Friday, 8 March 2013

How kids bring a whole new dimension to the tricky art of making friends...

Before life changed forever
Now everyone knows that the easiest way to meet people when you're new in town is through one or both of the following: kids and dogs. Rather like the English can always fall back on that conversational mainstay, the weather, the long-suffering child or pet owner always has something to talk about, something to share with that fellow carer of needy, temperamental beings.

But of course things aren't that simple. For those looking in to the glamorous world of mummies in coffee shops, deep in conversation while their offspring sprinkle the sofas with crumbs, it all looks easy and frankly, a bit of a walk over. Do these parents do nothing but chat all day while everyone else is slogging away in the office, having to grab their latte to go?

I have come to realise that, as a stay at home mum (for the time being), my social life is entirely dominated by my children in an unexpected way. I can only hang out with other parents if their children get on with mine. It doesn't matter if I meet another mum or dad who is fun, considerate, interesting, hilarious - if our children's personalities clash, then there's no chance. Many a beautiful fledgling friendship has been smothered at birth by one of the kids going through a "difficult phase" - it's really hard to chat about the Great British Bake Off/discuss feminism if the kids are beating the living daylights out of each other within earshot. Or even if the kids are just at different developmental stages, they may not entertain each other long enough to make putting them together worthwhile. A bored child is just as irritating as an aggressive one when you're trying to put the world to rights.

So when I organise "playdates" (to use an Americanism), I organise them entirely on the basis of whether the children get on. How I get on with the parents is pretty immaterial. In fact, I have spent a lot time with people I have little in common with, purely because our kids are the best of friends and will happily engage in tea parties, dens or thumping instruments, allowing us to have a moment's interlude with a cuppa. I frequently vary the location in the hope that a freezing natter in the playground is going to be more successful as the kids can take out their exuberance on playground equipment instead of in territorial battles at home. It is a rare and wonderful thing to have a stress-free playdate, leaving everyone with a warm glow after a pleasant afternoon in which both parents and children can honestly say they had a fun time. Sometimes these friendships graduate to doing something on the weekend or in the evening, a big step involving partners, and it becomes families hanging out, brought together by the simple fact that we have children of similar ages and temperaments.

I guess this friendship issue really came to the fore for me when I thought about maybe having some local mates over for that bastion of female friendship, a "girls' night in" - you know, a movie, a take away, a bottle of wine or two, ice cream. The kind of thing you did at a drop of a hat pre-kids. The thing is, I found it really hard to separate who I would naturally be friends with from my social life with kids in tow. Who do I actually chat to about things other than children? Who would I like to spend more time with but haven't been able to because my daughter refused to share that time they came over or their kid made mine cry when we went to theirs so we haven't been back. Being friends without the children seems to take it to a whole new level of friendship, no longer a relationship of convenience, there's the implication that we actually might get on.

On the few nights I have been out as an unaccompanied grown-up, it has been really difficult to avoid talking about the kids. They are wonderful and all-consuming but it's always disappointing when a lovely, interesting conversation suddenly goes back to comparing nurseries or sleep patterns or temper tantrums. I'm as guilty of this as the next parent, but it's so liberating when you can talk about something else and try and remember who you were, what you liked, what you did before they came along and you started feeling guilty about doing anything at all.

But then, down here, it is always bound to come back to the kids because that is how I have met people since we moved. I didn't meet them on a course, at work, through a hobby. We weren't old school friends. It's strange and nerve-wracking suddenly having to make a new social life for yourself, especially if it is done entirely through playgroups, music classes, attempts to strike up conversations at the swings... People only know you as a parent. They have no idea if you're a staying in kind of gal or one of life's partiers because we are all limited by exhaustion, the scarcity of babysitters and the fact that letting your hair down isn't really an option if you're breastfeeding/got someone jumping on your head at 6am.

So my little idea about a girlie night in just became bogged down in whose other half is out or away, who has a babysitter, who doesn't, who is pregnant, who is breastfeeding, whose baby will take a bottle, whose won't, whose child is an ace sleeper and could be put to bed at someone's else's house, whose child isn't...blah blah blah. But hey, maybe that whole girls' night in thing is a bit teenage. Maybe I'm just trying to recreate something which is impossible to get back. It's all a nostalgia trip for when we watched chick flicks with face masks on and did our nails and didn't have a care in the world. It's grown up days now - I've definitely seen mums whose kids are that bit older about town bonding on pub crawls. One day maybe I'll be doing that too. And hey, there's always the kids to do movies and ice cream with...

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