Having young children can be so all-consuming that it can be difficult even maintaining a close relationship with your partner, let alone hoping for friendships outside the family unit.
In the hazy crazy days of new motherhood I made some pals via my NCT postnatal group who I know will be friends for life. Pretty much the one thing you can do with a newborn surgically attached to your boob is chat. And chat we did. The intimacy you achieve with your new mummy friends is so deep, so quickly. No-one else understands what a breakthrough it is that your baby slept until 2.30am instead of 1.45am before waking for their first feed of the night, certainly no-one else comes even close to comprehending your obsession with the colour, texture and frequency of your offsping’s defacations, and although you kind of know that cracked nipples and post-partum bleeding aren’t conventional topics for polite conversation, it is such a relief to find that you’re not alone.
Then it all starts to change. Those tiny little bundles of newborn squidginess start to crawl and then toddle and then chat. Suddenly it’s a struggle to finish a sentence, let alone a conversation. Maternity leaves come to an end, and your little bubble of long, lazy days hanging out with a tight-knit little group of mamas and babas is suddenly burst. These days, with all those little babies now rambunctious 8 year olds with busy social lives of their own, and little siblings thrown into the mix as well, meet-ups with these wonderful women are few and far between – when the childcare stars align we manage to nip out for a weeknight pizza every few months.
And what of other friends? Most of my pre-children friends didn’t have babies of their own when I had my eldest. They were generous with their cuddles and gifts, but their lives carried on in much the same way whereas mine had undergone a seismic shift, and I felt as if I was observing them through a pane of glass, able to see but not reach them.
Many of them have gone on to have children of their own, and they now get it. They understand why 10pm is a late night, why I haven’t read a newspaper for about three years, and why I generally have splodges of someone else’s bodily fluids somewhere about my person. But now it’s also even harder to see them, and harder still to actually listen to them.
We try. Family meet-ups for Sunday lunch, play dates in the park, brunch at a child-friendly restaurant in town. Sometimes, though, these can feel more frustrating than enjoyable. Four adults looking after four children, aged between newborn and 8, don’t actually get to talk to each other very much. Children don’t necessarily play nicely together just because their parents are lifelong friends. I can be desperate to hear their news, their views on the current political situation, even just to find out where they bought their lovely (albeit slightly vomit-stained) dress, but I can spend 2 or 3 hours in their vicinity without any of us finishing a sentence to each other because we are too busy coaxing a two year old to use the potty.
In a way these social events are just place-marking. We can’t not see each other until our children reach their teenage years, so we arrange these meet-ups as reminders of each other’s existence. We wave at each other over the chasm of parental responsibility, and take some brief comfort from the fact that we are not alone in this.
There are windows of hope. My MIL offered to babysit on my birthday this year, so my husband and I could go out. By some miracle a couple of our closest friends were also able to get a babysitter that night, and we all went out for drinks and dinner together. Slightly greyer and more drawn than we used to be, and our alcohol tolerance definitely impaired, nonetheless the luxury of an uninterrupted evening with friends was amazing.
And I have made some amazing new friends whose paths I may never have crossed if we hadn’t just happened to have children the same age.
Unless you have grandparents living next door offering on-demand babysitting you need to be a bit resourceful in maintaining friendships. Two of my best friends live in my phone these days. I have met them in real life, of course, have known them both since my late teens, but these days when we are scattered hours apart across London, and between us have 6 children, 3 careers, 2 cats and a whole pile of domestic responsibilities to boot, we can be in and out of each other’s thoughts on Whatsapp in a way we could never dream of in real life.
We’re friends with a local couple whose daughter is the same age as, and gets on very well with, our eldest. Sometimes on a Friday evening we offer the girls a pizza playdate, and us parents get together as well to share a bottle of prosecco or a few sneaky G&Ts and some proper conversation while the toddler is snugly tucked up in her cot, and the older children are thrilled at the chance to play until the excitingly late time of 8.30pm or so.
Last week one of my NCT friends and I were delighted to discover that our children have swimming lessons at the same pool at the same time, so we can snatch 30 minutes chlorine scented poolside chat with only one unoccupied child between us. I don’t even live in the same city as my best friend from school, but twice a year we leave our husbands holding the fort while we scarper for a child-free day out together.
The nature of friendships is that they change and shift. The intensity of your teenage relationship with friends does not, cannot, carry on into adult life. The carefree late-night student drinking sessions don’t necessarily survive geographical dispersion and fledgling careers with 9am starts, but are replaced by post-work drinks and dinners, and long Sunday afternoons in the pub with the papers. Those in turn become almost impossible to maintain when you have young children. But it is worth holding on. It is worth making the effort, even when it seems impossible, because when you do achieve the holy grail of a real conversation with a proper friend, the residual feel-good factor can keep you going through an awful lot of splattered pasta sauce, toddler tantrums and long-division homework.
On the phone to the dentist the other day, my toddler heard me giving my name. “No!” she screeched. “Your name is not Helen, it is MUMMY!”. I love being Mummy more than I can describe, but I also need the people in my life who still see me as Helen.