So when I was on mat leave I became good friends with the guy behind the till in Aldi. Well, as good a friend as you can be without knowing someone’s name. And that was for two reasons. Firstly, we were in there pretty much every day. It had all the heady excitement of Supermarket Sweep for the new mum (how many value treasures can you find before your baby gets bored and starts throwing her toys out of the pram? Literally.) And secondly, whilst on maternity leave I became a chit-chatter; a small talker; a purveyor of “isn’t it hotter than the surface of the sun/colder than the Tundra” (delete as appropriate) bants. I would sidle, nay, scuttle up to other mums in the park, like a hopeful crab, prepared to coo at length at their little ones. I did this in supermarkets, coffee shops, on the train, everywhere (except on the tube, I drew the line there, I didn’t want to get shanked).
Before Bella I wouldn’t talk to a stranger, I wouldn’t even make eye contact, this is LONDON and I am BRITISH after all. But that all changed on mat leave because as well as being one of the best years of my life it was simultaneously one of the most lonely. Suddenly I would talk to anyone, ANYONE, just to hear my own voice. I was used to spending twelve hours a day with other adults, dashing all over London like some kind of human pinball. Then overnight all that stopped and a tiny baby whose only words were “dada” (traitor) and occasionally “mama” (punches air) became my constant companion. There were days when my voice went all Mariella-Frostrup-on-40-fags-a-day because I hadn’t spoken actual sentences in hours. When I started engaging in out-loud debate with ITV’s Loose Women I knew I was in real trouble.
This isn’t apparent at first though. At the beginning you are besieged by visitors, visitors with cake and/or booze (FYI the BEST kind). Not only that, when babies are vagina fresh they are super transportable, so you can travel far and wide to see your mates and fam. Then this furore tails off; everyone goes back to his or her normal life and you are left in the confines of your immediate postcode with the days stretching out in front of you, tumbleweed heavy. And it’s worse in London, where your friends are scattered all over the place by the time you get to your mid-late 30s (OK, late). Gone are the flat share days when your besties all lived but a room away; the days of five bottles of pink wine on the Ikea sofa before you even leave the house, of guessing if someone has got lucky because there are MEN’S SHOES by the door, of picking the vestiges of last nights kebab off said Ikea sofa in the morning. Now my best mates all live over an hour away, in every far-flung corner of London that’s not SW17.
So mat leave life was solitary at times. Many a moment was spent trudging solo round Tooting Common staring at groups of people frolicking with gay abandon and wishing I was one of them. And it was difficult without my normal support group front and centre, especially when you think about the monumental changes your body and your mind go through having a new baby, and how you need mates there to help orientate your sense of self as everything else shifts. Then add into that heady emotional cocktail a regular dose of confidence crisis. Some days I worried whether I was doing ANYTHING right (the days of brushing my own teeth with Sudacrem as Bella cluster-fed like a rabid terrier) which meant I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone for fear of being judged heartily incompetent.
However I was saved from becoming a full time street-mutterer by the gorgeous ladies I met through NCT. We joke that we are the best mates we have ever bought. The course itself served to scare the bejesus out of both Phil and I, specifically with the graphic vertical diagram of the baby coming out of the uterus stage by stage (both of us felt faint), and allowed us to establish that we were the only ones who hadn’t even agreed what hospital I was going to give birth in. Great. But more than that it gave me amazing friends who have been there day and night for fifteen months. Having mates who are going through EXACTLY the same things at EXACTLY the same time and who live within ten minutes of me was invaluable. Who else could you text at 1am, 2am, 4am, 6am with the WHY IS HER POO GREEN questions, sometimes complete with pictures (sorry for that in retrospect)? In fact we probably sent at least 700 WhatsApp messages a day. We have also all met up pretty much every week since our babies popped out. This has taken us from inhaling vats of caffeine with our sleeping, drooling newborns strapped to our chests, to chasing our rampant snot-ridden toddlers round the fetid soft play venues of SW17.
So now, as I re-integrate into work, a big part of me still misses mat leave, despite the loneliness. And I must say a massive thank you to my NCT friends for saving me, or as they have now become, just friends. And of course the guy behind the till in Aldi. Maybe tomorrow I might even ask his name.