Fresher’s week at Bristol Uni: I remember it well.
‘My name’s X’
‘My name’s Y.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I’m from X. You?’
‘I’m from Y. I’m studying Y studies.’
‘Really? That must be really interesting. I’m studying X.’
‘Which Oxbridge College do you get turned down by?’
‘Y. Didn’t want to go there anyway.’
‘Right….. so then, X. Do you fancy a shag……?’
Alcohol had an important role at student parties: it made the prudent amongst us more forthcoming. Within hours of such stilted, scripted introductions, those of us still not shagging would at least be having deep and stimulating discussions about our innermost fears or the meaning of life.
It’s not often in our day-to-day lives that adults find ourselves making introductions in a room of peers. But I do find baby-group conversation to be surprisingly Start-of-Freshers-night-esque. How Old’s Your Child (while listening for the use of a pronoun to make sure you’ve guessed the sex right); what was the birth like; what name did you choose; Oh that’s a pretty / traditional / unusual name… how long did you take to decide; are you breast-feeding and so on.
But unlike Freshers’ week, nobody at baby group thinks it very wise to add alcohol. Relatively few people have the natural indiscretion of youth. This means that – amongst the quieter ones, at least – such conversations take a long time to progress to the Meaning of Life stage. Instead they skirt safe subjects like the comparative value of baby-wipes and whether they’re smiling / cooing / sitting up yet. Good for racking up Facebook Friends and casual parenting advice, but it’s hard to get on to the deeper questions: Don’t you find childcare mind-numbingly boring half the time? Who did you used to be, before you had kids? Do you sometimes miss that person, or are you happy to be discussing the price of nappies right now?
These are taboo subjects because mothers are supposed to be completely unselfish creatures. We know that we are Extremely Lucky to have some wonderful children and are only too pleased to forsake all other attention, recognition or enjoyment for their sakes. Those of us with Facebook pages are likely to have taken our own profile pictures down and put up ones of our Darling instead.
When I tell people about going back to work I find myself adding: ‘I need the Money’ in case they should assume that I might actually want to persue my selfish career. Social lives are contraversial too: I remember once asking some close first-time parents how they intended to spend New Year. They looked absolutely shocked:
‘We’ll be staying in, of course! In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve got a baby now….’
My baby on the other hand got dragged to the pub, the crag, the Mountain-Hut, thirtieth birthdays, hillwalking, museums, galleries, lectures, meals out, house-parties, meetings until most of this became completely impractical. Even now that it is extremely impractical, I always drag them out somewhere anyway because I don’t like being stuck in the house– and we don’t stick to the traditional child-friendly venues. A few weeks ago I took them into a modern art installation which consisted of nude life-models sitting on industrial relics. The subtleties might have been lost on Toddler but let’s face it, they were lost on many of the adults too and she had a good time playing with the echo (it was set in an ex-warehouse). On the other hand, my life was a little the richer for the experience; I felt that I had done something I wanted to do rather than just entertained the children. If the other gallery-goers minded they didn’t say anything and the life models didn’t move a muscle.
It’s staying in the house that I find hardest. Colic is at its worst when the screams hit the walls and bounce back at you. Reading books is lovely until you hit the stage when you know them by heart and know exactly which tiny detail of which illustration your child is going to comment on next. Book-reading is rendered uncomfortable by the act of balancing a wriggly toddler on one knee and a breast-feeding baby on the other, and by the fact that your Toddler starts turning the pages backwards when she fears the book is coming to an end, screaming when you try to move forwards. And when you do get to the end, she looks at you with an expression of barely controlled delight that pulls your heart-strings and, as though completely unaware of your frustration, says: ‘again, Mummy! Read it AGAIN!’
Now don’t get me wrong here: I am not saying that I don’t find enjoyment in reading to my children. I am not saying that I don’t find it absolutely fascinating watching them learn things, helping them to do things, learning with and from them. I’m just saying that 24/7 childcare can be pretty hard on the patience and more generally, on the mental health. That being the mother that we are is not necessarily our finest achievement in life and that adult ‘brain-breaks’ and the chance of having a good old moan are as important as reading to the little blighters.
I recently heard a pop science headline that people who voice negative feelings rather than bottling them up, are less likely to die early from any cause. The study reported a 70% lower chance of dying of cancer…. but went on to clarify that the study participants were only in their thirties at the moment and cancer wasn’t very likely anyway, so it was possible that the data might be somewhat skewed due to chance, making the study less convincing than it sounds.
Still, as any badger will tell you, there’s no need to let statistical accuracy get in the way of a good solid research study. So I’m going to continue to offend everyone at babygroup by talking frankly about the downsides of parenthood and I’m going to continue to put my own picture on my Facebook page.
Seriously, we won’t make good parents in the long-term if we don’t look after our mental health.