violence in our home. Our kids are not at the top of the class, or they've stopped showing up for class at all. We've been letting the answering machine pick up the calls from our aging, widowed father, who calls too often and makes little sense and makes us feel overwhelmed.

We've charged too much on the credit card again and we've spent the grocery money into next month. One breast feels strange, but we're afraid to go to the doctor, afraid of what she'll find.

We made the dog stay outside all yesterday just because we didn't want to vacuum again. We forgot to thaw the chicken in time, so the kids had cereal for dinner. We got promoted or fired. We gained or lost five or 50 pounds.

Our child came home smelling like pot. The younger man at the garden center invited us out for a drink, and we considered it. We're feeling increasingly invisible as aging, middle-aged mothers in a "Melrose Place," hardbody world.

Martha Stewart scares us, and Erma Bombeck is gone.

We're lonely, confused, and we need a friend, because everything is clearer after you talk it over with a pal.

Women, reach out to one another. I have become convinced of one thing: Everyone is lonely like this. Everyone.

And if someone gives you a secret about their husband or child or parent or boss, keep it. Don't use it to hurt them or judge them or compete with them. And thank them for trusting you, for trust is the greatest gift a friend can give another.

I love my husband with all of my heart. He is my best friend, but I wish I had a few more women friends I could lean on. I'll bet he wishes the same for me, because he loves me. He knows I need a support system and that I've let mine expire.

Maybe I'll take a good, hard look at myself and see if I've been a leanable-upon friend myself.

And if this sounds as if I am pouring out my own soul, a thus-far lifetime of hurt, and joy and confusion, thoughts of Martha, Sally, Candy, Cathy, Ruthie, Michael Ann, Becky and Anne, you're right.

I am.

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