What I’ve Learned About Friendship as a Parent

Nobody told me that being a good friend would mean leaving my kid at home

Back in the time before Corona, I wrote a piece on Medium about the difficulty of combining friendship and parenthood. Of course, now it feels hopelessly dated and quaint, with all the talk of actually meeting other human beings in person and frequenting bars and cafés. You may still enjoy it, as a relic of a more innocent time, and a reminder of the problems we’ll hopefully encounter again one day.

(Not a) Book review: Emmeline Pankhurst (Little People, Big Dreams) by Lisbeth Kaiser and Ana Sanfelippo

A post masquerading as a book review when it’s really just a lengthy parental humblebrag

What do you want to know about me? Oh, here you go – I bought my 18 month old a book about Emmeline Pankhurst recently. There you go, infer all you like about my pseudo-intellectual, neurotic-feminist credentials. Does it sound like a dry read to you? It is. It’s so incredibly dry. Informative, absolutely, but there’s not an ounce of humour or even excitement to be gleaned from its pages. It talks about law-breaking, unjust arrests and daring acts of revolution with all the verve of an accounting manual. 

But E genuinely seems to like it. She now requests it in that autocratic manner of all toddlers – ‘Panks! Panks!’. I’m aware this sentence puts me squarely in the camp of Those Mums – the ones who swear their child’s favourite food is broccoli, and they’ve always preferred quinoa to chocolate. 

 I do feel faintly ashamed that my indoctrination is so blatant. I’d always assumed I would impart my political beliefs and values by osmosis and eye-rolling, in the manner of all parents everywhere. I thought it would take much longer before I could create a child who would confidently parrot my views in public. And yet here we are: I can pause at the end of a sentence in the book and she’s memorised the ending: ‘How were women treated E?’ ‘Unfairwly!’ ‘And what did they want?’ ‘Wotes…’ 

Bear in mind this is a child who only dimly grasps that she’s a girl and not a cat, and yet she’s able to regurgitate the word ‘suffragettes.’ What even is this? 

I can’t identify what E actually enjoys about the book. The story is quite abstract and the illustrations are pretty but unexciting. Yes, obviously, to be completely honest, I am of course hoping that her early fondness for this text predicts her incipient revolutionary values and superior intellect. Surely it’s either that or else I’m teaching her that it’s cool to break the law. Best to polish the anecdote anyway, so it can be trotted out either in court or in her Harvard graduation speech, as appropriate.

Child-free Activities: a Hierarchy

Photo mine, from a very child-free Italian holiday

Has the impossible happened and you have found yourself unexpectedly possessed of a chunk of child-free time? Are you standing frozen, mouth agape, utterly bemused about what to do next? Fear not! Presenting for your perusal the ultimate hierarchy of child-free activities! 

10. Staring at a blank wall while intermittently scrolling on your phone

Feels relaxing in the moment but only contributes to the deep ennui and despair within your soul.

9. Washing dishes

It’s amazing how relaxing doing chores can be without a toddler squeezing your knees and yelling ‘Up. Up. Up. Mummy!’ until you give in and stop. 

8. Work.

Obviously, it’s work, but I hear that some jobs allow uninterrupted hot beverages. 

7. Baking

A crossover activity, for when you want to feel productive but you also very much need a reward.

6. ’Self-care’

This differs for us all. I’ve actually seen some parents suggest a trip to the dentist qualifies, which I can only view as symptomatic of how deeply they’ve been destroyed by their children. I know that a haircut qualifies for others, (see https://caitlinwrites.com/2019/11/21/the-secret-to-surviving-a-haircut/ for my thoughts on this) or perhaps a manicure. Personally I find getting my nails done anxiety-inducing – from the moment the polish is applied I’m plagued with worry about preserving it/painstakingly removing it/living for weeks with chipped and fraying nails. I’m extremely lazy and so I enjoy wallowing in a bath and ignoring the chaos behind the locked door. 

5. Watching TV

Arguably, this should be higher on the list. But I don’t feel that I fully enjoy watching television now; I’m always too conscious of all the other things I should be doing. I end up unsuccessfully multi-tasking, doing life-admin on my phone whilst my overstimulated brain flicks all a-flutter from screen to screen. 

4. Creative activity of your choice

It’s amazing how rewarding origami in a darkened room can be when the alternative is wrestling an overtired toddler.

3. Exercise

It took a while but I have finally realised that endorphins do in fact exist and that exercise does make me feel good. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an internal struggle each and every time I contemplate it. 

2. Reading

More deeply escapist than TV, and so higher up this list. Who doesn’t want to occasionally (always) spend an hour in somebody’s else head, living another type of life? 

1. Time with friends

That rush where you remember who you once were, and who you still are when not mum first and foremost, can carry you through a lot of lonely and tedious times. Plus, there’s often alcohol involved.

