For me, the internal conversation started around 25, when I felt a sudden pang of broodiness after seeing a few friends have accidental lovely babies. The pregnancies and the births were, thankfully (statistically) uncomplicated, a few in birthing pools at home, with one or two stitches. After all, we were 25.
My broodiness evaporated at 26.5 when my friends who were mothers started to look older than me, because they were sleep deprived from going back to work – back to the same hours I was doing, but getting up two hours earlier than me to feed and bathe and drop off at nurseries. As they became only available for 1.5 hours on a Saturday over a chaotic lunchtime involving alphabet spaghetti at their far-away house in a catchment area. As their lovely babies started walking and therefore walking away into hazardous situations where my friends had to run after them, leaving me wondering why I was still talking about a minor disagreement that happened two weeks ago at work where perhaps I had hurt someone’s feelings but actually, the situation seemed ok now. That was the moment I started, of my own accord, to feel like that episode in Sex and the City where Carrie takes her shoes (alright, Manolos) off at her friend’s very clean house, who has three children, and they go missing, and then Carrie goes round weeks later being like “Any news on my shoes? Did Jennifer take them instead of her sandals? Why have you not investigated?” And her friend’s like “Because I’ve got a real life now.” And Carrie retorts “...I have a real life.” And of course Carrie’s friends think the baby-mumma who doesn’t care about Carrie’s shoes is, quote, “a fucking bitch.”
Now that I’m 29, and a third of my inner circle are mothers, that SATC scene has a different resonance. Because I’m both Carrie, and the baby-mumma. On the one hand, I’m enjoying life in my fancy shoes and I’m very reluctant to take them off. And on the other, I’m judging myself for being so attached to the shoes/ life.
I went to Notting Hill carnival a few weeks ago with a big group of people, and got drunk listening to good music. One of my friends in the group has a one-year-old, who was being looked after by her [the friend’s] dad at home. Her phone ran out of battery so she couldn’t contact her dad to check everything was ok, and that was stressing her out so she joined a one-hour toilet queue and asked the person manning the queue (a man of about 40) whether she could charge her phone while she waited. The man said no, and then called her a bitch for asking. I told her he was just a random dick making a random dickish comment, and not to take offence, but as a mother, she did. That, coupled with the battery problem, meant she left early, struggling to get out of the one million strong crowd and probably wondering why she came. She text me when she got home with a picture of her beautiful baby girl in the bath, by which time I was rather more drunk and charging my way to a sickening hangover the next morning. I woke up, was promptly sick, and crawled back into bed. My only purpose that day was to cure my hangover before like, 5pm, because I had a lot of work to do that night ahead of a busy week. And while lying on my right side trying not to be sick, with the curtains drawn that sunny bank holiday Monday, [Carrie voiceover please] I couldn’t help but wonder… how would I have felt being woken up today by a baby? How would I have felt leaving carnival early? Or not going at all? To look after a baby.
These are things that I wonder every now and again because my friends have babies and our lives are so different now. The setting of our friendship has changed dramatically – it’s become sofa-based, with glasses of Robinson’s orange squash, or on a park bench within a children’s playing area. We only ever meet on weekends, because they’re never around for after work drinks, and it’s no longer just them; when I ask to see that friend, I’m asking to see them + their children + their partner if they have one. And I love my time with them. I love their children, and I love seeing them be brilliant, hilarious parents. They’re nothing like Carrie’s friends – they make extra effort to ask me about my work dramas and love life dilemmas and their advice has matured. They give me stronger opinions now, telling me when I’m making something out of nothing, and, usually, sticking up for the boyfriends I’m complaining about, helping me to see the bigger picture.
I use these friends with babies as an opportunity to relax, to feel wholesome, and to have some good, clean weekend fun – which I remember is the best kind. It’s nice to sit down, with a free refill glass of apple & blackcurrant, some sausage rolls and a book about insects. It’s nice to not even think about drinking, and not to feel like you’re missing out, or like you should have probably gone to that party, because, obviously, you’ve got a child to look after. In fact, I leave these meetings feeling like the boring one. They’re all hilarious with their hilarious children and anecdotes about the kids next door and the weird, intense mums who judge them at the school gates. Aside from the massive stress of having children, they seem so relaxed. And I realise that I’m not.
Sometimes, hardly ever, they use me for a ready-made night out when they’re feeling out of touch. And they come, and we all have a great time, but I can see they feel like half a person, and they miss their baby so much that they invariably leave early.
The writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge (star of BBC Three's Fleabag) said something in an interview (on Refinery29) recently that struck a chord. She said:
“Are you pregnant? Is that bad? Are you happy? But are you really? A good way to escape this is to party really hard so you forget entirely who you are, then put the photos of the party on the internet so no-one finds out how horrified you are about your perpetual hangover.”
I copy and pasted the passage to a few of my single, female, party-hard friends, and we all sort of went, “yeah…”
Sometimes, my fellow non-mother friends (all 30+) and I joke that we’re the ones left. This comment is always framed as a superior position to be in, because we’re out having fun with the disposable income from our advanced, uninterrupted jobs. We won’t have to go home if our phones run out of battery, in fact we’ll just stay out all night because that means we can’t get an uber! We can smoke if we’re having a stressful day, we can go for a drink after work to unwind, we can get up an hour earlier than normal if we feel like it to do a yoga class and feel zen before work. We can drop everything and go travel the world. I have started to wonder how long this conversation will feel superior for. I have started to wonder if we will ever start to feel inferior.
There is, at least in me, a small, very firmly shushed voice that goes: 'Are you sure you’re doing life right?', 'Shouldn’t you be doing it like this?' [holds up baby in bath pic]
At 25, my internal maternal panic button started beeping. Like a fire alarm running out of battery that you can’t be bothered to replace. I fully intend to keep putting on music to drown out the noise. But then, comically, tragically, that Clear Blue pregnancy advert targeted at me and my friends (30-ish women) plays on pre-roll, saying 'look – look at these women getting pregnant and laughing gaily about it! Look – they look about your age!' And I impatiently wait for the ‘Skip’ button to appear so I can carry on vibing to Yungen’s reply to Chipmunk about their Nando’s fallout.
Well, I've said it now. On those Saturdays sat on a park bench in the children’s play area, or in the morning when I wake up after a late night, there is, at least in me, a small, very firmly shushed voice that goes: “Are you sure you’re doing life right?”, “Shouldn’t you be doing it like this?” [holds up baby in bath pic]
I feel confident that these feelings are normal. It’s just that my non-mother friends and I tend not to talk openly about them. Mostly because we don’t feel we need to yet, and because we're enjoying ourselves so why stop now? But also because it doesn’t seem to fit in with the bigger thing we’re all trying to achieve which is: establish gender equality, achieve our potential as women, as individuals, and for the first time in history, be in a position to choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family…