These Two Generations of Best Friends Live Like Family

“When they were babies, we raised them together. We were always at each other’s houses, and the girls were always together.”

Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two women in the U.K. who became best friends when they were pregnant, and with their daughters, who are best friends, too. They “basically became a family unit,” as one of the moms put it—the girls grew up like siblings, and for several years they even lived next door to one another. The mothers had a falling out for a couple of years, but even during that time, they were there for both of their “daughters”—and the daughters remained friends. In separate interviews, edited together here, the moms and daughters discussed what family life is like when it includes friends so intimately.

The Friends:

Lisa Preston, 39, a shift manager at McDonald’s who lives in Grimsby, United Kingdom
Shannon Preston, 19, a rising sophomore at Leeds Beckett University studying product design
Sandra Ritchie, 43, the family coordinator for Grimsby Town Football Club
Alisha Ritchie, 19, currently taking a gap year

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Lisa and Sandra, how did you meet and become friends?

Sandra Ritchie: I had been working at our local fish factory. Grimsby is a big fishing port, so at a certain age, most of us ended up working on a line. I started working with Lisa’s boyfriend first, but her boyfriend wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t answer whenever I asked him anything, so I used to go, “Lisa, why won’t he talk?”

Lisa Preston: Yeah, he never really talked much. I was pregnant at the time, so I had a chair to sit on [at the factory]. Subsequently, other people who have used this chair also ended up pregnant, one of them being Sandra. Sandra’s daughter is a few months younger than my daughter. So Sandra blames me for her pregnancy.

Sandra: In Grimsby no one told us how to get babies, so we just got them off the chair.

Lisa: Grimsby is known as the ass-end of nowhere.

Sandra: I love it!

Lisa: Sandra is a very proud Grimbarian, and I actually do love my little town.

Beck: Shannon and Alisha, what do you guys know about the story of your moms’ friendship?

Alisha Ritchie: I know our moms worked together, I believe in a factory, and they both sat on these pregnancy seats.

Shannon Preston: I remember my mom telling me stories that they used to go on nights out together. It was the classic girlfriends thing where they used to hang out beforehand and do their makeup, listen to music, and have pre-drinks. Then they’d go out clubbing together.

Alisha: I didn’t know that.

Shannon: Do you not? Oh, I hear about it all the time.

Beck: So Lisa was already pregnant when you met, and then Sandra got pregnant a little bit later—was sharing that experience what made you become friends?

Sandra: We were already friends; through our pregnancy we became a bit closer; and then when we had our girls, that was it. We basically became a family unit. We say that we’ve got two daughters. It’s a weird setup, but it works.

Lisa: When they were babies, we raised them together. We were always at each other’s houses, and the girls were always together. We had a lot of shared parenting experiences. We both became single parents when the girls were both very young, and navigated through single parenthood together as well.

Sandra: We both went through really bad breakups with the fathers of our daughters. It was handy to have Lisa there to support me and Alisha, and then, obviously, I was there to support Lisa and Shannon. We used to bounce a lot of ideas off each other. Maybe not some of the better ideas.

Beck: Like what?

Sandra Ritchie (left) and Lisa Preston (right) visiting their favorite pub in their pajamas (Courtesy of Sandra Ritchie and Lisa Preston)

Sandra: We used to go out drinking together at the local pubs. And we just decided one night that it would be easier if we went out in our pajamas, so we didn’t have to get changed when we got home. So we went out drinking in our pajamas.

Beck: That is next-level.

Sandra: There was also the baby-wipe Morris dancing that we tried out. When you’ve got babies, you’ve always got baby wipes, obviously, and I’ll admit, we did drink a lot when the girls were younger. Have you got Morris dancing in America?

Beck: I don’t think so.

Sandra: It’s like a traditional dance. Sometimes they use poles with bells on and they sort of skip around. But we tried it with baby wipes like hankies, so we were waving baby wipes around.

Lisa: Waving them around like we thought we were nymphs. We definitely did not look like nymphs.

Beck: Tell me about your daughters’ friendship. Was it baked in from the beginning?

Lisa: A lot like cousins, they didn’t have a choice in the beginning. Their friendship was forced upon them due to my and Sandra’s friendship. Alisha balances Shannon out, because Shannon can be quite an angry or temperamental child, and Alisha was really mellow. They’re still extremely close now. I know that Alisha was very upset when Shannon went off to Leeds to go to university.

