Toddler groups. They aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea, and I totally get that.
For me, staying at home on the hamster wheel of getting-out-toys-putting-away-toys isn’t for me 100% of the time either. Sure, in an ideal world, there would be a friend or relative at the end of the phone, ready to socialise with you midweek in a less ‘mumsy’ environment, but let’s face it, with pre-schoolers it’s normally a question of “My place or yours?” (YOURS?) which inevitably leads to a post tea time sob and a search for the floor in your home. (It was definitely there this morning).
Coffee shops and tea rooms aren’t exactly the most relaxing of environments to hang out with other Mums either, or should I say small children, and often the endless messaging organising is just way too much effort for what often ends up in a late arrival or worst still, total blow out.
No, I quickly realised in my first maternity leave, that the answer to staying sane was to get out and entertain the tot somewhere that someone else would do the tidying up, and there would be stuff for the little one to do whilst I used up some of my daily 20,000 word count in conversation with another adult human being.
We’ve learnt our Messy play from our Creation Station, our Bounce and rhyme from our Jo Jingles, and I can pretty much tell you any day of the week which church hall you can get a brew and a cuppa for £2 while your kid plays with a load of old happyland toys. Baby gym, soft play, library groups, leisure centres – we’ve covered them all at some point or another.
These places are where my parenting network began, and continues to grow to this day still. I’ve met some really decent people, those who volunteer to run these shin digs just for the love of the group and those who, like me, are just looking to let their smalls burn off steam while they get a change of scene. I’ve met Mums who have Mums the same age as me, and I’ve become friends with Grandmothers who are doing it all again now they are super-Nanny to their grandchildren. I’ve got to know people who live on my road, and I have met people brand new to the area, and even to the country . They have all found a sense of community through these hubs for parents looking for solace in a decent coffee and a chat, a community that they never really knew existed.
I can honestly say the local Sure Start centre at times felt like an extension to our home. We have always been on first name terms with all the staff – and even watched them journey through their own trials and tribulations of parenthood. We graduated from baby talk, to waddle to toddle, on to stay and play with our growing brood, and the sanctuary of a free place to play for our children with their friends was nothing short of a life line.
As a stay at home Mum, the years are short but the days really are long. But, the days have always felt a little less long with the ability to distance myself from the laundry and the TV. As I tell myself I’m taking the Mouse out so ‘she can play’, we both know the real reason why Mummy is wrestling her coat on amidst her screams of “stay at home”.
The winter months can be tough on parents – the lack of green parks to roam in, the cold wind and rain putting off even the most outdoorsy of us from a ‘nice wintery walk’. In all honesty, after defrosting from the school run, that’s the last thing on earth I feel like doing.
We can’t exactly invite ourselves to other people’s houses to play, that just isn’t the done thing any more is it? (Well, maybe with some really good mates I could, if I really needed to). So, when faced with three options; stay indoors, invite someone here (not exactly getting me out of these four walls) or head off to X-church tots. Hence option #3 has become our safe option.
The community playgroup will always be waiting for me when I turn up ridiculously on time. I don’t have to rely on anyone else; but I can throw open an invite to anyone who fancies joining me. My day will take a random turn as I don’t know who I am going to meet, bump into, what I’ll experience or get to craft with my child (without a drop of paint touching my floor). I have even been known to almost (but not quite) decline an impromptu meet up with a friend passing by because it’s Friday afternoon – and that’s when we go to a particular group that I really like.
And so, five years into motherhood, with one offspring already graduated from the toddler group circuit I know my way around these parts. But, it wasn’t always that way, and I’ll never forget the fear and anxiety of going to these types of things for the first time. Alone (well apart from the baby that is), looking for company and a structure to my new found life. Everyone else seemed to know each other and there were certain places I swore I’d never return to when I left welling up with tears feeling more isolated than ever.
I did return of course, as my confidence grew and my new Monday to Friday crew with it.
I will always however look out for, and be as welcoming as possible, to that new Mum standing alone in the corner; with her crying baby, looking for where the baby change is. I will offer to hold the newborn baby of the Mum rushing her potty training toddler to the loo. I’ll say hello and ask if you come here often, even though I know you don’t, and I’ll make small talk cliches about your beautiful baby and how you are getting on. I’m sorry if I have become that smug Mum who seems to know everyone over the years, and if I ever excluded anyone. I can only blame it on my own self indulgence in a good chin wag with someone I only see once a week, or being totally oblivious as I multi-task; watching my child, not scalding someone else’s child with my tea, thinking about what we’re having for dinner and if I turned the tumble drier off, whilst making small talk with the person stood next to me.
The irony now however is that our toddler group days are numbered and this brings a whole new fear. As my second and probably last child starts preschool in January, that’s 50% of the weekly groups gone forever…in the run up to the very last time in September 2019. I’ve seen it first hand – other Mums I’ve got to know really well disappear from our lives overnight as their youngest starts school. With empty promises of meeting up for coffee, explaining over and over again that I’m not on facebook and futile exchanges of numbers with genuine intentions to stay in touch.
We’ll see each other again for sure – paths cross in the aisles of Aldi, at swimming lessons, or in the park during the holidays. We’ll gasp at how the kids have grown and those days at playgroup when my child smashed yours in the face with a toy cow will seem so long ago.
But the biggest question of all? What exactly happens then to a stay at home Mum with no toddler to take to a toddler group? I mean, I know there are 101 things to do with a child free morning, but how will 5 child free mornings feel after the initial novelty wears off?
I guess only time will tell, but one thing I do know, is that I’ll always be incredibly grateful for my years working the toddler group circuit with my children. I’ll never forget the lovely people I’ve met, who have shared some hilarious laughs, some seemingly unimportant chats that made such a positive impact to my life at this stage of parenthood. Maybe one day I’ll be one of the old dears serving life saving coffee from the hatch to tired young mothers, reminiscing about the good old days with my girls.