My two-year-old makes his way up the stairs and I follow, leaving the November rain behind us for now. We reach the top of the stairs and somebody helps with the latch on the safety gate, somebody else smiles in welcome.
I stand with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler clinging to my leg. Around are the sounds of babies cooing and crying, toddlers discovering new toys and begging for some of the mamas’ biscuits, cosy chattering of parents, grandparents and other minders. I move to drop my bag, peel off our outer layers and a hand on shoulder causes me to turn and I am being offered tea. For the first time today, another adult speaks to me, and instead of minding others, someone is looking out for me.
This is parent and toddler group. This is the reason I showered this morning. This is tea and coffee and biscuits and a couple of hours where I am reminded that there is life outside of our home. Reminded that other babies do not sleep, that other toddlers have an exhaustive supply of questions, that other parents have exhausted their patience.
I am not alone.
Even if I have moved from the city I’ve known for years. Even if my oldest friends are now spread out around the country and not at ‘drop in for a coffee’ distance. I am among new faces, with familiar lives and I feel welcome.
“I’m so busy all day. I don’t even have time to miss my old life”.
It’s partly true. It’s possible to be busy, to have another human conversing with you all day long and to still feel lonely. Especially if that other human isn’t yet three years old and half of all conversations begin with a request (for food, but not the food you just prepared; to be carried around instead of the baby brother; to go to the playground even though it’s bucketing down and he missed the window of no-rain opportunity earlier when he refused point blank to put on clothes).
“I love being at home with my kids. It’s wonderful to have such long maternity leave and not to have to think about work”.
It’s partly true. But is true that you can fully love your kids and the time you spend with them, and partly wish you were alone on a beach in Thailand (or just in bed alone, with a cup of tea and a biscuit).
It’s true that while you are the most important thing in the universe to these small people, much of the time you feel invisible. You are hidden away from the world at home minding the babies, while everyone else goes out to work. Even in the city where there are people all around, you go out walking and you, the real you is hidden behind an awkward buggy and a haze of sleep deprivation.
So you join the others at the parent and toddler group. Because they know. Because they understand that it was an effort to leave the house this morning and this is the reward.
Because they will smile at your baby, do crafts with your toddler, sympathise over sleepless nights and potty training misadventures.
Because they will offer you coffee with your cake, and you will even get to drink it.
A younger me would have sneered. These groups formed in the gravitation pull of our children. Would have laughed at the idea that sitting cross-legged on an alphabet motif mat singing nursery rhymes could become a highlight in my social calendar.
Who are you and what have you done with cool, sarcastic me? Where is the seeking out of like-minded souls? Where is your tribe? Surely not here where the conversation is all about nappies and sleep and whether little johnny has two teeth or five? Where is the intellectual debate and the discussion about film and music and travel and THE WORLD?
What? THE WORLD is your kids?
But it’s not. We love it and sometime we hate it, but it’s where we are and we wouldn’t trade it (I swear). Keeping these tiny adorable despots safe and well. It’s all-consuming and it leaves very little time for anything else. It’s hard to have an intellectual debate with a friend when you’re interrupted every 30 seconds and sleep deprivation has stolen the part of your brain that cares? Who can think about travel when even getting in the car to do the grocery shopping results in at least three bouts of crying (mostly the babies, but sometimes me)?
But you understand that, you Mama, nursing your baby on the sofa in the corner, you Mum chasing after your two boys in the playground, you Grandma, making my boy’s day by making playdough shapes with him.
You see me, and you see yourself and we gain strength from each other.
We gather round now at the end to sing our songs. Place the mats out, make a circle. Babies on laps and toddlers sitting to attention with plastic shakers at the ready. We sing the sleeping bunnies song and all the littles lie down. For one, two, three seconds there is silence and stillness and almost a sigh. I catch the eye of the mum leading the songs.
How long can we draw this out?
She smiles. I see you Mama.
The song resumes. Bunnies spring up and the energy in the room changes again. After this I’ll take my boys to the playground or for a walk through the dunes and we’ll head back home for lunch and naps and the afternoon will be easier, more fun thanks to the coffee and the chats and the crafts and the cake.
More full of cake and chats, I will be more fun.