They grew up like sisters. If you imagine siblings, Shannon was the naughty one and would try and blame Alisha for everything, but Alisha was never naughty. The best time was: They were in the bath together, and Shannon had emptied most of the water onto the floor with a jug and flooded the bathroom, and tried to blame Alisha.

Sandra: It was all pouring through my kitchen ceiling. [My ex-husband] came running into the bathroom but he slipped on all the water. It was a proper comedy fall, legs up in the air and flat on his back, and he grabbed hold of the shower curtain as he went down. I tried to tell Shannon off but I couldn’t, because I was too busy laughing.

There was also the time that … Lisa’s ex-girlfriend had a little boy. Alisha and Shannon wrapped him up like baby Jesus, covered him in [lip balm], and then covered him in glitter.

Lisa: He was very sparkly. There was glitter in his hair for a very long time.

Sandra: It’s just been a natural thing that Shannon is always in my life. I used to come home, and it would just be like, “Shannon’s here for the week,” and I’d say, “Okay, fine.” But I’d hide the cheese because she used to eat all my cheese. She used to eat all the cheese off the top of Alisha’s pizza and just give Alisha the base of it—the boring bit.

Beck: How did your friendship start, Alisha and Shannon? What are your earliest memories of each other?

Alisha: Shannon and Lisa have both always, always, always been there. I know that one of my earliest memories was probably the time I was eating pizza—

Shannon: Oh, no.

Alisha: Shannon has a thing with cheese. She absolutely loves cheese, and she took all of my toppings off, like my cheese, my sauce, everything, and left me with the base. So that was one of my earliest memories, Shannon stealing all of my pizza.

Shannon: Are you going to let it go?

Alisha: No.

Shannon Preston (left) and Alisha Ritchie (right) (Courtesy of Sandra Ritchie and Lisa Preston)

Shannon: I think my earliest memories [come from] pictures I’ve seen, and I’ve been able to recall those things happening. One time, at a party, they made Alisha wear a little suit and tie. And I got to wear the dress, and she was just so mad about it.

Alisha: I started crying because I was wearing a suit, and Mom tried to make me feel better by saying, “Well, it has sparkles on it.” And then I remember me and Shannon dancing. It wasn’t until I was older and looked back at the pictures, I thought, Oh my God, it looks like we’re getting married.

Beck: When you were babies, you played together because you had no choice. But how did your friendship evolve as you got older and were making your own decisions about who to be friends with?

Shannon: I remember at the beginning of primary school, we got put into different classes. And when we realized, we got really upset about it. It was at that moment where even though we were in separate classes, we still chose to hang out with each other.

Alisha: At one point, Shannon ended up moving next door to me, so we were constantly together.

Shannon: When we were 11, for three or four years.

Lisa: Sandra moved first, about five minutes away from us. And the house next door was up for rent. It went up a few times and Sandra kept suggesting, “Why don’t you come live next door?” Eventually we put an application in for the house, and we moved next door. We joked often about knocking a hole through the wall.

Alisha (left) with Shannon (right) during a day out at the beach (Courtesy of Sandra Ritchie and Lisa Preston)

Sandra: Much to the annoyance of my then-husband, who wasn’t a fan of my friendship with Lisa and her girlfriend. He didn’t really like anyone, to be honest. But I loved it and Alisha loved it. I’d had a little boy after Alisha, who Lisa is godmother to. He loved it. The kids all used to go into Alisha’s bedroom. They’d have movie nights, and they’d have sweets and pizza, and play in there. And we’d all play board games and have a drink together and socialize downstairs. It was a big family unit.

I think my favorite memories are from Christmas Eve. We always used to have Christmas Eves [together]. The kids would be playing, we’d be drinking, and my husband would be wrapping the presents because he didn’t want to join in. One year we got drunk and went roller-skating. I set up Grimsby’s roller-derby team, so we had some skates lying around, so went skating around the roads at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Lisa: We’re not too far away from Sandra now, but we’ve moved somewhere smaller.

Shannon: We have a lot of traditions. When we were younger, at Christmastime, we would always spend Christmas Eve together and get each other Christmas Eve pajamas, and we’d play games and watch movies. And sometimes, when our moms wanted to hang out, they would send us upstairs. They always wanted to hang out even when they became mothers, and that gave us the opportunity to hang out as well.

Alisha: One day, she’d be sleeping at mine. The next day, I’d be at hers. If we weren’t sleeping at each other’s houses, we’d be playing in the back garden. Even when we went to [different] secondary schools, I would get up at six in the morning just so I could walk to the bus stop with Shannon, even though I could have had an extra hour in bed.

