‘”So how’s the garden?” someone finally asked me, just as I was trying to sneak a fully-saturated breastpad out of my bra. She startled me, and the pad slipped from my hand and slapped down on the parquet flooring like a raw salmon steak. We both stared at it.’
In this exclusive extract from her new book Mum Face, writer Grace Timothy chronicles the highs, lows and awkwardness of trying to make friends on maternity leave.
When my baby was 6 months old I felt strong enough to have another crack at making some friends. I was a bit bored now I was no longer fixated on sleep, too.
My NCT friend Lou (a constant companion in the first few months) was long since back at work and we only hung out at weekends, so I needed something, someone. To talk about the extinction of my sex life, how great my kid was at sleeping, that kind of thing. I wanted to belly laugh, even if my pelvic floor wasn’t quite up to it yet.
At first, I’d replaced friends with Netflix, obviously. My husband and I had begun talking about Frank Underwood and Piper Chapman as if they were real people. But eventually I knew I’d have to suck it up and make some new friends.
‘What did you do, Mum?’ I was back at their house for the fourth day in a row, mainly because the village shop had closed early so the owners, Malcolm and Lesley, weren’t around for our usual 1pm chat.
‘I was totally alone. Totally. Your dad would occasionally drag us to whichever theatre he was working at, where I’d sit backstage and take advice from mostly gay dressers and the odd elderly actress, but then we’d go home and it would just be you and me. I cried and cried, but nobody heard.’
‘Fuck! Well, that’s bleak. No friends, though? Who did you ring and chat to?’
‘Dr Miriam Stoppard. A couple of times. I got her number through Dad’s agent. I mean, we didn’t meet, but she talked me through a couple of your fevers. Then she changed her number, I think.’
‘I don’t know what to doooo…’ I moaned, as my mum basically ignored me and waggled her tongue at the baby.
‘This isn’t like you, Grace. You’ve always been very quick to make friends. I think you just need to approach people with babies. Just zero in on the ones with buggies and say hello. Be brazen.’
I felt anything but brazen at that moment. I didn’t look, feel or sound like myself so it would surely be doubly difficult to persuade someone to befriend me.
But then, I thought to myself, my mum did it without social media, didn’t she? She didn’t have filters and Photoshop and the worldwide internet. I was hooked up, so to speak, and quickly found out that where we lived, it all started at Rhyme Time at the library in town. It was free – bonus! – and it was packed. And it was at 2pm, which meant there was ample time to get dressed, eat something, feed a zillion times and even accommodate an unexpected, up-the-back shit explosion after the first attempt to leave the house.
I looked around the library’s kids’ room, quickly appraising mums. There were two very distinct clans – I assumed two sets of NCT friends – one big group with very tiny babies and one smaller one with babies bigger than mine.
Elsewhere there was a pair of teenage Goths and a stay-at-home dad. I sidestepped this unlikely threesome because their kids looked about three, and toddlers still terrified me. So many teeth.
I bravely pitched up to the group with slightly older babies. The woman to my right politely asked the standard entry-level questions – name and age of child seemed to suffice – and then turned back to her companions. They were already past breastfeeding, well into weaning and nursery, so I shrank back with nothing to offer. They were wearing activewear, for Christ’s sake!
I then had to sit through a full 30 minutes of songs without knowing a single word or action. It turns out Miss Muffet was not eating her cares away. I felt STUPID for not knowing the words to a NURSERY RHYME!
Then ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ requires you to lift your baby up and down in regular reps like some kind of HIIT class. It was bullshit. And my baby slept through the entire thing.
I then had to wait a full seven days for the next session. I’d already decided I would try the group with younger two–three month-old babies, a mix of startled fawns, trying to navigate colic and cranial osteopathy and projectile vomiting. Well, I could excel here, I thought. Because I have done six months now and I know pretty much everything.
But as I approached them, I felt like I was in the wrong year at school, gangly and awkward. I know how to make friends, COME ON, I thought. On my mum’s advice, I got brazen. ‘Who wants to pop over the road for a cuppa after “Wind The Bobbin Up”?!’ I sound like a holiday rep trying to round up students for a drinking game, with my mad grin and over-rehearsed opener.
Silence. There was an awkward sharing of glances between the five women, and finally the leader of the pack – Dr Judy (doctors are the ultimate mum friends because they can prescribe) piped up, ‘Actually, we’re going to Alice’s for tea today…’
More silence as I waited for the invite. And some more silence. BIG pause. I mean, huge. Like, bigger than Alice’s vagina since she pushed out twins.
Finally: ‘…You could join us, I suppose.’ Alice did not want me to join them for tea. But I was going to. Sorry, Alice! Mama needs a bloody social circle! Obviously, it was awkward as fuck. These women had been meeting up for the past two months now – there were a lot of in-jokes and family packs of baby wipes being passed back and forth. Who do you ask for one of those things? I wondered as baby sick started to crust over on my shoulder.
‘So… how’s… the garden?’ someone finally asked me, just as I was trying to sneak a fully-saturated breastpad out of my bra. She startled me, and the pad slipped from my hand and slapped down on the parquet flooring like a raw salmon steak. We both stared at it.
