I had a dream last night.
Not a Martin Luther King sort of dream. Alas. More the sort in which you are doing something randomly bonkers, but in a real-life setting.
I was having a row with Adele in my local church hall (I can’t remember what over – perhaps me being a better singer). It was all set up for playgroup with toys all around us, but no kids in sight. We were both dressed up to the nines and drinking wine (too much Brits perhaps).
I woke up feeling really nostalgic. Not for the days when I drank wine and bickered in playgroup with Adele regrettably. No. For the carefree days when my babies were babies.
I used to love going to playgroup. For a minute there I basked in lovely memories of Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts, nattering with new friends and singing nursery rhymes with shameful abandon. That strange contentment that comes with feeling like an ace mother while you technically ignored your tribe. Safe in the blissful knowledge that once it was all over, a quick cheese toastie and a carrot stick were all that stood between you and a toddler nap. Giving you an hour on your own to catch up on
housework Gossip Girl.
Them were the days.
But then I had Gabriel.
Lovely Gabriel who decided to do things in his own sweet way.
My little girl was only three when Gabe arrived so we were already firmly ensconced on the playgroup circuit. She had a little gang – girls and boys she’d one day go to school with – and she looked forward to the twice-weekly activity. Such a lot. Her life was already littered with hospital appointments and we were stuck in too much as Gabe was so ill that first year. There was no way I was keeping her away.
But it took a toll.
A huge one.
No matter how strong I thought I was, how nonchalant, how brazen. Every time it finished I would end up doing the same thing. Standing in my kitchen with my hands over burning eyes willing myself not to cry. Cross. Sad. Hurt. All at the same time. Wanting to slap myself in the face for feeling like this AGAIN.
I feel I can only admit this now. Now that life is settled and steady and we are cracking on in a new normal that feels just right.
Taking a child like Gabriel to a mainstream playgroup was hell on earth.
It was heartbreaking. Each and every time. In different small ways. No matter how kind and lovely the people were. It was a painful process that I endured only to give my other child some sort of stability at an unstable time.
You can’t imagine unless you’ve been there.
How it stings to watch as similar aged children play and giggle as your baby lies inert in your arms.
How it shames as you lie to new people about your child’s age and achieved milestones just to get through the session without seeing those well-placed sympathetic smiles.
How it smarts having awkward conversations explaining that your baby is six months old, but can’t yet lift his head; is one years old and can’t sit upright; is two and can’t stand.
How it hurts when people don’t know what to say at all so ignore you completely to save embarrassment. Catching your eye from afar and looking away.
How it bites when you wonder if people would be relieved if you didn’t come. Just so they could relax and not have to deal with the woman with the sick kid.
Looking back now, I was a tricky customer. I was such a mess emotionally I am not sure how best I would have handled me.
If you go to playgroup and there is a mum there with a baby that is having issues, I guess my advice would be:
- Keep asking her how she is. She might brush you off with a “I’m fine”, but know this: she is consumed with worry for her child. It literally torments her every waking moment. She might fear breaking down; that if she starts talking she might never stop or she could be conscious of her other children playing nearby. But do please keep asking.
- Give her some leeway. Tiredness might make her sharper-tongued and more stand-offish. I know everyone is tired with little ones. But you have no clue what she might have been doing in the dead of the night. Changed the ninth set of bedsheets, hovered over the phone debating whether to call an ambulance, cried herself into oblivion, or googled a new symptom and is terrified. She will also be more self-absorbed than Kim Kardashian at the minute – if she forgets all your news from last week (or even your name), don’t take it personally.
- Arrange playdates. Honestly, one of our biggest fears for our other children is that they are missing out on things. Playdates mean they are having fun and you can focus on the child with additional needs guilt free.
- Praise. She will undoubtedly feel like she is letting everyone down: children, husband, work, friends, parents, herself. Tell her what a good job she is doing, notice that the baby has put on weight, or that she has taken care to dress them as cute as possible. Remark how well-mannered her children are. Anything that she can put in her pocket and pull out when she feels frightened and alone.
- Make her laugh. It is good to smile so tell her your funny stories, how much you like a certain beefcake in such and such film. Save that daft thing you did to make her giggle. There is no greater gift.
- Be kind. It is remarkable how far a warm-hearted smile or a simple squeeze of the shoulder can go.
And for the mum braving playgroup, my advice is simply this:
- Cry all those tears. They will make you stronger.
- Keep on putting one foot in front of the other pet. You are doing great.
- You are going to surprise yourself. You just don’t know it yet.
- Better days are coming. I promise.