I remember at the time, we didn’t have proper phones or anything, so we would chat on the [Nintendo] DS. There were three floors [in our houses]—my room was on the second floor, and Shannon was on the top. We’d message each other on the DS and be like, “Right, we’re going to talk through the wall,” so we’d meet in the hallway and talk through the wall if we couldn’t go outside.

Beck: Were they rowhouses that were touching each other, and that’s why you could talk through the wall?

Shannon: Yes.

Beck: Those must’ve been thin walls.

Alisha: Oh God. You could hear everything through them.

Beck: What are your memories of what family life was like, with your two households being so entangled?

Lisa (left) and Sandra (right) at a 1940s event at a local showground in Cleethorpes (Courtesy of Sandra Ritchie and Lisa Preston)

Alisha: My mom was married to my stepdad since I was 2 and a half; they’re divorced now. But he was at work a lot, so I just saw Lisa as a second mom, really. Even though I could always go to my mom, it was also nice to know that if there was something I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable talking to my mom about, I could go to my second mom.

If me and my mom ever would have an argument, I’d always go to Lisa because she was next door, and she would talk me through it like, “Look, come on. You’re being a little bit ridiculous here.” She was always a peacemaker. If I ever had a fight with Shannon, I’d also go to her mom as well, which I know might seem a bit bizarre.

Shannon: When I was 16, and I was having a bit of a rough time at school, but I didn’t think I could tell my mom, I spent some time around Alisha’s house. When we were sitting around, Sandra was like, “Are you okay?” And I was able to say, “No, not really. I’m having some issues.” I was able to speak about how I was not feeling comfortable with my friends. It was just a lot easier to say it to her.

Lisa: I don’t have any sisters, so Shannon doesn’t have any aunties, but she does have Sandra, who substitutes not only as a mother figure, but as an auntie figure. If Shannon said, “Please can you keep this secret from my mom?” I know that Sandra would take into account whether it was suitable for her to keep to herself, if it was one of those silly girl’s secrets, or something more serious that I would need to know.

Beck: Are there any downsides to being best friends with your mom’s best friend’s kid?

Shannon: The open communication is a double-edged sword. It’s a lot easier, but it’s also like, if you wanted something to be a surprise, it’s not going to stay a surprise. It’s that thing where you tell your friend something, and then they tell their mom, and then their mom tells her friend, and then it goes back to your mom.

Alisha: I would definitely agree with that. Obviously, there were some things that we both were like, “Definitely do not tell the parents this.” But we’re very open with our moms, and our moms are very open with each other.

Lisa: Sandra’s always been there for me, even through some of my most questionable times. We had a short period where we stopped speaking due to some of the lifestyle choices that I made. Looking back on it, I completely agree with where she was coming from and why she needed to take a break from me. But throughout all of that time—and it was a good couple of years—she was still there for my daughter. She was always Shannon’s second parent. I’m eternally grateful because I was struggling myself and Shannon needed somebody strong in her life. When I couldn’t be there for Shannon, Sandra was. When I was ready to come back to the friendship, she was there with open arms.

Sandra: I’m crying now.

Lisa: Sometimes you’ve had to parent me as well, haven’t you?

Sandra: Yeah, pretty much. Like she said, we did have a couple of years where it didn’t matter what I said, she wasn’t listening to me. And I had to take a step back. I was going through trouble with my marriage as it was. She had to sort it out herself.

Lisa: I didn’t want to hear what Sandra was saying. Nobody could get me back on the right path. I had to find my own way.

Beck: What were you disagreeing about?

Lisa: I still lived with my girlfriend [at that time], who I’d been with for seven years, when we moved next door to Sandra. Sandra and my ex-girlfriend were very close as well. I went through a really difficult time with that relationship and my sexuality. I became very promiscuous, and was making questionable choices. Quite possibly putting Shannon in a lot of danger, with various men coming into the house. Sandra was worried not only for myself, but for Shannon as well. I was a good-time girl. I was putting myself out there and doing whatever I wanted, with no thoughts given to anybody else at all, and that included Shannon. That was why Sandra was so angry with me, and she was absolutely, 100 percent right.

Beck: Alisha and Shannon, when your moms went through a rough patch in their friendship and didn’t speak for a couple of years, what was that like for you two?

