There’s a certain type of pregnant woman who spots another pregnant woman in a park, hones in on her like crosshairs to a target and doesn’t stop until she’s made the kill – I mean, got her phone number.
This type of woman might also, once she’s given birth, see a mum pushing a buggy across a zebra crossing and actually run to catch up with her, to blurt out that she likes her tattoos, that she suspects they have similar interests: after all, they both have babies and could probably be best friends, right?
She asks other mums if they want to go for coffee within minutes of meeting in the playground, library or local shop. She collects numbers, organises play dates, talks excitedly about going out for wine once they can leave the babies at home – recognising, with a certain sinking, panicky feeling, that it might not happen for months.
That woman is me. And the reason for my somewhat irritating, verging-on-over-friendly behaviour? Maternity leave can be desperately, achingly lonely. And at times, being stuck at home with a tiny baby who needs you 24/7 can feel like staring straight into despair.
I’ve been there, twice. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised in the slightest to read the outcome of a new ComRes poll commissioned for The Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 Live, which revealed that as many as a quarter of mums find maternity leave harder than they expect. In fact, of the 1000 women questioned as part of the study, almost half (47 per cent) admitted they felt lonely.
Which, when you’re literally never alone with a tiny baby permanently attached to your breast or belly, feels like the world’s greatest paradox.
Perhaps as a result of this bizarre, unforeseen loneliness, more than a quarter of mums (27 per cent) admitted they did not enjoy their maternity leave as much as they thought they would. Nearly one in five (19 per cent) wished they’d gone back to work earlier and two in five (41 per cent) missed being at work.
It’s a tricky thing, this “best time of your life” business. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to “enjoy it, because they grow up so fast”. There are moments of indescribable joy, of course there are – especially in the early days, in those milk-drunk moments: the warmth of a newborn against your chest, their soft breath like puffs of sugar against your cheek.
But it’s hard to “enjoy it” in the strange, grey half-light of 3am, staring at your phone, wishing someone – anyone – else was awake. It’s like being marooned, like you’re an astronaut staring back at earth from thousands of miles away. It can feel like you’re the only person in the entire world, that you’ve survived a nuclear apocalypse. It’s just you and the baby, now.
And it’s difficult to make friends, away from school, university or work. I may be the type of person who pounces on people out of sheer desperation for human contact, but it’s not always easy, and nobody tells you how to do it.
Striking up conversation in a cold park can feel awkward, unappealing, even panic-inducing – especially when you’re so tired the only thing you can think to talk about is the horror you found in a nappy that morning, or your favourite show on CBeebies. “I used to be interesting,” I’ve often wailed (inside). “I used to have opinions. I read the news.” But on maternity leave? Nope – it’s all about checking the app on your phone that tells you which boob you fed the baby from last – left or right – as things that happened an hour ago have already vanished from your head, in a puff of sleep-deprived smoke.
The key to not going completely insane on maternity leave, for me at least, was getting out. To the high street, to the park or to the children’s centre for one of those humiliating – yet somehow, really great – nursery rhyme singalongs.
And smiling. The biggest secret I learned was how lonely we all are. And sometimes just a simple “hello” can lead to a friendship you’ll cherish, even when your babies are all grown up.
I thank my lucky stars for the women – and they were, mostly, other mums – who kept me sane during this frenzied, dark, period. The friends who watched both their baby and mine for an hour while I snatched a nap after a particularly rough night, who sent boxes of brownies when they knew I was struggling, who drove over when I was in labour, who offered hugs and understanding after I’d spent dozens of nights awake in hospital with a sick child. Those friends.
The ones you end up making on maternity leave, because you simply have to, or you’ll go completely mad. They’re the ones whose kindness you can’t possibly repay – until it’s their turn, and you do, because you remember what it was like. Hold on to them, because they’ve got your back. For life.