When writer Robyn Wilder, 41, moved out of town to have a baby, she didn't realise the tumbleweed that would follow...
Last night I broke a cardinal rule of Londoning: I talked to my cab driver. I couldn't help but tell him about my amazing evening out (dinner with no baby on my knee, adult conversation, champagne), because, for the first time since I gave birth 18 months ago, I didn't feel like someone who'd been banished to a barren planet for having a baby.
Normally, I'm never happier than when social plans get cancelled and I can unwind in a onesie on the sofa. So a year of doing that with an adorable baby by my side seemed pretty much like bliss. But raising a baby is a massive culture shock that nothing can prepare you for.
At first it was fine, because I was getting on with the very important, and very terrifying, business of acclimatising myself to this new life I was responsible for. Once the panicky pace slowed, though, a new emotion raised its head: loneliness. I noticed that no one had addressed me as anything but 'Mum' for weeks, because the only people I talked to besides my husband, were a series of friendly-but-formal medical staff, and Herbie, my drooly, fat-faced baby.
Moving From London... To The Suburbs
Just one year before I had been living, working and socialising in London, with no plans to marry or have kids. Until suddenly my boyfriend Stuart and I decided we did want a wedding and we did want a family. In 2014, Stuart and I got engaged, became pregnant and got married. Herbie was born in January 2015, just three weeks later we left London to move to my husband's hometown.
Ashford in Kent, we had reasoned, was only 38 minutes from St Pancras on the high-speed train. It was practically a London suburb, where we could rent a three-bedroomed house with a garden and Stuart's parents (and our de facto babysitters) lived 20 minutes' walk away. Truthfully, Ashford is not the sort of place London people visit at the weekend. We have a Lidl, a Eurostar terminal, and a designer outlet. Well-connected we may be, but we're not the Cotswolds.
To their credit, our (largely child-free) friends rolled in at weekends, laden with gifts and gossip. But this only deepened my burgeoning sense of isolation. They were fresh-faced, glamorous, smelling of the outside. I'd been wearing the same stained sweatpants for a week, wasn't sure that my boobs weren't out, and possessed a body untouched by tweezers or razor for months. Their lives were all Aperol spritzes, office politics, films at the cinema; I measured my day in naps, poos and vomit. 'They're not here to see you,' Stuart reassured me. 'They want to meet Herbie.' This didn't help at all.
The Baby Routine
Every weekday followed the same routine. I'd wake up when Herbie woke up, turn on Netflix and take up residence on the sofa, breastfeeding for up to an hour each time. Stuart, who works from home, would come down from the study at lunchtime to take Herbie, we'd grunt at each other, and I'd try to nap when the baby napped, then I'd go to bed.
And of course – of course – this was also a magical time. My son's first smile, the first time he reached out to touch my face, his first giggle when I snuggled my nose into his – these all happened on the sofa, when I was in my sweatpants.
But at the same time, I was starting to unravel. We have a bay window looking out on to the street and I'd become slightly obsessed with the people walking by. Once, when Herbie was about 12 weeks old, someone I'd named 'cool haircut woman', who always looked like she was on her way to a design job, blew my mind by walking past with a toddler in tow. Which is when I realised that I didn't have to be this semi-devolved, vegetative, rejected-fromthe-human-race, indoors-dwelling motherthing. I could be a mum and a person, too.
I began by just trying to get out of the house each day. This is no mean feat; it can take anything up to two hours to leave the house with a freshly fed, freshly changed newborn and all of its accoutrements. But we started small with trips to Lidl, then to parks and coffee shops. Eventually, I realised I wouldn't make any friends this way, so decided to Join Up To Things.
I signed up for everything. Churchrun baby groups, baby massage classes, breastfeeding groups, baby swimming. It was incredibly daunting. One of the joys of being a grown-up is not having to make new friends – everyone I know I've known for years, and the idea of going through the rigmarole of letting people know what my degree was in, or that I'm left-handed, or allergic to yellow food colouring, especially when my baby was plunging his hand down my top, was dispiriting.
I didn't fit into any of the groups – not the young mums with their entourage of prams, nor the swishy-haired power mums in their off-road vehicles. The closest I came was meeting the career mummies – but they all lived in far-flung villages and, having lived in London for 10 years and without any sort of foresight, I don't drive. So I decided to do three things.
Firstly, I went back to work. I'm lucky enough to be able to freelance from home, and throwing myself into work a few days a week – even if my only contact was by email – made me feel less lonely. I had a frank chat with my best friend, and we organised a weekly 'FaceWine' (FaceTime with Sancerre), and now she comes for a weekend every other month, and on alternate months Herbie and I visit her. And I started a parenting blog, resulting in new internet friends.
There's also my new habit of compulsively Instagramming my son, which has led to something called 6am Club – a WhatsApp support group of mums who feel alone for whatever reason. Now we are 50 members strong, with meet-ups and private jokes. Whether someone's been going through marital problems, tragedies, or just been up at 3am and feeling sweary, someone has been on hand to share a kind word. 6am Club is the first media I log on to in the morning, and the last thing I check at night.
Although it doesn't quite make up for the loss of my real-life friends – some of them have, quite naturally, drifted away – it has brilliantly softened the blow. In fact, they're all fast becoming my real-life friends I just talk to through my phone. My son is 18 months old now, and because I work from home it does feel as though my maternity leave has continued but that I've settled into it. On bad days it seems as though it's eternally 3pm on a grey Tuesday and, apart from a handful of pensioners on mobility scooters, I'm the only person alive on the face of the planet. But when I don't have any work on, it feels as though I've managed to bunk off school to hang out with my most fun friend.
Have you experienced 'maternity leave loneliness'? Let us know at feedback@ graziamagazine.co.uk, or via Twitter @GraziaUK.