What the hell are you doing? FUCK! OK, just breathe, relax. No! No! Stop that! Stop doing that weird smile that makes your chin stick out. Relaaaaax. Think of something to say, think of something to say, ask a question… Pre-Baby-Me – a social butterfly, a real talker – was going berserk inside my head while the current me remained totally silent but for the creak of the upcycled chair beneath me. Crafty Alice had apparently found the time to paint all her furniture in Farrow & Ball Ammonite, a twin attached to each tit.
The Other Mother looked at me expectantly. Just as this woman struggled to get a conversation started with me, I was struggling to answer.
It turns out it’s all one big struggle nowadays, socialising. I used to be the life and soul of the party. I think I’m smiling. Am I smiling? I looked down at the car seat to see my daughter was still asleep. Wake up, kid, for fuck’s sake, wake UP!
‘Sorry, I missed that, what did you say?’ I was stalling.
‘I just asked, how’s the garden? Last week at Rhyme Time I think you said your husband was laying some decking and you were hoping to paint it grey?’
Jesus fuck, I’m boring! Is that really what I made time to talk about? Time I could have spent with my eyes shut, imagining not having to wear a bra anymore. I would have disappeared to the loo for a moment to gather myself, but where do you put the baby if you go to the loo? Leave her with these potential sex traffickers? Or balance her on top of the cistern? There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Nowhere to pee.
‘The garden is good. I mean, it’s the right size, you know? We haven’t done it yet – the decking or the grey paint – but… we’ve just been so busy, you know?’
This isn’t me, I wanted to tell her. But The Other Mother looked relieved so I can’t have done too badly. I realised she has sensed a reprieve from this banal conversation is on the horizon, because I’ve been ‘busy’. I wince. I know what’s coming next. My least favourite question is on the tip of her tongue. ‘Oh, what have you been up to?’
Feeding, changing, cleaning, feeding, burping, eating, eating, changing, eating, feeding, burping, cleaning, changing, bathing, trying to poo, crying, cooking, dozing, boxset watching, feeding, rocking, rocking, rocking, dozing.
‘Oh! You know!’
I don’t know what I meant by this, and neither did she, but it doesn’t matter because her baby woke up and she was busy. Thank Christ for that.
I went back to my cold cup of tea, which tasted like flour. The cup had a picture of a chicken on it and brown rings inside like a tree. My lip caught on the chipped porcelain. I quickly licked away the blood so the mums wouldn’t see and think I’m weird.
On paper I am somewhat of a mum-catch. I am a writer, I work in an enigmatic world of glamour and frivolities, I meet celebrities, I go to London, I travel abroad. I should have awesome anecdotes. But my brain is addled. ‘Baby Brain’, Judy called it and she’s a doctor so I assume it’s a thing. I couldn’t remember yesterday or the day before, which day it is now, what we did last weekend.
I flounder, hear the most boring things sliding out of my mouth but totally lack the dynamism to change tack. If I met me last year I’d have run a mile. In fact, Pre-Baby-Me would have run straight past this nightmarish room with its snot-encrusted muslins and browned Fisher-Price toys, ducking from view as she passed the window.
I tried to tune in to the conversations going on around me, to pick up some technique tips. They were talking about a ‘buggy babes’ workout, mum tums, stroller recalls, nursery schools, the nanny who wouldn’t stop looking at her phone… It was becoming a chore, trying to remember their names, their kids’ names (all the kids look the same) and fielding their questions, all of which felt like a loaded gun: have you brushed her teeth, brushed her gums, used a dummy, quit sugar, quit dairy, considered Montessori, tried Lanolin, moved her into her cot…?
Was all this chat flowing so naturally because they’d been desperate to become mothers? Is that why I was struggling to fill in the gaps, because I wasn’t ready for this? Were they just immersing themselves in this stuff because it’s what they’d always wanted, what they ached to fill their brains with? Like when people get engaged and devote days to picking party favours and seat covers?
Case in point – for my wedding I left everything until the week before and felt accomplished when I managed to pick up a veil from a fancy dress shop with just two days to go.
‘I finally collected the Baby Bjorn bouncer yesterday, guys!’ It’s a mum in a Breton top and skinny jeans (standard issue mum uniform, topped off with a glittery ballet pump from Boden that screams, I may be sensibly attired but I still have disco feet) and she was positively glowing. I understood completely – I had heard it’s like a babysitter has turned up in your living room with one of these things.
‘Oh my God, it’s the best, isn’t it?’
‘The best! He’s just getting SO good at bouncing in it!’
‘It’s the best! Is it the best? Because we haven’t got it yet. Everyone says it’s the best. Is it really the best?’
‘It really is, THE BEST!’
‘Right, I’m just going to get it. I’m going today, I’m just going to get it. Online, obviously.’
‘Obviously. Oh, you’ll love it, it’s the best.’
Pre-Baby Me tutted in my head, slipped a manicured hand inside her bag to fish out her phone and Tweeted something cutting. I know, I know. But they’re right, it is the best. And I’m desperate for adult company. I’ve lost all my old friends, I need new ones, damn it! You’re actually being a bit bitchy. And I’m fine actually, fuck you very much, Pre-Baby-Me.
