My Journal Club and the nature of female friendships

It started originally as a blog — a forum where we could share stories and articles, and discuss them monthly once they had been collated and curated by one of the members. That format now seems insane, and a lot of work, which is probably why it was very short lived. Instead we have a Whatsapp group (group text) called Journal Club, and it keeps us busy.

A Journal Club in its traditional sense is an academic meeting to discuss and dissect the latest journal articles and research relevant to the department or field. Every job I have ever worked in has had Journal Club in some shape or form, and they have all been universally boring. The word Club implies some kind of exclusivity or fun activity, both of which are not true. There is usually a dreary powerpoint presentation of an article, followed by ‘discussion’ (read: academics arguing over subtle nuances in the methods or results). The best ones have some kind of summary or take home point, where you may actually learn something, but this too is unusual.

Our Journal Club is not like this. We don’t generally share academic articles . Although all of us are scientists of a sort, instead we share articles/stories we are reading from news sources, blogs, twitter, the rest of the internet. The group text format provides instant confirmation or discussion or acknowledgement (there are some members with unusual sleeping patterns) and allows for multi layered discussion and debate. A bunch of women discussing articles via Whatsapp? NERD ALERT. The thing is, there’s a bit more to it than that.

When I started writing this, I was preparing to pack up my home and family and emigrate to a country which is on the other side of the world. Looking back on the draft now, 6 months later, I realise one of the hardest things in this process was the goodbyes — to family, but also to friends who are like family. Journal Club has given me a link to my past, while supporting my present and future.

I went to a small all girls school from the time I was 9 years old, and have had plenty of time to think about my friendships with other women. Some of my friends date back to that time of bad hair and terrible school uniforms (close to 25 years), others to the emotionally charged,acne ridden teenage years. Others, I have picked up along the way — medical school, work, moms groups, random meetings in the park. Some friendships have lasted disastrous relationships, drunken arguments, bad judgment calls, poor decisions and terrible tragedies. Others have fizzled out, or died a quiet death, for no good reason. Some were ‘for a while’ friends, meeting a need in a specific time or place. Some are wearing thin due to the constraints of time zones and geography,and some have altered forever due to the decision to have kids, or not.

Female friends can be your salvation in times of despair, but also your worst enemies when you least expect it. Some of my closest friends have also been my fiercest competitors. Jealousy and envy are not uncommon emotions. Some friends pushed my boundaries on what I thought I knew it ways that have been very uncomfortable. Some have given me unexpected kindness and solace when I needed it most.

My Journal Club is a mix of all these things. We don’t always agree, or get along. Some people are silent for days, reading along without commenting. Others chat along wildly and rack up the number of unread messages I wake up to after a night in a 9 hour time difference (record: 168). We’ve discussed letting in male members, but for now, sorry chaps, seems its a girls only affair.

We post recipes, poems, articles that mean something to us, videos that make us laugh or cry, or smile. Occasional kid photos creep in. The usual bitching about partners or husbands happens from time to time.We discuss work difficulties, anxieties about travel or presentations, decisions on which jobs to go for or clothes to buy. We meet in person when we can, for holidays and lunches and dinners, not easy given that we are spread out across three cities. We celebrate achievements and cry over hardships. Between us we have over 20 academic degrees, six kids, eight much loved pets and a multitude of dreams and fears and hopes.

My Journal Club has seen me through boring meetings, arguments with my husband, nights when I cant sleep, and (very long) nights when my baby can’t sleep. It is nothing special in global terms, and we are unlikely to change to world or end poverty or develop a cure for cancer. But it is, for us, a safe place. As one member called it recently, a ‘magical unicorn’ — as if we can hardly believe how lucky we are. Saying ‘ I Love You’ to platonic friends makes some people uncomfortable and wriggly, so for now I will say: I am grateful for these women in my life, and honoured to call them my friends. I dont think we say it enough.

Things I have learnt from my Journal Club, or the people in it:

That 2 grams of paracetamol is better than 1gram. Which books to read (basically anything by Margaret Atwood). That some people are militantly against Kindles, and that is fucking irritating. Which pants to wear (Country road fake leggings pants), or not wear. Which shoes to buy. Where to eat dinner in Cape Town (and other cities).Which series to watch (The Crown and Broadchurch). That you should ask for what you want. That Colombia is a beautiful lively country. That its OK to want to be at home with my child, and also OK to want to work. That Ottolenghi is basically the god of all things food. That how you look is not who you are. That exercise is good for you, but so is wine.That you don’t always have to like your children. That feminism is a lot more than just getting women the vote and the Pill. That sexism is subtle and sneaky and often disguised as comedy.

That I am loved. That I am not alone.