Tribes of Babyland

Playgroups vs classes – where not to find your new best parent friend

To be at home with a small child is to inhabit quite a different world to the one you used to move through. It probably involves a great deal more discussion of, and close involvement with, bodily fluids of all types and hues. It’s smaller, its boundaries constrained by where you can realistically travel in the window of time your buggy-hating child will allow. It can also be extremely lonely. 

In the hunt for allies I’ve run the gamut now, from nature classes in the forest to free stay and play sessions at children’s centres. I’ve gradually realised that Babyland comprises two distinct territories – the groups, and the classes – each with their own rules, customs and inhabitants. 

I used to think it was worth paying £100 for a block of classes, because I’d be sure to meet some like-minded friends. This was hopelessly naive. These classes are not for making friends. Sing and sign, baby sensory, music, swimming – they’re all for the babies! On one level of course this is obvious – it’s not me that needs to be stimulated by lying on my back under a rainbow parachute while bubbles float past, and my jingle bell shaking is already almost in sync with the music. 

And yet despite all evidence to the contrary, every time I dragged E to another of these classes, I persuaded myself that it was also an investment for me. It wouldn’t matter if E lay there like a grumpy potato for an hour, because I’d meet my New Best Friend and she’d embrace the shrivelled raisin of my soul and we’d bond over how badly we needed haircuts before running off hand in hand to the nearest pub to cry/laugh together over glasses of chilled sauv blanc. 

It didn’t happen. I should have known. 

The extortionate price tag of these classes necessitates this focus on our babies. To get us to go back after the free trial and shell out for a block of ten before paying for the next term too, they have to make us believe that by taking our babes swimming for an hour a week or massaging their tiny legs or sticking them in a tutu for ‘ballet’, we are being the best parents we possibly could be. All these activities must be framed as vital investments in our children. Your four month old needs to learn to swim under water to set them up for swimming when they’re six. Sing and sign will help your baby communicate earlier. I don’t even know what baby sensory classes are meant to do, but it must be important because everybody does them. 

It’s not that I didn’t buy into all of this myself – in fact I’ve tried everything on offer across South London and Edinburgh, and spent the price of a designer pram on it in the process. (God forbid that little E’s lack of baby yoga expertise prevent her representing Great Britain in the 2036 Olympics.) I just hoped I’d meet some like-minded people along the way. But little did I realise that when you’re there for your baby’s future, you’re not there to make friends. Don’t interrupt your little darling’s investigation of a maraca lest you stunt their fledgling career as a concert pianist before it has even begun. There’s no time for chitchat when you’re frantically trying to get your baby to wear the Santa hat rather than stuff it in her mouth. Sure, you might manage a few pleasantries and some light moaning about your lack of sleep. But the jump from small talk to extracurricular coffee and cake often seems insurmountable.

Playgroups, on the other hand, are for parents. This is counterintuitive, as to walk into a playgroup is to walk into a wall of noise and to confront a sea of bright plastic and crushed melty sticks. In actuality though, the toys are just there to keep the children occupied enough that they’ll ignore their parents for a blissful few moments at a time, and toddle off by themselves. The parents there are all seeking a moment of adult, human connection across the toy car or play kitchen. But there’s a catch. Most people are there with their NCT pals, or have been going and chatting to the same women for weeks and weeks, since the days they had a tiny newborn and existed permanently on the verge of hysterical tears. If, say, you are adrift in a new city with no friends or even acquaintances to call upon, playgroups can feel even lonelier than sitting at home by yourself. 

What you must do is zero in on any other losers/loners like you (me). Doesn’t matter if their friend just went to grab a coffee. That’s your opening – use it. However once you’re past the initial greetings, it’s crucial to observe that a type of double-speak must be deployed at all times. You are there to make friends, and yet you must act as if you couldn’t care less about making friends. Let it show and you will become tainted with the whiff of desperation as malodorous as baby sick. 

Pretend that you are indeed there for the sake of your child, and hope that you can exchange pleasantries week by week, and slowly, so slowly, forge some kind of meaningful relationship. Unfortunately, the conversation naturally revolves around the babies. How many months? Walking? Talking? Sleeping? Eating? Boring. I don’t care about your child. What I want to know is do you read books, what’s your favourite film, Kit Harrington or Idris Elba.

