"Say hiya to Didin," I told my 16-month-old daughter Maia.
"Hiya" she said, in typical toddler-parrot fashion, squirming to get down but also semi-perplexed by my phone in her face.
We were FaceTiming my best friend David – nicknamed 'Didin' by Maia – while he travelled in South America, where he’s been since late November.
Before he left, David was a regular feature in Maia’s life. Having lived with us – with the occasional month away to travel – since January 2018, Maia is very attached to him. David babysat Maia while I worked, looked after her overnight so I could catch up on sleep and, besides Maia’s beloved grandad, is the closest thing she has to a father figure. Most people now would think: "A male best friend? Helping so much with your baby? You must be at least dating." Nope, not at all. Completely platonic. But we have dated previously – for four years, in fact. And it was the fallout from our break-up that led to my pregnancy with Maia.
David and I met when we were 17 years old, set up by mutual friends. We were their two single friends who actively wanted to meet someone, and I suppose we made sense. We got on instantly and David quickly became my safe place in the chaotic world that is teenage-hood. We told each other everything – we still do – and we went through a lot together: my A-levels and his college diploma, our art foundation diplomas, the illness and passing of my grandpa, his father’s new marriage, the illness and passing of Tom, my stepdad. We travelled to Bali and Sri Lanka, and we lived together for most of our relationship. He emotionally supported me through all my unpaid jobs during university, cooking me dinner when I rolled in at midnight after the particularly challenging Fashion Week internships, and he listened to me vent all the time. But while we grew up together, we also grew out of love together. Before we knew it, we were no longer lovers but just the best of friends. We bickered like siblings and no matter how much we tried, that spark that ignites romantic relationships and, more importantly, keeps them going, had completely gone.
At 21, after almost four years together (three of those sharing a home), we decided to split up. No one talks about how desperately you hurt, even when a break-up is amicable. Even if you have been expecting it for a long time, the shock of not having that person with you during the day-to-day affects you mentally in ways you cannot prepare yourself for. We both dealt with it differently. David moved out and started going out an awful lot with his friends – he had moved in with his best friend. For the first month of our break-up, I lived alone for the very first time, and the loneliness ate at me rapidly. So I took to Tinder. Two great girlfriends of mine ended up moving in and we had a great time, but I was still on the rebound and not taking precautions all the time. Before I knew it, I was pregnant – just four months after mine and David’s split.
I spent the whole evening on the brink of tears and while he knew something was up, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him just yet.
The day after I found out I was pregnant, David and I met up for drinks in west London near my university. It was one of the first times I had seen him since he had moved out and we were both still getting used to being just friends. I spent the whole evening on the brink of tears and while he knew something was up, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him just yet. A month later we met again, and I decided that I wasn’t going to chicken out. He sat across from me at lunch and shakily, I told him I had something to tell him.
"You have a new boyfriend?" he said.
"No, no that."
"Oh my god. You’re pregnant," his hands had raised to his mouth and I was waiting for him to storm out, to tell me I should have waited longer to move on, that I should have been more careful.
Instead, he just asked how I was. "If it’s okay with you, I would love to meet the baby when they arrive," he said, which shocked me more than the fact he had miraculously guessed my pregnancy within two questions.
Fast-forward seven and a half months, and David sat on my sofa holding a 2-week-old Maia, looking simultaneously terrified and completely in love.
I had a pretty traumatic birth and didn’t heal properly until three months postpartum. Paired with a difficult breastfeeding experience which led to me exclusively pumping, I needed plenty of support in those initial weeks. As a single parent, your 'village' is incredibly important. My parents, my older sister and friends were all instrumental in holding together my emotional wellbeing during those first months, but I expected them to be there. David was the unforeseen saviour. He saw how much I struggled with early motherhood, and he came to my rescue repeatedly. Even before he moved in, he regularly stayed over and took Maia for the night so I could catch up on sleep. The first night he stayed, we hadn’t planned for him to help in the night. He had been at work all day, he was exhausted. But it was 2am and 6-week-old Maia wouldn’t stop screaming. I was getting to that point of nighttime parenting when I wanted to stick my head in the toilet, and David came and rocked Maia to sleep so that I could just get a few minutes of peace.
Six weeks later he had moved in with my mum, Maia and me, mainly because he knew he wanted to travel on and off and renting in-between was incredibly expensive. Mum and I were more than happy to share our space with him, because he had proved himself to be part of the family. Between January and November, with the exception of two or so months of travelling, David was with us, helping. He continued to take Maia in the night, would take her out for walks in the day so that I could get work done, play with her while I showered and – most importantly – he established a solid relationship with Maia that she clearly adored.
Day to day, when we would go for lunch or shopping together, David gave me small reprieves that are invaluable to a single parent. We would often comment how people must assume he is Maia's father as they don’t look dissimilar and in some ways, that helped me. Until you are a single mother, you don’t realise how often you are stared at when out and about with your child. I received significantly less attention when Maia and I were having lunch with David as opposed to by ourselves on a weekend. The stigma around sole parenthood can be crippling sometimes, especially when you have the sudden and frequent realisations that you are the only person with responsibility for your child.
While I haven’t met anyone romantically, I have had fleeting discussions with men of interest, and I think that my friendship with David does scare a lot of them off. I make a point of mentioning him, his importance in mine and Maia’s life, because I want to make sure I never end up with someone who is going to contest David’s place. Ideally, they would be able to have their own relationship with each other, but that may be hoping for too much. All I know – and what I have learned from David – is that sometimes the most beautiful and surprising relationships can come from the most bizarre and life-changing scenarios, if you just allow them to bloom.