When I became a parent it was like my orbit changed. I circled my baby daughter with something akin to a gravitational pull. Although I scarcely stopped moving, sometimes in terms of real distance I went no further than the front gate and back in the course of an entire day. My time felt both very full and very empty. A trip to the chemist for supplies and a baby health check seemed to occupy an entire day’s worth of planning and execution.
Being on this new trajectory, I no longer crossed paths with my old friends. It wasn’t that I had intentionally dropped non-parent friends from my life, nor they me from theirs, but we no longer travelled on the same arc. The bars, the road trips, the parties they invited me to passed by a million miles away. My radius was short and lonely.
So when I found out about mothers’ groups I came to them with some desperation. There I discovered women like me. Sleep-deprived and confused by our new lives, we were as fragile as our babies. During such times in life you either make the best of friends or the most peculiar and transient of acquaintances. You are open and lost, offering something between possibility and flight to those you encounter.
We had big new identities, these women and I: we were mothers now. But we didn’t yet inhabit those identities. We simply sloshed around in them like liquid insufficient to fill a bucket. Our lack of structure and integrity made us terribly vulnerable. If someone was blunt or even mildly critical about our parenting we were devastated. We were so recently arrived and incompetent that we became disorientated by anyone with a strong position or a new theory. It wasn’t just the blind leading the blind - it was the blind and opinionated leading the blind.
With all this seeking it could have been a very thoughtful time, but I found everywhere people wanted to talk to me about nonsense. It seemed with motherhood that the more encompassing the experience, the more profound the change upon us, the more banal everyone’s observations became. What size nappies was my baby wearing, does she sleep through the night, they asked. I attended one mothers’ group where the ice-breaker was naming two items in your handbag. In your effing handbag, I thought incredulously, what about what’s inside our effing heads?
I was exhausted with this facade of coping and ordinariness when I came across the new mother who would eventually become a best friend. We’d first met at antenatal classes while pregnant. Now a couple of weeks after the birth of our babies, we were reunited by chance. In the early days of parenthood a single afternoon can feel like an eternity, so I was already thousands of years old by then. She asked me how it was going and although I had learned how to appropriately answer this question, I instead told her I was finding it hard. Quite hard, really.
We exchanged a look of recognition. I thought we fell in love in that moment, that truth and wounds connected us. But many years later she told me what she remembered from the conversation was that she’d discovered I lived within walking distance of her home. So lonely was she that simple proximity was enough.
Mothers’ group friendships grow at warp speed. They have an orbit in parallel with your own. Stopping and starting my day around a baby’s naps had me out of alignment with the known world, but in other mothers I found adults whose days were actually synchronised to mine. It felt like a miracle. We sometimes saw each other as much as daily.
We came to know each other better at that moment than our partners did. We spent hours together talking about ambitions, relationships, arguments with our partners, sex, childhood memories, cultural differences and similarities, family histories, embarrassments, frustrations, beliefs, heartaches and work stories, as well as both the extraordinary experience of motherhood and the mundane trivia of it, too.
We conducted day-long conversations that flexed, without irritation or resentment, around nappy changes, spilled drinks and getting babies back to sleep. On some occasions the conversations happened in one another’s homes and I saw the light change in our living rooms from morning to dusk. But other times they happened in big parks on the river, under huge trees with half a dozen different accents in the air and children scrambling nearby over play equipment and tree roots.
But into the second year something happened. Our trajectories changed and we were no longer navigating the same sky. Some mothers were pregnant again. My baby still felt like the world to me but these friends were imagining other planets to circle. And we were now dividing ever more strongly between staying at home and returning to paid jobs. Conversations turned into chemical reactions, our values solidifying on contact with another’s differences. Our children were all toddlers by then, too, and were squabbling continuously.
Some friendships receded gradually during that time and others imploded. Rebuilding and transforming the friendships we ultimately kept took careful effort on our parts. It took something more too, it took a kind of detachment from identity. We eventually let go of needing to be certain kinds of mothers, either to our children or ourselves. But it was a transition you can make only once you surrender to your vulnerability.
Looking back on that very early stage of motherhood I can’t help but observe the secret passion of these mothers’ groups. There was all that vulnerability and connection in one intense year.