My husband and I moved to a greener corner of north London six years ago like so many other couples before us thinking it a nice enough place to raise a young family in the city. I was newly pregnant with my first child and I remember noticing large groups of mothers in the park or in the local cafés with their buggies and their babies.
I watched them curiously. I couldn’t quite picture myself in their place and yet that was the turn I was soon to take. Sometimes it reassured me because these women, further ahead than me, were living proof of what was to come and of what was possible, but they also made me nervous and a little bit afraid.
My midwife insisted that I sign up to a National Childbirth Trust (NCT) group underlining the social connections I could make. “It can be lonely, being a new mother,” she said to me, thrusting a leaflet in my hand and though I took it and thought about it, the idea made me feel more and not less alone. At every appointment I was reminded to sign up but I fudged excuses because it did not feel good enough or acceptable to just say: “ Sorry, I don’t think it’s for me.” When I purposefully missed the deadline to join a group of other parents with roughly the same due date as us, my midwife was disappointed. The implication was that I had been irresponsible already.
Being a new parent is hard but making new friends as an adult does not come easy to everyone and it didn’t come easily to me. It is not that I thought I was somehow better than everyone else but more that I have been (and I am) content on my own. My existing group of friends was small but loyal and after having left a newsroom to go freelance, I rarely felt the solitude that other freelancers spoke of and instead felt a certain relief of escaping small talk and after-work drinks. This is partly because as a Muslim woman, I didn’t necessarily feel as though I belonged in a predominantly white and male media crowd but also because I am quite naturally introverted.
“Among all the other pressures of new motherhood, breastfeeding and consolidating confusing sleep routines, it felt like my introversion was yet another failing.”
The pressure to be a part of something both when I became pregnant and afterwards when my son was born, whether it was a parenting group or even just going to a toddler class, often felt huge inside my head. Socialising sometimes still feels like an extreme sport that I must gather my strength for.
Back then I tried. I gatecrashed a NCT group for drinks in a pub and then later my husband and I wondered if we ought to make more of an effort so we signed up to a last minute weekend-thing. It was nothing to do with the other couples, I’d like to stress that, but I remember looking around the room and thinking: all we have in common is that we ovulated at more or less the same time and so that was mostly that.
When my baby was born I took him out for long walks and every time I caught sight of other new mothers, tiny babies snuggled in slings strapped to their chests, I noticed the mothers almost always came in groups or at least pairs. When my husband was at work I was alone with our baby. The thing is, I didn’t mind – but I wondered if I should. I craved the comfort of the small world I was living in, adapting to a new life with a new small human in my midst. I was finding my feet. We all were. I was trying, often, to catch up on sleep. But for a long time I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t especially want or need to be social. Among all the other pressures of new motherhood, breastfeeding and consolidating confusing sleep routines, it felt like my introversion was yet another failing.
Last year my eldest child started school and it was only then with this milestone that I finally began to find it easier to say yes more willingly to morning coffees with other parents at the school gate because, well, I had asked him to be brave starting school and so I realised that this meant I needed to be too. And though sometimes there are awkward silences and sometimes you feel like you’re invisible and sometimes it dawns on you that you’re still only spending weekends together at another child’s birthday party because of the timing of your cycle several years ago, on the whole it’s been a pleasant surprise.
Having three lively children has made me realise that my tendency to be on my own doesn’t need to define me or affect them and their sociability. My kids have pushed me out of my comfort zone and I am grateful to them for that. My middle child started school this September and against all odds and some might say common sense, I found myself volunteering to be a class rep for the second consecutive year. It has taken a while for me to grow comfortable with all of this school chatter, but now that I have, I have come to see the strength in having others in the trenches with you. Parents rally together. No mum (or dad) left behind, as Meg in Motherland says.
And though I adore the exaggerated comedy of Motherland’s competitive school gate cliques, there’s also something significant about the fact that every year’s intake of parents will grow older together just as their children will and face the challenges ahead. Earlier this year my youngest child was taken into hospital with a serious sudden illness but it was my fellow school parent friends who stepped in without waiting to be asked, dropping off food and picking up my kids but more than that, caring to ask quite sincerely how we were coping, how I was in the storm of it all. Sometimes when I’m at that school gate, it occurs to me that these connections, these friendships, will last an awfully long time. We are in each others’ lives now. We are making “family friends” in the way our own parents did.
But still I don’t regret one bit not doing this sooner. The early days of motherhood are lonely and exhausting; I am not pretending it isn’t and I’m lucky that I had my husband to share that load. And I also know that friendships are important and I can see how it is natural to want to make new ones when a new cycle of life starts. But I’d like to suggest that it’s also just as natural if you don’t want to throw yourself into all of this from the very beginning, especially if you’re not ready for it or if you just don’t want to.
There is already so much pressure on new mothers; they don’t need to be made to feel bad about not being social enough too. I’d like to suggest that it is okay to take your time, to follow your own instincts; something new mothers are so rarely told.
Huma Qureshi is a writer and author. Follow her on Twitter at @huma_qureshi_uk
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org