Every day thousands of baby and toddler groups take place in churches and community venues across the country. Different from their more formal cousin, the baby and toddler class, they are intended to be a way for parents of under 5s to meet each other while the children burn off some energy. They have a reputation for draughty halls, dirty toys, tantruming toddlers and bad coffee, but what they are most often known for, is cliques and bitchiness.
So what makes people go? Well, parenting can be lonely and, much of the time, mind numbingly boring. Boring enough that, if you don’t have friends or family with small children close by, desperation will make you want to spend two hours in a room with other people’s screaming kids as well as your own, drinking bad coffee and attempting to make small talk with strangers. At least that’s what made me visit my first toddler group.
My son was 18 months old, all my friends with children lived far away and I hadn’t exactly taken to parenting like a duck to water. So, in the hope of making some local mummy friends, I took myself off to the local church one Monday morning. It didn’t go well. I do not exaggerate when I say that no one spoke to me. Everyone seemed to have their own little group of friends with no room for one more. What’s worse was that the doors were locked, to thwart any toddler escape plans, so I didn’t even feel like I could get up and leave without drawing attention to my lonely state. Towards the end of the session my son banged his face, just next to his eye. It was bleeding and he was screaming blue murder and still no one spoke to me. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t go back.
About nine months later my son developed an irrational fear of other children, cowering in terror when they came anywhere near him. That, along with the fear that my postnatal depression would return after my daughter was born in a few months time, pushed me to give toddler groups another go.
I decided to try a different one, and that I would just focus on helping my son get used to other children, if I made friends that was a bonus. It was hard to start with. I spent most of the time playing cars with my son, which I could have done at home with better coffee. I can remember each week reporting back to my husband how many people had spoken to me. I stuck it out and the number slowly increased. New people came who also didn’t know anyone and we banded together and became friends. Eventually I came to look forward to Tuesday mornings and so did my son.
When my daughter was three months old the lady who ran the group moved away and I somehow ended up taking over from her. I was keen to make the group friendly and tried to introduce new people and make sure they felt welcome. But it wasn’t easy. The wonderful group of friends I had made didn’t seem all that keen on talking to new people. And that’s when I realised that people don’t not talk to the new mum at toddler group because they are mean, they are simply creatures of habit and look forward each week to sitting in their favourite corner and catching up with their friends. They are also exhausted by parenthood and making small talk with strangers is hard work compared to having a moan about your toddler’s tantrums to a mum you already know won’t judge you because your kids drove you to drink well before wine o’clock.
So what should you do if you want to learn to love toddler groups but are struggling? For me the key was sticking with it. If you keep going long enough other newbies will come and you will be the one who welcomes them. Plus, if you just keep going the regulars will realise you’re there to stay and eventually make the effort. Play with your child, play with other people’s children if you can face it. Offer to help out, even if it’s just tidying up at the end. Most importantly remember, just because they aren’t talking to you, it doesn’t mean they are talking about you. In two years of running a toddler group I never saw anyone talking about a new person. Frankly they are far too concerned with their own affairs to be bothered about you. And when at last you are one of the happy, chatting friends at the centre of the group, spare a moment to say hello and to the new mum, because you were her once.