Guess what?! Just because you’re pregnant/a new mum doesn’t mean you have to accept any pregnant woman/new mum that you meet as a mate. Honestly! You have every right to choose your friends now as you did before, just make sure you choose wisely…
Living in limbo land
The first two trimesters of pregnancy can be a little isolating. It’s rather like existing in limbo, between ‘normalcy’ and ‘pregnancy’, where people look at you that second too long to decide if you’re expecting or just too fond of family-size Mars bars. It’s a battle just trying to get to grips with the long list of ‘things you cannot do’ and the rather short one of ‘allowable activities’. And don’t mention the impact on your social life: friends forgetting that you just can’t party till dawn (or even 11pm) or have Orgasms (the cocktails, that is), or eat anything that hasn’t been turned into charcoal. You enter a sort of Twilight Zone, where your old fun-seeking friends carry on without you and you start scaring fellow pregnant women on the bus by desperately trying to catch their eye in an attempt to get to know someone who knows what you’re going through.
Reaching the third trimester is like finally being welcomed into an exclusive club: you’re unmistakably pregnant and therefore can go to antenatal yoga or swimming classes and make a new network of friends. I envisaged developing friendships that would last beyond pregnancy and into motherhood: meeting on a weekly basis to moan about the ups and downs of motherhood, our partners, our jelly bellies, etc. This was the image conveyed by one of my friends, who had recently become a mum herself. She and the ‘mumchums’ she had met at her NCT antenatal classes sounded like they were having a hoot: going out for cocktails once in a while, having each other round for gossipy dinners while the dads babysat and of course meeting once a week with the little ones so they could play together.
Horses for courses
Certainly I had a whale of a time (pardon the pun) at my antenatal swimming classes. There we were, women of all shapes and sizes, trying desperately to jog gracefully across a baby pool to the Spice Girls while the lifeguard looked on in horror (probably at the thought of having to carry one of us onto the dry area if we had a funny turn). Afterwards, the teacher would give us tea, cakes and biscuits to ‘get our blood sugar up again’ and to provide an informal forum at which to discuss any pregnancy or birth issues. We all loved it: comparing morning sickness remedies, cravings and fears about the birth bonded us in a wonderful way.
There were also the NCT classes. A friend of mine recommended that we book ourselves onto a course purely so I could make a good, close group of friends whose babies would be roughly the same age as mine. It seemed sensible and we did gradually get to know one another during the six sessions, arranging to meet for lunch on a weekly basis.
On one such occasion, we were perilously perching on narrow stools in an ice cream parlour, attracting the nervous glances of staff and customers alike. The conversation started off well, “How did you and your partner meet?”, “What’s your job like?” etc then soon degenerated into a competition over what reusable nappy systems everyone was using. Huge sums of money, already spent, were being bandied about, “We coughed up £500 for Nubbly Nappies”, “Really? I thought they were dreadful but I absolutely loved Beauty Bots!”, while I kept schtum about my “Delicious Disposables”. Oh well, horses for courses, I thought, just because I was the only one not choosing to be environmentally friendly didn’t mean that we were from different planets did it?
Trapped in a baby bubble
Unfortunately it didn’t stop there. After we had all given birth, we would meet up every week at various locations: sometimes it was at someone’s house, sometimes we went for a walk and we even braved an organic café, where one of them said in horror, “The woman across the road from me drinks Coke! That’s so irresponsible: she’s breastfeeding!”, as if this amounted to child abuse. Good thing I was bottle feeding then, as I looked forward to my daily 6pm meeting with the fizzy stuff.
Apart from relaying the shocking drinking habits of unaware neighbours, the conversation always focused around our babies: feeding problems, sleepless nights and natural remedies for mastitis. One of the ladies was suffering from anaemia and, when I told her that (great news!) dark chocolate was a good source of iron, another one audibly drew breath and said, “There are far better sources of iron than chocolate; All Bran, for example, or spinach.” Yes, lovely with a cup of tea… chamomile, of course…
I longed for a chat about what was happening in the news or what was on at the cinema or even the latest fashion atrocities that we could only dream of getting in to, but no one seemed to want to acknowledge an outside world. I would have thought that being around your baby 24/7 would mean that, on the rare occasions when you had adult company, you would want to vary the topics for discussion but this wasn’t the case. The most salacious it ever got was ooohing! over the latest tantrum on Little Angels.