Oh God, now Judy’s sitting down next to me. What’s her son’s name… Jack? Jacob? Little Judy? Pre-Baby-Me rolled her eyes.
‘Come on then, Sam, let’s sit down here. Oh, Sammy-Sam! Oh, you’re such a little bookworm, aren’t you, darling? He absolutely LOVES his books, this one.’
That’s not a fucking book, Judy. Pre-Baby-Me was at it again. It’s some fabric flaps with some stripes on it. There are no words. And he’s chewing on it. He’s probably ingesting a fair amount of cotton fibre, actually.
‘He so is, Judy! He just looks very wise, doesn’t he? You can tell he’s very bright.’
Judy treated us all like nurses. I put her buggy in the car boot for her and handed her Sam’s soggy ‘books’ once she’s strapped him into the car seat. I was not her friend, I was her assistant.
And she was so competitive via the kids. Which was futile because they didn’t really do much yet. So it was basically over how much formula they’d chugged or how many shits they’d done. She said things like, ‘I won’t have any of that nonsense, Sam,’ and ‘I can’t WAIT to get back to work and use my brain!’
Jesus, my brain has never been worked this hard, I thought.
I didn’t like who I was around these women. I’m sure they were perfectly nice, but there was still so much work to do to get to the point of being relaxed and open with them. It was exhausting and I was already knackered. I needed the common ground to be really obvious, I didn’t have the energy to dig for it. I admitted defeat and promised myself an hour of House of Cards when I got home.
I took to sitting with Stay-At-Home Dad at Rhyme Time, listening to his lengthy list of parenting tips. I had quickly realised he was reciting Gina Ford but I couldn’t face the others, and he expected very little in the way of replies.
I hated Stay-At- Home Dad because his kid was always ill but he insisted on bringing him nonetheless. I have always had an issue with vomiting and catching bugs in general. Even the common cold can mean:
1. You AND your baby AND your husband are ill.
2. Nobody sleeps for a week.
3. Having finally nailed sleeping through, you have to start all over again.
4. My mum won’t come near because she has asthma, and so I can’t offload the extra washing to her for up to a week.
It’s all very well being stoic and not encouraging a sick-note child (hi, I am that child) but it’s as if there’s no concern for the consequences. The missed holidays, nursery sessions, family parties, that narrow window your husband and you have booked in as the one opportunity for sex that month…
‘Don’t get too close,’ they say with an eye-roll, ‘Little Jacob was up all night puking!’ As Jacob runs up to your child and licks her teeth.
As I ducked to avoid snotty kid’s fifth hacking cough, which is basically acting as a catapult for a sinus system which behaves like Noel Edmonds’ Gunge machine, I wondered if I could just rest my head here on the floor for a minute, I was so tired.
Then it happened.
In she walked, a vision in a duffel coat and woolly hat, chubby six-month-old on her hip. I knew her! I’d had a holiday job at her sister’s boutique during university, and had shared a couple of shifts with her.
Marianne! She’d moved to London to be a designer at a glossy magazine, but now here she was in the same town as me again and wielding a baby as if it was a friend-magnet. I couldn’t believe my luck and waited for a posse of NCT friends to follow in her wake. None followed.
‘MARIANNE, MARIANNE!’ I screamed. Everyone was alarmed and all the babies began to cry but this miraculous woman still sauntered over and after a moment of kind but confused smiles, thank God she recognised me.
And just like that, I was A Friend again. Not only did we have a whole bunch of things in common from the pre-baby years, but our kids were born just a few weeks apart, we’d both landed in the countryside with a bump and were still reeling as exiles from Soho’s magazine district.
She hadn’t bothered with NCT because her two best school friends had their babies just four months previous, but otherwise she hadn’t met any new friends because of an awful round of mastitis, infections and blocked ducts. PERFECT! Of course I was sympathetic, and over-awed as she’d fed through the whole fiasco, even when she’d been hospitalised so they could drain pints of pus from one infected boob – but it meant she too was a social pariah. YAY!
We saved each other, first with garbled verbal diarrhoea about all the shared joys and traumas, those glorious hours where you say everything and it just spills out of you, hour after hour, breathless rushes of information.
Then in companionable silence, the best kind. She knew all the hottest clubs – Mumbabas singing group at the 12th Scout Hut, Acorns at the Baptist Church (they did give your kid a bible and sang hymns rather the nursery rhymes, but they also had the best tea) and Baby Sensory, which did cost a fair whack but there were no religious overtones. Thanks to the infected tits, Marianne was new to all this too, so we faced them together.
We also spent a lot of time alone, outside, marvelling at mums with multiple kids at the park, dodging llamas at local farms. A goat once ate the piece of paper my baby was holding onto. It’s savage out there. We actually felt more comfortable in skanky village halls once we’d realised all the cafes and restaurants got a bit snippy when our buggy brigade of two rocked up.
Mum Face: The memoir of a woman who gained a baby and lost her sh*t by Grace Timothy is out now, published by HarperCollins, £12.99