Your first NCT class is like your first day at a new school; there you are, at a huge milestone in your life, wearing new clothes that make you feel very grown up, and eyeballing your new classmates wondering which one is going to be your new best mate.
The teacher starts to talk and, though you know what she is saying is important, the words float over you as your mind drifts to a near future when you're all meeting up for picnics in the park, when you're in the pub garden with that couple in the corner, drinking cold beer and being hilarious, when everyone's in your kitchen, and you're opening up a sixth bottle of wine and sticking on the vinyl...
I omit babies from these scenarios deliberately. They are the most important element of this new life ahead of you, obviously, but friends come a close second, particularly before you've actually made them.
The NCT turns 60 this year, which means that many of our mothers would have been members, and perhaps some of our grandmothers too. We are third-generation NCT, so to speak, with all the pre-conceptions that come with that. We sign up to these classes with a sense of anticipation; not just because it signals the culmination of a long, brewing pregnancy (ironically, the moment the NCT teacher whips out the doll and the fake soiled nappies is the moment shit gets real) but because we feel we are on the cusp of the friendship moment of our lives.
We look at our own parents, and see how many of their best friends only became so through having children of the same age. If we have a mother who went through NCT herself, she may be evangelical about the experience, she might still see her NCT gang, and we might be friends with their offspring.
And though, in our pre-pregnancy days, we might have resented our friends for having children, flaking out of our regular meet-ups and hanging out with their new mum- and dad-friends instead, now it's our turn, and we can't wait.
This feeling isn't exclusive to women, blokes get it too; which is why there's often a subliminal tussle over who gets to be class clown. We all want these friendships to last, and isn't it tempting to be the first person to break the ice? We imagine sitting back in old age, remembering that witty take-down of the first group exercise as the moment we knew we'd become firm friends.
There is something profoundly intriguing, romantic even, about imagining parenthood and the new social life it brings about, especially if the pregnancy has been a long time coming.For a start, it brings our lives in step with the side of our parents' lives with which we are most familiar. Some of our happiest childhood memories will be of camping trips or barbecues in the garden with our parents', their friends, and their friends' children and now, all of a sudden, this is our chance to craft corresponding memories for our own children.
It's why we leave our first NCT meeting either with a spring in our step ('I can see us being friends with x and y..') or feeling a bit disappointed ('I'm not sure we much in common other than postcodes and due dates'). And that disappointment can continue.
Having a baby is hard. Especially the first time around. We're exhausted, paranoid and out of our depth, and those merry day-time trips to the pub don't materialise as quickly as we had hoped. Rather, communication is often limited to late-night WhatsApp exchanges, or stilted mornings spent trying to find a café big enough to accommodate all our buggies. When we are eventually around a table together, conversation struggles to get beyond comparing notes on feeding, sleep and nappies; not only because that is our life for the first couple of months, but because - like some kind of deranged barbershop choir - the babies take turns to puke, shit and cry in succession. Conversations are started, trains of thought are lost, threads abandoned.
Then, of course, there's the rivalry.
Having a baby isn't a competitive sport, but that doesn't always put us off.Unfortunately, it comes with the terrain. From comparing due dates and sizes of bumps, to birth weights, sleep patterns, developmental milestones and so on, the scope for competition is vast, and it's hard - even for the placid among us - not to get sucked in.
The odds are stacked against these friendships working out. And, often they don't. I know plenty of people who never got into their stride with their maternity-leave colleagues and who had to seek friendships elsewhere. I know others who let the group serve its purpose in the early days, but who struggled to keep in touch once people returned to work or moved to bigger houses further out. Some parents don't or can't do antenatal courses, or do them in one area and then move away before their babies can meet.
Those who do the course and who, despite the circumstances, like their group, know the value of having friends close by who can bring round iced coffee on a warm, sleepless day, who can help you stay awake during lingering night-feeds with messages typed one-handed, who know things about you that are so intimate you feel embarrassed telling your partner, and whose babies will be linked forever with yours, even if only in photos alone.
Of course, you can make these friends anywhere, but the NCT is a good place to start.
This is a version of an article published on Tantrum. All images copyright NCT/Wellcome Library.
You might like to read Tantrum's articles on fathers doing skin-to-skin, and what you need to know about sex if your partner has just given birth.