There are three kinds of mum friends. The ones you are pleased to bump into at the park, the ones you actually arrange to meet up with, and then the rare and wonderful ones who become real friends. Those women with whom baby talk can segue into relationship talk, work talk, life talk. All three kinds can be life savers. On a bad day, a friendly face pushing a swing next to you is all it takes to remind you that you are a sentient adult. A coffee with someone who is also navigating toddler tantrums or charting the waters of sleep and wakefulness in a new born is an invaluable support. But it’s that extra understanding that you get with some women which gives a unique space to be the thinking, political, funny person you are, without having to make any apologies for also being a mother.
I spotted my best mum friend across the circle at my first NCT meeting. My husband teased me over my new love affair, and I laughed along, but he tapped into the way I felt exactly. I had met my parenting soul mate, someone who was like me, was going to do it like me, and who wanted to be my friend. Our affair began while still pregnant when we hung back from the other women in the group, walking home from a pre-baby get together during the early days of maternity leave. As we took a different direction from the others, I knew that we would be friends, and I cherished it like a teenager. We romanced each other over coffee and cakes and strolls in the park. From baby massage to mini music we learnt our new trade together and slowly unpacked our lives in the process.
Being on maternity leave is a totally democratising experience. We were, in those early days, completely equal. Both at home, with our babies, with acres of time to fill. Bliss. Like any first flush of love, the beginning provides a canvas for you to paint a perfect portrait of yourself, leaving out the flaws and imperfections. But then it was time to go back to work. She to her high powered, long hours, high profile, high earning job and me to…
I have always been freelance, and my working life has been sporadic at best. Even before children, I was on maternity leave of sorts. I’ve never earned much money, had the need for office clothes, or had a job title. I’m a bumbler, and I probably always will be. My lack of direction and drive has been a constant disappointment to me and despite my best efforts and many sleepless nights, the desire to succeed has never been strong enough for me to really make decisions and push myself. Having children has provided a perfect foil for putting off my career once more.
So, career-free and newly abandoned by my friend, being on maternity leave morphed into being a Stay At Home Mum. Frustrated, bedraggled and with a new sense of desperation to get my house in order, I put it off again, and a second pregnancy followed quickly. And what joy I felt when I heard my friend’s voice on a crackly phone line saying “I think I need to talk to you about double buggies”. Not only would she be around during the little babyhood of my second but this meant we would be the same again! Forget the job, forget the money. We are mums of two – war vets – doing it together.
But the gulf was too wide to cross. We are still friends of course, and see one another regularly, but it has changed. Her second maternity leave was supported by her full time nanny who she kept on, so whilst I struggled on buses with the double buggy day in day out, she skipped off to mummy -and-me yoga and sat in coffee shops reading the paper. As I grew more tired, slower, more resentful, she sat back and enjoyed her newborn in a way that I could only dream of. And my attempts to fit us back into the same hole seemed more and more desperate by the day.
As even the just-coffee-mums can only squeeze me in on their one afternoon away from the office, I feel more and more like a Shirly Hughes drawing. I am living in Alfie gets in First, and all those around me are the busy working mothers that I presumed I would be. My mother-in-law who raised children in the 70’s doesn’t understand why I’m not organizing coffee mornings, and baby sitting circles, completely ignorant of the seismic shift in the lives of most middle class families over the last 30 years.
So what do you do when you are the one left behind? Hunker down and carry on potato printing? Cancel five years from your diary and mark your life “to be continued”? Move to the suburbs and make friends with the other Stay At Home Mums who I’ve done everything I can to distance myself from? Or finally make that shift and really start valuing what I do everyday, stop looking at my achievements as second rate, and start cheering every meal I make and every nappy I change as the vital acts that they are.