Baby groups? Hmm, says Emma Mitchell, whose own experiences have been fraught with the new-mother horror that is “oneupmumship.”
Illustration by Claire Jones
My first birth was quite something. 36 hours, induction, wires, pipes, needles and an anaesthetist who fossicked around my spine during a contraction and at whom I shouted “FOR ****’S SAKE STOP POKING”. I was left with a catheter, a ravaged noonoo and a tiny female baby. The flesh-tearing agony was forgotten. Oh her tiny toes and ears!
Three weeks in, the screaming began. Screaming that would continue for hours and was louder than Led Zeppelin at their most Led Zeppelinny.
A health visitor called. She told me that my child had the worst case of colic she had witnessed. We were excelling at something! Hurrah! She eyed me suspiciously and made me fill in a special questionnaire about “feelings”. Then she said in a startlingly chipper manner, “Come to our baby group!”
The following Friday I walked into a small village hall in the next village. I looked like an extra from Night of the Living Stretch Jersey-Swathed Dead. I sat down and glanced to my left to see a serene-looking woman. Her shirt was ironed, which should have been a warning. Nervously I asked, “Hello, how’s it going? How are the nights?” The truly horrifying answer came thus: “He sleeps through the night from 6pm till 7am”. Really? At a few weeks old? I have since learned that this is rarer than a glowing review from Paul Hollywood for your homemade macaroons. What I said was, “Oh! That’s amazing. You must be getting lots of sleep”. What I thought was, “I detest you and your Stepford baby and I’d like to stuff your smug mush in my child’s nappy”. But then, I had only had six hours sleep in the previous fortnight. I went home and wept.
The following week was little better. It was the infamous “weigh-in”. Mother after mother returned beaming from the scales with their babies. He’s gained six ounces! Eight ounces! TWELVE OUNCES! My rather whippetty infant was lowered into the scale pan. She had gained three ounces. Shadows fell across faces. Then another mother peered at my baby and said, “Wow, your baby is BEAUTIFUL. She doesn’t look anything like you!” Before I could open my mouth my baby let out an astonishing, breastmilk-curdling scream. I suspect she had read my mind. The other mother recoiled in horror. I did not return to that church hall.
I tried another group. It was called “Mother Earth Baby Yoga” or thereabouts. For £5 we were shown how to wiggle our babies’ limbs while lavender essential oil wafted about. During the tea break I learned that one of these women was an art historian and had returned to a “light lecturing schedule” once her baby had turned eight weeks. Another baby yoga disciple, a lawyer, had begun to take on “just a few cases”. Sleep deprivation and a severely colicky baby meant that I was struggling to wash “just a few pairs of knickers”. I didn’t say this out loud. I admit I feared what these super-humans might think. I must have looked crestfallen because a woman sitting nearby winked at me. Unlike the others, her hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed (mine was a monstrous fright wig that would’ve startled a Herdwick sheep). I smiled back with relief. Perhaps she was a kindred spirit.
We sat next to each other during the next bout of baby limb wiggling. Then we sat next to each other on my sofa among piles of laundry while eating a (bought) lemon drizzle cake each and cackling. She was a barrister, I was an intellectual property consultant, but right then we were new mums and that’s all we could be. We admitted that we did quite a bit of crying and were alarmed by the size of our own décolletages. We admitted that some days we were on the verge of lunacy due to sleep deprivation. We realised these things were normal and that parenting was HARD. Harder than writing due diligence reports or assessing the patent landscape surrounding a new medical device.
Many baby groups are nurturing and can be lifelines of social contact and camaraderie for new mums. But for me, the experience was akin to navigating a crab-strewn beach with bits of steak tied to my toes. There was an atmosphere of oneupmumship that I had no idea how to handle. Why were so many of these women trying to outdo one another? We should have been joyously embracing the tramp factor and having “who has the most sick down her top” competitions. The first experience of being responsible for a tiny new person is so terrifying, so levelling, that perhaps for some the only way to cope is to speak loudly about the gateau they’d made during their baby’s 11am nap while they simultaneously wrote a best-selling novel and solved the riddle of the Higgs boson.
Once I’d met Naomi, though, it didn’t matter. She didn’t want to show me how shiny her Aga was or tell me that she was “earning £75 an hour on a consultancy project when my baby was only a month old!” We didn’t brag because there was nothing to brag about. Instead we were brutally frank about how we no longer felt in charge of our chests and secretly longed for an hour or two off to go and peep at a shoe shop. I was so, so grateful for her honesty.
Got a new baby? Try a baby group: you may find it’s brilliant. But if there are any hints of “my boobs are better than your boobs” then leg it. Instead, find a similarly unkempt, candid friend and position yourselves near a full teapot. If you feel as though you’re drowning in a sea of muslin squares, the chances are she is too. Tell her – she’ll love you for it.
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.