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Why the often-parodied girls’ weekend is needed now more than ever

The author recently reconnected with five college girlfriends in Highlands, N.C. From left: Lindsay Morris, author Kinsey Gidick, Jen Dienst, Erin Ziegler, Caroline Enten and Emily Jenkins. (Courtesy of Emily Jenkins)
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An earlier version of this article identified Lekeisha Sumner as a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA. She is no longer a clinical faculty member there. This article has been corrected.

We’ve all seen the social media posts: a cozy cabin or beach house filled with a pack of women, wine in hand, wearing matching jammies and laughing. It’s a girlfriend getaway, of course. Often parodied in movies (see: “Wine Country,” “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” “Bridesmaids,” “Rough Night,” “Girls Trip”), these weekends are tamer and cheesier than Hollywood has imagined — and far more important.

I’ve been on more weekend friend trips that have resulted in a cheer pyramid than I care to count. I’ve watched grown women happily don identical T-shirts as if they were summer campers. I’ve read 1,000-word, color-coded itinerary emails with greater detail than the agenda at a Group of 20 summit.

We make fun of them, but I’m not the only one who thinks that, in the midst of the worst global health crisis in recent history — a pandemic that has caused approximately 3 million U.S. women to leave the workforce and that has disproportionately placed the burden of child care and virtual education on their shoulders — the need for (safe, fully vaccinated) girls’ trips might be at a record high.

“There are unique benefits to connecting with other women, people who are not necessarily a part of your everyday life,” says Lekeisha Sumner, a clinical psychologist.

Sumner says a theory developed by UCLA psychology professor Shelley E. Taylor and colleagues, the tend-and-befriend response, could come into play here. In a 2000 article in the journal Psychological Review, the team wrote that, throughout life, “females are more likely to mobilize social support, especially from other females, in times of stress. They seek it out more, they receive more support, and they are more satisfied with the support they receive.”

That support can come in the form of girlfriend travel, which involves “people who can pull you away from the expectations of day-to-day responsibilities and offer fresh perspectives,” Sumner says. What she calls the “awe factor” involved in travel helps cement the bond. “The ‘awe factor’ helps to awaken the wonder around you and your sense of connection,” she says. “You’re strengthening an emotional bond and creating a gratifying experience that can enliven you and give you a sense of vitality. We need that as humans.”

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Amanda Haselden, a 40-year-old attorney in Charleston, S.C., recently enjoyed such a trip. After months of juggling child care, virtual schooling and bond court, the magistrate judge knew she could use a break. “I’ve always had stress, and I’ve always handled it, but this was different,” she says.

Like Batman and Robin responding to the Bat-Signal, her two pals from undergrad jumped into action and booked a hotel in the Hamptons for a weekend. They did typical tourist stuff: yoga in a vineyard, a dinner out. But the highlight? “We had a couple hours, so we were like, ‘Should we just take a nap?’ ” Haselden says. “It’s very comforting how, with some friends, you just don’t have to explain it.”

The benefits of the trip were twofold, she says. “One, I could step away from some of my obligations. I didn’t have to worry about my kids’ masks, right? I didn’t have to worry about them sanitizing their hands. I didn’t have to worry about their book bags in the morning or signing the 45 documents from school.” But, in addition to the relief of stepping away from responsibility, “there’s also just such a relief in being back with a safety net of people, friends who have known me for 20-plus years.”

Being known in that way is a natural human craving, especially for anyone who has felt socially isolated throughout the pandemic. It’s the kind of support you can’t get in a 15-minute conversation in the school pickup line or on a playground. “You may have an extensive social network but few true supportive connections,” Sumner says.

And that can be a problem. “Support relationships often serve as a buffer against the emotional impact of chronic strain,” Sumner says. “Just perceiving that you have someone in your life who is rooting for you, who uplifts you, is available or accessible if needed, confers some benefits to mental health.” But that mental health boost doesn’t require you to stay at a boutique hotel or super-expensive resort. So long as you have your good friends’ attention, be it in a pal’s family-free home for a weekend or at a budget campground, you can benefit. “If you can negotiate time to cultivate your relationship with a friend with whom you feel psychologically safe and free to express yourself authentically, you’re likely to feel a sense of validation and a deeper connection,” she says.

