Ugly Duckling Friends

I recently wrote a piece on how female friendship is one of the most valuable things about being a woman.

Then my kids reminded me of what friendship is like when you’re a teen.

My youngest talked about a classmate’s friendship group, ‘They’re all friends.’ she said, ‘But they say really mean things about each other.’

This made me wonder when female friendship turns from the ugly duckling relationships my two daughters are living through, into the swan that helps me glide across the choppy waters of my life.


Newly hatched cygnets often ride on their parents’ backs, only interacting with the rest of the flock under a watchful beak.

Our kids have a similar experience: In the early years, we can manage their friendships like Churchill coordinating troops in his bunker: We orchestrate playdates with kids (ok, mums) we like and have quiet words with teachers when our precious chick is pushed over in the playground.

Then they outgrow the downy years and things turn ugly.

Brown Feathers Turn White

Cygnets whose dingy plumage turns predominantly white can be driven from the breeding territory because they are seen as a threat.

I watched the same pattern in my eldest daughter’s friendship group. Rejection came at exactly the same time as heads began to turn in her direction, away from the established group leader.

At this stage, loyalty and friendship are less important than social status. Relational aggression is used to undermine the individual perceived as a threat, belittling, excluding and eroding confidence.

Simultaneously, the competition for connection begins. We share our secrets to strengthen our bonds. The person who is privileged with the most intimate details of another’s life, is the most valued. They also hold the most power.

We all remember confiding in a friend that we had a crush, and that information being used against us so someone could ride the ensuing waves of drama.

It is cruel and it is wrong, but it’s also human nature for the person we confided in to find a connection elsewhere and try to strengthen that bond by sharing secrets.

When do we stop using our emotional intimacies as weapons and, instead, use them to build true connections?


When the cob and the pen have chosen their mate, they build their nest and start to breed.

I think this may be when our friendship priorities change. Prior to this there is often competition within friendships, maybe academically or in the workplace, but certainly in social standing within a group and in finding a mate.

Breeding is a leveller; we find things in common through producing offspring. Sympathy and empathy wash away the competitive stains (apart from those mothers who have to be the best at everything. They’re not real swans – they’re jealous Canada geese dressed in white, always ready to attack)

We Choose a Flock

We know we have truly become swans when we choose to flock together.

We find the people who like the same area of still water as we do, away from the splashing and performative diving of early friendship. We don’t need to peck and jostle because one has whiter feathers or attracts more attention.

Mates for Life

If we look around our flock, we will know that not all our feathers are white. Some will be missing, stained, or scarred. Our wings no longer carry us as far as they once did, and our legs ache from all the frantic paddling we do to make everything serene and effortless to the outside world.

We will know when and how these changes happened, but we will not trade those secrets, because there is a code which has taken us years to fully understand.

We know about the geese who dress up in our feathers, only to turn on us with vicious beaks, and we flock around each other in protection when they do. We even pity them, because they will never know how special it is to shelter under the wings of much-loved friends.

I have learned the code, but still remember how it felt to swim in the turbulent waters of teenage friendship, where secrets were traded like tasty morsels, chewed up and spat back like poisoned pellets. I wish I could keep my chicks safe from the pain of rejection, exclusion and mockery.

But, tempting as it is to hiss a warning at those who cause them pain, perhaps I shouldn’t. My friends and I were all ugly ducklings once upon a time, and we had to learn and grow into the fierce and glorious swans we are today.

Hard as it is, I’ll just have to make sure my nest is downy and my wings are wide, then wait until my young grow strong white feathers of their own.

Feature photo by pixel2013 on Unsplash

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