Not since my teens have I felt more awkward striking up conversations than in my role as mother-of-three, yet when we become parents is precisely the moment we need new friends.
Friends who know what you're going through, who understand that a 'big night out' starts at 8pm and finishes at quarter past 10; friends who forgive the sick stain on your left shoulder, and lend you concealer for the bags under your eyes. Mum friends.
Some of these friendships are forged by default. The parents who happen to be next to you in the maternity ward, or the couples you meet at antenatal classes. But sooner or later you're going to be on your own, out there in the parental sea, having to make friends on your own.
Frankly, it's a terrifying prospect for many of us at the best of times, and even more so postnatally, when your self-esteem is at rock bottom and you're having a hard job remembering your own name.
That woman you always see at swimming lessons, the one with the nice bag - she could be fun. You could get to know her. If you suggest a coffee, will she think you're odd? Desperate? She probably has loads of friends, she's not going to want another one. Maybe she'll think you're coming on to her – what would you do then? Easier not to risk it, right?
A quick browse online reveals dozens of titles aimed at the dating population: girl meets boy, boy meets boy, girl meets girl... where's the rule book for making dates with other mums? Never fear, because here are my top tips for parental dating!
1. Use your children
Consider your children as high-grade bait and use them shamelessly to make friends with other parents. After all, if mum's happy, the kids are happy, right?
If you've got toddlers, sidle over to where your child is happily banging bricks with another toddler, and strike up a conversation with their mum. It's the one situation where 'do you come here often?' is a socially acceptable ice-breaker.
2. Find common ground
I know you've both got children, but trust me: that's not 'having something in common'. Half the population have children; it doesn't mean they'll get on with each other.
Once you've covered the childcare chitchat, tentatively move on to the sort of conversation you used to have at cocktail parties (back when you were actually invited to cocktail parties). Jobs; the weather; films; books; shopping... When you hit on common ground, however small, celebrate it. 'You like Twiglets? ME TOO!'
3. Don't move too fast
Like the over-eager teen who comes on too strong, it can be tempting to try and take things to the next level a little too fast. Remember, you've just met, so suggesting a sleepover is probably a bit much.
If you know you'll bump into each other again – perhaps at toddler group next week, or outside the classroom tomorrow morning – take your time. Wait till you've chatted again, or till it's become habit to stand next to each other at the school gates, then make your move...
4. Be bold!
When you're feeling under-confident and a little lonely, it's easy to assume that every other mother you see is brimming with self-esteem and has a little black book full of friends. It just isn't true.
The vast majority of mums I speak to are plagued by self-doubt, and I've never met a woman who doesn't have room for another friend. Take a deep breath, and ask her out. 'Shall we grab a coffee sometime?' is casual enough to be deflected, but clear enough to be accepted. And I promise you it will be.
5. Call her
As far as I remember – and it was a long time ago – the dating bible decrees that thou shalt not call a potential boyfriend or girlfriend until at least 24 hours have elapsed.
Happily, there is no such game-playing with parental dating. Text your new friend the same evening: 'It was great to catch up today. Let's set a date for that glass of wine!' and I can assure you she'll be booking the babysitter before you can say 'another bottle of Chablis? Don't mind if I do'.
Parenting can be a lonely job sometimes, and we all need friends around us. In the world of parental dating there's no need to worry about two-timing, you can forget the make-up, and no one cares if you've shaved your legs. Go on: make a date with a mum today – you'll be glad you did.
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