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For Tiffany Eve Lawrence, a writer in Florida, that was the best part of a surprise 40th birthday trip that her sister had planned for her in June. The sisters and an aunt stayed at Pennsylvania’s Wind Creek Bethlehem, played slots, got massages, went hot-tubbing and ate “bomb food,” as Lawrence describes it, but the best part was getting some uninterrupted one-on-one time with two of her favorite people. “We had girly conversations about life, men, marriage and other random things,” she says. When she got home, she felt as if she had shed a layer of burden. “It’s a total hormonal shift as a woman to be free of every stress, and that’s exactly how I felt.”

Sumner says just one trip a year or, for that matter, just the idea that you have a trip coming up with close friends can be as beneficial as the trip itself.

Boutique travel agent Rani Cheema also emphasizes the importance of girlfriend getaways. Now that coronavirus vaccines are widely available and borders are reopening, Cheema says she’s seeing an increased demand for female-only trips. With planning comes the responsibility to ensure her travelers feel as safe and supported as possible.

“I end up getting a lot of women who identify as part of the lesbian community when it comes to these trips, because they feel like it’s a safer space for them,” she says. She has also seen a demand for women looking to connect with other women in a spiritual sense. “A nice chunk of them are looking for sisterhood.”

Women also seem to be seeking the freedom to see the world in a judgment-free zone, Cheema says. “I feel like, when there’s more women, there’s less makeup, there’s less caring about what they look like, and they’re more present.”

I certainly experienced all of these things when I reconnected with five college girlfriends in Highlands, N.C., in October. Vaxxed and ready to relax, we drove from Virginia and South Carolina to meet at a mountain rental to reconnect. And, just as expected, it hit all the high points that Sumner describes. Moments after we arrived, the trip became complete pandemonium when we spotted a black bear in our driveway, a scene made more absurd by my friend Jen shouting: “Journalism, Kinsey! Film this on your phone!” Talk about an awe factor.

Over the weekend, we sipped way too much wine and perfumed the house with a boatload of bacon. We gossiped and laughed and window-shopped, but we also made space to hear each other’s issues, to really be present, to remind each other of who we are beyond our romantic relationships, children, jobs and societal labels. And, yes, we were super cheesy. Let’s just say that we staged our own pop-album cover photo shoot in the driveway — my favorite girlfriend getaway diversion.

“Play is important in emotional health,” Sumner says. Adding small doses of play — “dancing to music, being silly, going out in nature, exploring something with a child” — can enhance our lives, she says. But first, you have to find people who give you permission to do that.

Which is why I’m advocating for all-out tacky trips, including matching jammies and protocols stating that, if you check your work email, you have to drink. Women are suffering from a mirth deficit. After months of having to manage the health and safety of their families while juggling work and/or child care, the mood is grim. How could it not be? Considering one’s own mortality for almost two years straight will do that to any person. Or, in this case, a planet full of them.

Women need alarm-clock-free safe spaces, opt-out activities (yes to a low-key hike at 4 p.m., no to hot yoga at 6 a.m.), and elaborate group photos that we’re actually in. (Back home, we’re always the ones taking the pictures!) Women need to not be responsible for anything except answering the question, “Can I get you a refill?” What women need is a break.

But this Valhalla can’t be found at home. It requires a destination, a place apart. A location where, for 24 hours, the emails, the dishes and the cries of “Mom!” go away.

It doesn’t, however, have to be a fancy place or an expensive place or an exclusive place. Just a place. “It’s not about where you are that helps,” Haselden says. “That’s the icing on the cake.”

Gidick is a writer based in Scottsville, Va. Her website is kinseygidick.com.

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus

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