Photography © by Paul Johnson

Scientists have long believed that when people experience stress, a hormonal cascade is triggered compelling the body to do one of two things: (1) stand and fight or (2) flee. New research out of UCLA shows that – for women, at least – it may not be quite that simple. As it turns out, there is an additional reaction that takes place within a woman’s body – the release of oxytocin – that buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend to her children and gather with other women. Once she does this, even more oxytocin is released, further countering stress and producing a calming effect.

I realize this will surprise no one.

As with so many studies, this one only serves to tell us what we already knew – friendships between women are beneficial – even crucial. Regrettably, for those of us existing within the challenging season of young motherhood, this can be a surprisingly difficult need to fill. We live in a world of sleepless nights, exhausted days, scheduled naps, and demanding tummies. Very few phases of life demand of us the same level of dying to self (or beg for the same level of support) as the early years of parenthood do.

For us mothers, usually what (or who) we need more than anything else (excluding our husbands, of course) is a woman who is down in the trenches with us. It’s just not the season to surround yourself with a cadre of female friends whose freedoms look different than yours. Yes, you have a scrumptious baby (there is no finer treasure in the world) but sometimes through the lens of sleep-deprivation, the fact that you are unable to participate in the morning group exercise class followed by a trip to the coffee shop, can be a bitter pill to swallow. Sometimes, the best medicine is interaction with a fellow maternal soldier who will try to one-up you on hours of sleep lost.

In addition, for a Catholic woman, there is a very real need for a “spiritual friend” – a person who will pay attention to the presence and movement of God in your life; someone who will gently check in on the state of your soul; someone who will send you down on your knees when all you really want to do is rest your head upon a pillow. A spiritual friend is a balm to a ragged soul.

Ironically, it is during the seasons in which we most need this kind of friend, that it can be difficult to establish or nurture these relationships. Being home-bound, overwhelmingly busy and/or deeply tired simply does not lend itself to such endeavors. Strangely enough, it is within the virtual world that many such mothers – myself included – have found solace. In many ways, the Internet fills the void left from an often isolating – though otherwise rich – lifestyle. Being able to almost instantaneously connect with someone online is a very grounding experience when the only interaction you’ve gotten during your day is with individuals of the tiny variety.

The friends I’ve made online over the past handful of years have been my port in many a storm. They have taught this convert how to live out this mysterious vocation of mine, listened with compassion during hard times, and celebrated with me during the good. I count them among the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. And yet, I’ve never met a great many of them face-to-face.

This past April, I travelled up to Boston for a gathering of Catholic women. While I was excited to meet so many women that I had long known online, I didn’t quite see how this meeting would bond us any more intimately that we already were. These women had walked through valleys with me, heard my most shameful confessions, and celebrated my most personal of victories. In my mind, there was no deficiency to be found.

What I discovered, though, is that there is a richness and depth, to in-person meetings that simply can’t be reproduced online. To hear a friend’s laughter and at the same time see how her eyes sparkle with mirth; to be able to wrap your arms around her when you see her the first shine of her tears; to witness her mind in action, working, processing information–those things generate an emotional connection that is profound.

The other thing I hadn’t foreseen was the unique way God can work to reveal His plan for a friendship when two women breathe the same air. Previous to my trip, all of the women I met in Boston were the same variety of friend – each precious to me, but all very similar in nature. As we spent time together, though, the quality of each of these friendships was refined. Some of the women became like sisters to me, others best friends, and still yet others, mothers. They were like puzzle pieces fitting together to form a complete whole that is my support and my guide.

So, are online relationships real? Absolutely. I’d even say they’re enough. But I’d no longer deny that they can be further enriched through face-to-face interaction. It may not be God’s plan for you to take your online relationship to the next level today–or even this year–but do watch for opportunities to come together in person. I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll be glad you did.

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