The French call it le Coup de Foudre, a thunderbolt: that instant sense that someone is right for you. Polly and I sat at opposite ends of the sandpit, catching each other’s eye and smiling. She looked like someone I knew, I thought, a face familiar to me. It was love at first sight; I knew I must make her my friend. Was it me who made the first move? Did I ask her about her sling … or her shoes? Did I say something inane about the weather? Perhaps my baby threw sand at hers and I had to apologise? But I remember we started talking, and then talked all morning, sitting there, crouched in the February drizzle. Within moments, we were telling each other the most private, secret things, about the trauma of our births, about sex, death, love and loss. It was like plunging headfirst into a deep, lifelong friendship, with no warm-up, no preamble. Polly and I were made for each other, and we both knew it.
In that first year of motherhood, we would sit for hours at her kitchen table, while our children crawled on the floor at our feet, banged saucepans or slept in their prams in her hallway. We’d talk about the books I’d write one day, the paintings she’d do once she could get back to the studio. We’d talk about gardens, politics, dresses, art, novels; the kind of mothers we had and the kind we wanted to be. We were mothers at home, but together, at her kitchen table, we weren’t defined by it. We’d tell each other how full of promise we both were, how talented and clever, and how many exciting chapters were yet to come. We’d drink cup after cup of tea, poured from her huge brown teapot and it felt like we’d be this way forever, breastfeeding our chubby babies in her small kitchen; although we both knew, of course, we wouldn’t. Being a parent is to be always in flux; the days may drag on but the years are short and change is always around the corner. Sure enough, when our children were two, we both moved home – selling our small, cramped flats and moving to bigger houses, to have more babies and stretch our legs a little. We said goodbye one day so breezily, amongst the packing boxes of my flat, as if it was really no big deal we were driving a divide a hundred miles wide into our friendship. I hardly see her now, with more children, busy lives and work complicating things. But Polly’s kitchen table will always be a place I feel cherished and understood. However far apart we move from each other, we’re bonded forever by that intense, formative time we spent together as new mothers.
The friendships I have made with fellow mums have been among the most nourishing and rewarding relationships of my life. When it can feel like your whole world centres on your baby, with the rhythms of their waking, sleeping and eating your obsession, a friend in the same boat can be your salvation. When leaving the house can mean a full hour of preparation – feeding, changing, feeding, changing again – a single outing with a friend who is also not finding this whole thing a total breeze can make a lonely day a lovely one. Friendship, for a new mother, can be a life raft.
I admire women who appear to have perfect lives, who manage their home, work, baby without breaking a sweat; who seem unfazed by the sleeplessness of new parenthood, and always have something delicious cooking in the oven but I’m not that person and it’s never been those women I’ve yearned to be friends with. Good friendships never make you feel inadequate or left wanting. Time with friends is time for honesty, for venting and for sharing the rough and the smooth. For laughing, crying – despairing even – and for making things right again, resetting the dials. When I would visit a friend who also had a small baby and see that her house too had piles of dirty washing and last night’s dishes piled in the sink, it was such a relief. To see that she too hadn’t spotted the baby vomit in her hair was both funny and comforting. We’re together in this – not alone.
Being at home with a small baby can be blissful but it can also be intense, exhausting and lonely at times; often it’s only another mother in the same boat who can bring some levity to it. Just to say “Oh my god, this is so hard” to each other can have a transformative effect on morale. When our babies were very small, another good friend and I thought we’d have an outing to the park with the babies in slings. How brilliant to leave the buggies at home and be so mobile, so fancy-free! Very suddenly, the skies went dark and the heavens opened and we were caught, coatless, umbrella-less, in a dramatic, swirling hailstorm. We ran back through the streets of Shepherd’s Bush, jumpers draped over our screaming babies, shrieking and laughing so hard we were convulsing. There are moments like these when you are looking after very small children that are so appalling that only the company of another woman can make an excruciating situation an hilarious one. Few things are more life-affirming than my friendships with other women and I couldn’t have survived these years without them. Cherish yours.