Beating the competition
As the months passed, and our babies grew, our friendship stayed static. We compared notes on getting our babies to sleep through the night, discussed the merits of The Contented Baby vs The Baby Whisperer and admired each other’s nursery furniture. However, we never really bonded as friends or mothers; in fact we seemed to be setting up a system of rivalry. One week one mum asked us why we didn’t all make our own Play Dough: “It’s so easy.” (Er, yes, and it’s so cheap to buy.) The next week, another cooed, “Now Elijah, be a good boy and eat your organic chicken and okra risotto, cooked with mummy’s best homegrown vegetable stock!”. You think I am exaggerating? I am not. On another occasion, we went to a toddlers’ group, where children called ’Izelda’ and ‘Rasputin’ ran around in stinking nappies, while their mothers hung out in cliques, suspiciously eyeing up strangers. The group activity was ‘Make your own pizza’, which sounded fun but proved to be my daughter’s and my downfall. She readily grabbed her wholemeal pizza mixture but, as it was nearing midday and she was starving, decided there was no point sticking cheese, peppers and tomato on raw dough when you can eat the ingredients straight away. The organiser tutted and said, “You’re supposed to put it on your pizza dear,” and rolled her eyes, while my friends stared at us bewilderedly, as their children dutifully decorated their pizzas. My daughter started howling, the lady sighed and remarked, “Someone is in a bad mood,” and I ran out of the hall, daughter in arms, vowing never to return again. (And now I wonder why she has an eating problem.)
Am I a closet alcoholic
I felt we were all getting stuck in a rut so, one bright summer’s day, I suggested we all go to a local cocktail bar where they did half-price drinks from 5-7pm, thereby delegating the stressful period of toddler bedtime to the dads but getting home in time for cocoa at 9pm. They all looked at me as if I had horns coming out of my head and was tripping on Calpol. “Your trouble,” spat one, “Is that you’re desperately trying to regain your youth!” I was gobsmacked. “Well, since I am only 32 I still think of myself as fairly young,” I retorted and soon left, feeling like a closet alcoholic.
I revealed my experiences to the friend who had so strongly endorsed the NCT classes for their friendship-making potential. “Christ!” she exclaimed. ”You’ve really lucked out. They sound like complete nutters. We’re always out sipping cocktails. Bad luck, mate.”
It was great to know that at least I wasn’t a scandalous mother on a mission to inebriate my mumchums. But I also felt rather resentful at landing in a group where motherhood took precedence over everything else including one’s own personal identity. As I related the latest weekly instalement of my experiences to my friend, she gently suggested that perhaps visiting with my mumchums was doing me more harm than good and that I might find better support or friendship elsewhere.
I took her point on board but decided, instead, to limit our get-togethers to once a month. Oh and to write a feature about this to see if I was the only mother out there who didn’t really get on well with the friends she met through pregnancy and motherhood.
How to handle your friendships
I spoke to psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, who specialises in issues that women face in pregnancy and motherhood in particular. To my relief, not getting on with mumchums is nothing new. “It’s remarkably common in fact,” Dr Wheatley reassured me. “Women often don’t realise that the friends they make when they are pregnant might not remain so once the babies come along.” Great, but why does this happen? Surely since we all have something in common – a baby – we should all be getting on like a house on fire? Absolutely not, according to Wheatley. “Life changes in a huge way once you become a mother. Issues such as your experience of pregnancy, what the labour and birth were like, how your partner is adjusting, what support you are getting from your parents and how you’re feeding the baby can really affect the way you see things and how you react to others.”
This in turn can influence your attitudes towards your own style of parenting and that of others. However, since there is no right and wrong in bringing up children, it can leave women feeling vulnerable and uncertain. “We get no training when we become mums; we’re just supposed to get on with it and that can be quite daunting,” explains Wheatley. “Often mothers who are very unsure of themselves and what they are doing are the loudest and most vociferous of commentators on other people’s parenting techniques. This doesn’t mean that they know it all; in fact it can reflect a genuine feeling of insecurity which they try to defeat by being overly opinionated.
“The problem is that mothers aren’t really given much praise,” Wheatley continues. “People are often quick to judge or criticise but aren’t very generous with compliments. I see this with the mums I meet; if I tell them they’re doing a great job, their eyes well up with tears; they just aren’t used to being praised, which is very sad. Bear that in mind next time someone sounds too critical and try not to take their words and tone to heart.”
What to do though if this constant competitiveness is driving you potty? ”Just because other people have different ideas about how to do things isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Wheatley advises. “However, there’s no point sticking with people you cannot be friends with. My advice would be to try to go to as many mum and baby groups as possible; do the circuit if you can bear it! At these groups, there are often mums standing round smiling shyly – go up and have a chat. Chances are you will meet someone with similar interests. And for pregnant women reading this and worrying, don’t! Make as many friends as possible but bear in mind you may lose some along the way… and that doesn’t really matter.”
About Dr Sandra Wheatley…. Dr Wheatley has over a decade’s experience as a psychologist and has worked with the University of Leicester on matters relating to antenatal and postnatal depression. She has recently published a book called Nine women, nine months, nine lives, examining the experiences of nine women expecting their first baby and has appeared on such programmes as The Wright Stuff, Big Brother’s Little Brother and Baby House.