But maybe you don’t want to know those things about me. Maybe you really are just there so your child can try out some new toys. Maybe the answer is to hold out for the school gates, and join a book club in the meantime. But I don’t think so. I think you’re just the same as me – a tired, confused, slightly dishevelled person trying to figure out who they are now and where they fit in this new world. So that’s why I keep going back, week after week, until I find my New Best Friend and she looks at me over our lukewarm teas and jammy dodgers and says, ‘Screw this, let’s go to the pub.’

Ally bally, Ally bally bee: the disturbing nature of nursery rhymes

Can we all acknowledge that the world of nursery rhymes is as grotesque and barbaric as that of Grimms’ Fairy Tales? We’ve got Humpty Dumpty, broken beyond repair. There are blackbirds which peck off noses, and did you know that the woman who lived in the shoe with all those children resorted to whipping them all soundly and then packing them off to bed? 

I worry about how to explain this universe to my daughter. She’s obsessed with nursery rhymes at the moment, and with trying to finding a context for them in her own life. She already searches for her own stuffed sheep after we read about Bo Peep’s desperate search; surely it’s only a matter of time before she’s brainstorming military strategy in the manner of the Grand Old Duke of York. 

There’s something which feels very ritualistic and almost occult about these rhymes which have endured for generations, often coming alongside a set of prescribed actions. The turns of phrase used are odd, and I find that we recite them blindly, without stopping to consider the meaning attached. Is ‘Ring-a-ring of roses’ truly about the plague or is that just apocryphal? Is ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ actually an allegory about the Tudor court? 

In Scotland, all toddlers get given a free CD of nursery rhymes from the Scottish Book Trust. This is a genuinely lovely initiative and my own toddler has had great fun dancing to these. And yet there’s one in particular which stands out for me even amongst the weirdness of all the rest. I don’t think it’s well known outside of Scotland, so here’s the first verse below:

Ally bally, ally bally bee,

Sittin’ on yer mammy’s knee,

Greetin’ for a wee bawbee,

Tae buy some Coulter’s candy.

If the Scots language has bemused you, this is indeed about a child crying for money with which to buy sweets. I’m not musical so I can’t talk about keys or anything like that, but this nursery rhyme is intoned soft and slow, at odd with the rather harsh meaning. I didn’t first come across this on the CD we received. This is a mainstay of baby groups here in Scotland. I’ve heard it at every single free library Bookbugs music session we’ve attended, as well as at other music classes, including a lovely guitar rendition by a well-known local folk singer. 

But what is Coulter’s candy and why are we singing about it? This little ditty is in fact an advertising jingle from the 19th century. Robert Coltart wrote it to help sell his aniseed flavoured confectionary, at least according to wikipedia. Apparently the recipe has been lost to time, and Coltart’s songwriting must have been better than his pastry work, as seemingly he died penniless, buried alone in a pauper’s grave. 

Generally, I’ve only heard the first verse repeated at groups, which makes sense although the song does go on beyond this. There are more bossy extortions to children to emotionally blackmail their parents to obtain candy, or failing that to go straight to the next obvious solution of running away to sea to earn some money to be spent on candy. It all gets a bit grim in the second verse, with the description of a child as ‘A rickle o’ banes’ covered over with skin’. Candy comes to the rescue and gives ‘Poor wee Jeanie’ a double chin, but that’s perhaps almost as problematic in this time of childhood obesity. Coltart couldn’t resist some more self-aggrandising in later verses, including the line ‘Coulter he’s a affa funny man’. As this turned out to be his only legacy I suppose we can’t really blame him. 

There’s something so tragicomic about all the solemn recitations of this song at playgroups across Scotland, not to mention the fact it’s survived when both its author and the product it’s selling have not. I can’t help thinking of a post-apocalyptic society where our children’s lullabies are variations on the McDonald’s jingle, long after the golden arches have crumbled to dust and we’ve all forgotten what McFlurries taste like.