Shannon: I was very conflicted because you naturally want to take your mom’s side, but when you’re hearing it from your best friend, you can also see how they were affected. It was really rough, because you just want everyone to get along. There’s memories from when I was little of everyone just being happy, and it’s hard to go back to that. I would talk to my mom, and I would go over to see Alisha, and I would see Sandra there. But I wouldn’t be able to see them together anymore.

Alisha: I don’t think I was ever told until I got older exactly what had happened. It was like Lisa was there, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t talking. And it was quite hard. Shannon and I were still talking. I won’t say Shannon and I were the middlemen, because they weren’t slagging each other off to us, but it was just a bit strange knowing that our parents weren’t getting along, but we were.

Beck: Did you ever try to find a way to get your moms to reconcile, or did you mostly stay out of it?

Alisha: I mainly tried to stay out of it, because I love them both to absolute pieces, so I didn’t know what to do to make this any better. I was trying to be there for Shannon as much as possible, because I wanted Shannon to know she always had us. It sounds like I’m painting Shannon’s mom as a bad mom—I’m not. She can always go to her mom as well, but I just wanted Shannon to know that she could always come to us, no matter what had happened.

Shannon: And I was trying to be there for Alisha, and just be the same me. If I’m still constant, then they know that I’m not going to take my mom’s side, even if she’s my mom, because I don’t know what’s going on. So I don’t have the right to say what’s happening in whatever they were going through.

Beck: Do you remember when and how everything resolved?

Alisha: I don’t know if Shannon actually knows this, but one day, I just got a message from Shannon’s mom, Lisa. She thanked me for being there for Shannon, and then she said that she just really, really missed my mom. And she said, “I just want to be friends with her again. Do you think your mom will let that happen?" I was like, “Oh, absolutely,” because my mom missed Lisa, too. Then one day, I came home, and Lisa was there.

Shannon: I remember my mom asking me, “Do you still hang out with Alisha?” And I was like, “Yeah. Even if you and Sandra don’t hang out, we still do.” And she said, “I like that.” And my mom was trying to better herself as well. She’d stopped drinking, and she’d stopped smoking. She was really into her work and her hobbies. And then the next week, she told me, “Sandra and I are going to take a dance class together.”

Sandra: When Lisa and I started talking again, it was because Lisa had asked Alisha if I would mind if she got back in touch with me. I wouldn’t have, but it was nice to be asked. I asked Lisa to come and help me decorate one of my bedrooms, and it just went back into the natural pattern of how we were before.

Lisa: Obviously, we’d both changed as people in the few years that we’d spent apart. I’d done a lot of growing up, so Sandra doesn’t have to parent me as much now.

Beck: What has it meant to you to have friends be a part of your conception of “family”?

Shannon (left) with her mom, Lisa (right) (Courtesy of Sandra Ritchie and Lisa Preston)

Shannon: A lot of my friends in secondary school would ask me, “Do you tell your mom everything?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And when they’d ask, “Do you tell your friends everything?” I’m like, “Well, I don’t tell you guys, but I always talk to Alisha about whatever I need.”

Even if there are things I don’t want to share, then my mom is like, “You can talk to me whenever you feel comfortable.” I think that’s what you need rather than having someone who’s like, “Tell me everything. Tell me all your secrets.”

Alisha: With me and Shannon, I can be in a sister-y relationship with her when I have to, but I can also be more of just a supportive friend. It depends what Shannon needs. If she needs to be kicked in the bottom and told to get on with something, I’ll go for it. We’re not sugarcoating anything. With other friends, I don’t have that.

Sandra: I’ve always been quite—not stubborn, but independent. I’m always thinking, “I can do it myself or I don’t need anybody else. But I also know that I can count on Lisa if I need anything. I don’t talk to people a lot about what’s going on [with me], but Lisa has been part of my life for so long that she knows what baggage I’ve got, what’s going to upset me, what days I’m probably not going to have a good day. It’s comforting to know that you’ve got that person who isn’t actually family but is more to you than family.

Lisa: I had a difficult relationship with both of my parents. I’ve sort of made amends with my mom now, but for things that most women would go to their moms with, I’ve had Sandra as my best friend to help me through those times instead. It’s shaped me into the person that I am now, but it’s also helped develop Shannon into the person that she is.

We’ve been in each other’s lives longer than our life partners, haven’t we? You got married and divorced, and this is my third long-term relationship. We’ve been a constant in each other’s lives through all of that, and the girls have still got two good characters to look up to.

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