Also and always, sleeping. Obviously. 

Confessions of the sleep-deprived

A list, presented without comment. 

  1. You walk down the street and find yourself looking at people, random people, shiny happy people, and sourly wondering how much sleep they had the night before. You are certain that it was more than you. Your resentment is as bitter as it is unwarranted. 
  2. You turn to caffeine and sugar, in the hope they will help. They do, in that you actually survive the day. But the tiredness is not so much banished as smoothed over. It’s still there, gritty and burning, beneath the sweet rush of your instant coffee and chocolate hobnob. You still feel exhausted, but now hopped up and nervy too. 
  3. You fantasise over how much you could get done in your life if only you were less tired. You would do pilates every day. You would have planned and prepped every meal for the next three weeks. The house would be immaculate. The novel would be finished. You would probably be singlehandedly sorting out Brexit, if you could just get another couple of hours every night. 
  4. When you are eventually able to go to bed you will lie there, desperate to sleep, utterly unable to sleep. 
  5. It’s hard to remember a time when you weren’t tired. Surely you’ve been this tired since you were a baby yourself. Memories of sleeping for eight hours are probably just sleepy hallucinations.
  6. Everything feels insurmountable and unbearably tragic. Scrolling idly through your phone and reading the news is disastrous. You will cry real tears over the death of a guinea pig in Gloucester. 
  7. Naps are alluring, so alluring, but to be treated with caution. They should only be resorted to in cases of extreme exhaustion. If indulged in when only very tired rather than one step away from legally dead, they merely result in extreme grogginess and a descent into greater irritability. 
  8. The internet will tell you that your baby needs around 6 hours more sleep a day than  you. And yet somehow they seem to be awake constantly. Especially at 2am, when you’re ready to crawl under the cot and die. 
  9. These are confessions because in real life there’s nothing you want to talk about less than baby sleep. You don’t want anybody else’s advice. You’d rather not hear about what they did or didn’t do. Deep down, you don’t believe things will ever get better. Part of you genuinely feels that this will still be your life fifty years from now. 
  10. You cling to anything you can blame. Teething. Jabs. Summer evenings. Leaps. The phases of the moon. Anything, because the only other option is to blame yourself. (Should have taught them to self-settle. Should never have held them while they napped.) And there’s nothing as damaging to the possibility of sleep as lying awake at 3am wracked with guilt about your failings as a parent. My findings – a glass of wine works nicely to dispel such uncomfortable notions and to put you to sleep, for as long as the tiny dictator allows. 

The hell that is holiday planning

I’m sure there was a point in my life when the prospect of going on holiday didn’t fill me with an all-consuming dread. I definitely recall there was a time when it was enjoyable, exciting even, to speculate over where to go and then look at lots of over-filtered sunny pictures in the process of narrowing it down. I have a friend who told me years ago she found the whole holiday-booking process horrendous. I laughed politely and murmured agreement, not actually getting it at all. I’m sorry, Liz. I understand now. It’s truly terrible. 

My husband and I have spent the last few months talking about going on holiday. It’s now August, and we’re not going on holiday. To sum up the issues involved: I wanted somebody else to plan and book the entire thing for me, but I wanted it to be perfect and cheap and I didn’t want to pay this person or have to interact with another human being because I’m also tight and suspicious and I know I’m capable of using Google. 

Post-child, there seemed to be so many more factors to consider. For the first time as adults we’re living within visiting distance of friends and family, and now that we have a toddler they’re paying us more attention than they have in years.  I believe the solution to fitting a holiday in between social engagements is to plan it in advance, but that’s for people who can manage to get through a calendar year without having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car. 

All we could seem to agree on is that we wanted to go to a villa or an apartment somewhere in the world. Anywhere with a separate room for the baby. And we wanted to be able to cook because the thought of hotel buffets made us both very anxious, food being the essential point of any holiday. Genuinely, a bad meal has ruined many an evening out and created much relationship drama, so this is an important consideration. 

Aside from that, the whole of Europe was up for grabs. We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know where to find anywhere to go. We didn’t know how to manage all the logistics of going abroad with a baby. We knew there were answers to be found, but the time involved in finding them seemed always to be beyond our grasp. When it comes to research, D and I approach it from a position of competition. We both secretly feel we are better at it, and distrust everything the other person comes up with. Any suggestions must be researched by us both individually. It’s a time-consuming process. We felt like we needed a holiday to plan our holiday. 

The entire thing was making me feel exceptionally anxious whenever I thought about it. It was really almost a relief when we realised it was entirely a moot point, as the whole having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car scenario had rendered our available holiday funds basically non-existent. Instead we’re staying in Edinburgh for a week. We’ll go to festival shows every day and the only decisions involved will be gin and tonic or white wine. I can’t wait.

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.’