We’re sitting at a table close to the bar and it’s my turn to get the drinks. It’s a slow evening, early in the week, no sign of the hordes of thirsty pub-goers who would block my view of the bar on a busy night. Not that it’s the view of the bar I’m concerned with but that beyond it, the younger, cuter of two barmen who are chatting in between serving customers. It’s my turn to get the drinks, but I’m also hoping to get a phone number.
Maybe it’s the earlier beers that have given me courage. Maybe it’s the smile and the banter that accompanied the serving of the earlier beers; whatever it is, courage steers me out of my chair, up to the bar, past the order for the refills and straight into a blunt request for a phone number.
A smile, a big one, and a holding of my gaze, and then the information pertaining to a girlfriend, and the assurance that if he didn’t have said girlfriend he would definitely share his number with me. I pay for the drinks, return to inform my friend of the result, drink a long sip of beer, allow my slightly elevated heart rate to return to normal and wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans.
Maybe if they served alcohol at mum and baby pilates classes I’d have made more mama friends when on maternity leave. As it was, after my first baby, and despite a conviction that maternity leave was going to be a constant stream of coffee-dates, companionable walks in the park and parent and baby cinema meet-ups, I made it through 10 months of maternity leave with only one additional new-mom contact in my phone. A couple of beer would surely have given me the dutch courage to ask that other Mum at the swimming class out for coffee?
I did somewhat better on baby number 2, but then we had moved house, away from all of my old friends and my husband was away for work, so basic survival mechanisms kicked in and a nearby parent and toddler group proved the starting point for some new friendships.
I read an article about how why working mums are being sold an impossible dream about work life balance and something in it made me pause. It wasn’t the story of the high-flier mum who self-medicated with 3 classes of wine a night, or the mum who after doing regular office hours all day sat down at 10pm after the kids were in bed to catch up on work until 1am. But the author mentioned a mum who described pushing her buggy round town in winter in the hopes of meeting people because she was so lonely. Something in that stopped me in my tracks.
Maternity leave in Ireland is long. We are lucky in that, lucky we get to spend so much with our babies when they’re small, and don’t have to juggle sleepless nights and pumping and work when baby is just a couple of months old- like is the case for friends in the US for example.
But the days of maternity leave in Ireland are long when your regular social contact revolves around work, or when friends are busy with their lives or living elsewhere. Or just when you’re spending all day in the company of a human you adore beyond belief, but also craving an actual conversation as much as you crave an unbroken night’s sleep.
I was lucky, in that my then-partner, now husband was around a lot (he worked nights that first summer of the first-born), and we got to hang out in our new family on an almost daily basis, in daylight hours. A luxury not that many get to enjoy.
But even with that, I had a quiet wish to befriend other mums. I went to mum and baby yoga and chatted to the other mums about sleep and feeding and their baby’s name and whether they planned to do baby-led-weaning or purees, but afterwards I had cake alone while my baby slept on my chest in his carrier. I looked in envy at groups meeting up for coffee at hipster markets with babes in arms and I ate my cake and fed my baby and went home again. I went to the mum and baby cinema and sat three rows behind a group of mum-friends and wondered how I could infiltrate their ranks.
Why did nobody invite me for coffee or trips to the playground or to the baby-jam on a Friday? Why did I find it an impossible hurdle to invite anyone to do the same with me? And even if I did pass the exchanging number hurdle unscathed, what if that first or second time you try to arrange a meet-up it’s not happening with the ease you’d like it to and you worry that it’s not an ‘I’m so sorry I don’t have time thing’ but a ‘I don’t have time for you thing’.
Oh woe is me. The trials and tribulations.
The first rule of loneliness. You don’t talk about the loneliness.
It’s not a desirable state. Who wants to be friends with someone who is lonely? There’s a reason they’re alone and lonely. Friendship is a thing that happens easily, organically, and if it’s not happening for you then surely there’s something wrong.. with you.
I barely know anyone who was single in the last decade who hasn’t tried online dating. So we can put it out there that we’re looking for a romantic match, but god forbid we admit we’re looking for friendship too. If romance needs a helping hand through apps and dating sites, then why should platonic friendship be any different?
Like I say, on baby number two, I gathered more phone numbers. I met up with some of those mamas, with and without babies. I put myself out there on the playdate dating scene. I gathered phone number of people other than mamas too, and met up with them also. I frequently over-committed myself in meeting people and had to cancel (I promise, it was always an ‘I don’t have the time I thought I had’ thing and not an ‘I don’t have time for you thing’).
Now I’m working again. Instead of making dates with other mamas I’m making dates for research interviews and conferences and yoga classes. And some days I feel like I barely have time to have a conversation with my husband. So there really isn’t time to think about friendships and loneliness. But we are moving house again soon, this time into the place we hope will be our forever home, and I plan to invite strangers and new and old friends into our new life in that home, for coffee, for playdates, for weekends, for just hanging out.
In the meantime, if anyone wants to talk about loneliness, or Fight Club.. or Brad Pitt in any film ever… I’m here.