Autumn in London. The sun’s out but a winter chill lingers in the air. Hood pulled up, I sit cross-legged on a bench in the park with a gaggle of girlfriends. We chew gum, chat shit. I sweep a lock of faded pink hair behind one ear, give my ill-fitting bra a yank and stifle a yawn. Last night didn’t involve much sleep and I’m suffering this morning as a result. A typical day in the life of teenage me. Except that: I’m 32, and I have a baby. I thought that becoming a mother would make me feel like a proper grown-up. It’s definitely the most adult thing I’ve ever done. And yet at times I can’t help but feel I’ve regressed. Skint, scruffy and sleep-deprived, I pass the time loitering in the park or roaming the streets. I’m madly in love with somebody for whom I’m mainly a pair of tits. With no spare time or cash for highlights, I’ve done a DIY dye job using wash-in pink hair colour from Superdrug. But hey, at least the nine months of sobriety have turned me back into the type of lightweight who gets pissed off a pint. My wardrobe gets more '90s by the day: multicoloured leggings, crushed red velvet kicks, oversized woolly jumpers, khaki parka. I worked for an arts magazine before I had my baby, Scarlet, so my attire was never exactly slick but I’d at least dig out a pair of tights that didn’t have any holes in. Not anymore. Now I glory in my grungy demeanour. Maybe I’m reliving my youth because maternity leave reminds me of being back at school, especially mine, which was a girls’ grammar. Like at school, my weekly merry-go-round of baby activities – Stay and Play, Soft Play, Storytime, Rhyme Time – has thrown me together with a bunch of people, mainly female, at roughly the same stage in life, some with whom I have nothing in common and some of whom will become my new besties.
Skint, scruffy and sleep-deprived, I pass the time loitering in the park or roaming the streets
While looking after our babies keeps us busy, we have a lot of time, too. We fill it by socialising in a way that reminds me of those grammar school days; hanging out at each other’s houses, loitering in parks or roaming the streets. We discuss intimate bodily functions. Moan about men. Sometimes we go to the pub and get pissed; revelling in the glory of being kids-free, pubs feel strangely novel again – only these days our tipple of choice is craft beer with names like Ageing Raver or Scummy Mummy rather than apple-flavoured alcopops. And when I’m not out with my friends? I lark about at home with Scarlet – singing, dancing, putting on silly voices. And like at school, every day there are important lessons to learn. Instead of quadratic equations and Shakespeare, though, it’s how to wipe wriggling bums one-handed and the lyrics to Humpty Dumpty. There are no po-faced teachers in tweed to berate me about my pierced nose but there are websites, endless parenting websites, outlining rules to follow. And there’s no skiving off; I have to follow them. Everywhere I go, every mum I meet wants to compare diets and sleep routines and bowel movements, tot up developmental milestones. “Did she just say Daddy?” another mum at Baby Swimming asked me, anxiously, as my baby – then aged about four months – randomly gurgled "Addadaaddaaaa". No, no she did not. It can be stifling. Faced with the conformity, I have an urge to rebel. ‘Fuck the rules’, I think, sometimes. In the early months, especially, I’d scan the mum crowds at children’s centres, wondering, where’s my tribe? Where’s the secret edgy mum subculture where I’ll feel at home? I’m back in Year 10, defining myself in opposition to the girly girls with their fancy fountain pens, trying to cultivate my own persona with studied nonchalance.
Then there’s my relationship with my own mum. “You look tired,” she’ll say, before offering suggestions to which I’ll respond with my best teenage eye-rolling petulance. “Have you tried giving her a dummy?” Yes we did but she spat it out. “When you were a baby and you wouldn’t sleep, we put honey on your dummy.” Jesus, really? That’s where it all went wrong then. “I bought some dummies. Just for when she’s at my house.” She doesn’t take a dummy, I told you, mum. And please don’t stick your finger in her mouth. “I spoke to my friend. She’s got lots of advice. She’s very pro-dummy.” Good for her. “Isn’t your cousin’s baby lovely? You know she has a dummy.” MUM STOP BANGING ON ABOUT FUCKING DUMMIES. Hopefully a few of my parenting choices are rational, but I’m sure there’s an element of deliberately pushing back against my upbringing, of doing things my way. The equivalent of going veggie and plastering my bedroom walls with drum and bass flyers, how you raise a kid is an expression of your worldview, your identity. I have no ideological objection to a dummy but I’m not going to force one on my daughter. As much as possible, I just try to respond to her needs. If she cries at night, I go to her. If she wants to sleep in our bed, I let her. Who knows if my way is any better than anyone else’s. I love it, this adolescent renaissance. I feel free, creative, young again. The world has regained its sheen. I’ve been given a chance to escape the rat race and start afresh, as though someone’s shown me a trapdoor and said, “Here you go, jump. Who knows where you’ll land...” That’s how I’ve really changed; at 15, I felt invincible, now I don’t. Back then, I cared what people thought of me but I wasn’t afraid of much else. Today, I couldn’t give a nappy sack what people think but I see danger at every turn. What if I drop the baby? What if we’re walking down the street and something falls on her face? What if a bird shits in her eye? Parenthood is angst-ridden, exhausting, sometimes tediously mundane, but it’s never stagnant. Your child changes constantly, and you change with them. Which is why, a year into motherhood when someone asked me if I still feel like “me”, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Of course I’m not exactly the old me. But I’m on the road to becoming a new me, just like I was back in adolescence. Only, this time I have someone travelling alongside me and they, not me, are the most important person in the world.