Embracing your new pregnancy means embracing a whole heap of change; changes to your body, changes to your energy levels, changes to what can and can’t eat and changes to your relationships.¬† If you have friends who have had children or are pregnant too, that helps, but if not you may find yourself struggling to maintain old relationships.¬† Does that mean you should be finding new mum-to-be friends?¬† 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 caf√©,¬†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‚Ä¶ chamomile, of course‚Ä¶
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 friends and 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‚Ä¶ and that doesn’t really matter.”
About Dr Sandra Wheatley‚Ä¶. 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. Sandra’s book, Nine women, nine months, nine lives, examines the experiences¬†of nine women expecting their first baby.