Several mornings a week, you’ll find me in my local coffee shop, surrounded by my tribe : a group of freelancers and aspiring entrepreneurs, all tapping keyboards to the sound of steaming almond milk. The beans are single origin; the water jugs filled with on-trend herbs. It’s my happy place. Except on Tuesdays, when the shaking of tambourines, screeching of tiny lungs and discordant dirge I’m informed is Itsy Bitsy Spider sends the usual clientele running. Downstairs, mums and babies are gathering for their weekly singalong, also known as the non-parent’s worst nightmare.
Technically, I’m a non-parent, so can roll my eyes in indignation. But not for long – I’m eight months pregnant. My husband and I are massively excited about the arrival of our first child. The nursery is stocked with hand-knitted clothes and enough nappies to last a nuclear winter. And I’ve made the baby a playlist of our favourite songs. But the one bit of prep I’ve neglected is spending recent weeks attempting to make ‘mum friends’ at a private antenatal group. I have no desire – post birth – to sit in a circle, butchering nursery rhymes with a bunch of women with whom the only thing I have in common is passing a human out of our vaginas. I understand the impulse to reach out to those who have been through the same experience but it’s the expectation that new mums ought to prioritise other parents over their existing support network that I object to. (I’m attending NHS antenatal classes for the practical side of things).
Private antenatal organisations in the UK have been criticised for all sorts of things from the dogged promotion of birth without medical intervention to their ‘Breastapo’ (‘breast is best’) volunteers. ‘Ignore the propaganda – it’s about making friends,’ I’m told. Fair enough, but pregnancy is a funny time – both blissful and unnerving. I’ve never felt the desire to share what I’m going through with strangers, because we happened to conceive at the same time. I’d much rather talk to those who love and know me best. I realise I’m lucky – as a freelancer, I’m used to my own company. Plus, I’ve got my mum and mother-in-law on the other end of the phone and a neighbour with a 10-month old upstairs.
Relying solely on other first-timers for support can be a double-edged sword. Instead of alleviating post-natal anxieties, antenatal groups can feed insecurities. A friend, whose son is one, is part of a WhatsApp group formed from her classes. Every day, there’s a new thread of panic-stricken texts about sleep routines. My friend Jess was the first of our crew to get pregnant three years ago, so paid up to a local group. A high-flier, she was concerned about the transition from boardroom to ball pit. She didn’t make lifelong friends, but clicked with a few women, who preserved her sanity in the early days of motherhood. I know others who bonded with their groups and hang out together years later. They say it was easier to have the leaky boob chat with other mums than bore their non-parent friends.
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But I worry not enough emphasis is placed on the value of old friendships. One man I used to work with admitted he and his wife distanced themselves from friends who had opposing views on raising children. They now spend their time on grown-up playdates with the parents of their kids’ classmates. Another couple advised we won’t see our mates for at least five years because children take up all your energy. Of course some relationships will crumble – not every friendship lasts. But real mates will understand if I flake on occasion. If you make your children the foundations of your friendships, what happens when they grow up? As for my baby missing out due to my antisocial ways, I know the minute he or she starts nursery, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to make their own friends.
Recently, I had a night in with my three oldest friends. After 10 minutes of cooing over my bump, we moved on to Jude’s new job, Ceevs’ Burning Man trip and the hot guy Nikki scored on holiday. We watched Magic Mike, scoffed Haribo and were 15 again. By the time you read this, hopefully, I’ll be doing the same thing with my baby in my arms. My world will have changed and I’ll need all the support I can get. But it won’t be other new mums I’ll be turning to.