Has being a parent made me a crap friend?

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Last night, we missed a friend’s 40th birthday because- 20 minutes before our neighbour arrived to babysit- our daughter announced that she was going to be sick.

We really, really wanted to go to the party- and I’m not just saying that because the birthday boy might be reading.

While I cradled my daughter on the bathroom floor post-vomit, she asked me, for some reason: ‘Mummy, would you give up anything for me?’. And I said yes, of course I would, in a moment. Including a rare night out with my fellow Parental Unit, in the big city. Including being with a friend to mark his landmark birthday.

Being a parent, of young children at least, means giving up all sorts of things. Lie-ins. Privacy. Abdominal muscle definition. An existence in which you never have to wipe another person’s bum or nose. Your heart, in its entirety. But I wondered, as I messaged our friend to apologise for our no-show: does being a parent also mean giving up the ability to be a good friend?

Part of me says that I should give myself a break. Much of life is ruled by sod’s law, and even more so when you have little kids. Last night wasn’t the first time we’ve had to cancel a night out, or leave one mid-evening, because of an ill child. That’s unavoidable.

But another part of me knows that there are dear friends whom I haven’t seen for a year or more. Pre-kids, we used to meet up most weekends. There are friends who have had two children, and I’ve barely met their first. There are SMS and WhatsApp notifications, sitting there all red and accusing on my phone, that I swear I’ll reply to ‘when I’ve got a spare minute’.

Of course, literally speaking, I have spare minutes- especially as I am currently between jobs. But a minute of clear headspace and heartspace to properly engage with friends in the way I want to? That feels like gold-dust. When your knackered brain is full of after-school club timetables and flu vaccination dates and panicking about what to do for your kid’s birthday party which is suddenly three weeks away and you haven’t planned anything, and your hands are packing school bags and combing nits out of hair and squeezing cheeks a bit too hard, and your heart is constantly bursting and bleeding, it’s tricky to grasp those minutes.

When the chips really are down and a  good friend is in crisis, I hope that I’m there. But, regretfully, even that’s limited. I mean it when I say ‘call any time, I’m always there’, but due to circumstances beyond my control (one aged 4 and one aged 7), ‘any time’ can mean any time apart from 6am-8.45am and then 3.15pm-8pm; and ‘always there’ means I’m there, but unfortunately often unable to be there in person- because there’s a bug in the design of children which means they’re not able to look after themselves, and partners are, inconveniently, not always on hand to do the job.

And, just like any relationship, it isn’t just the crunch times that matter in friendship. Staying in touch for the humdrum times, the casual coffees and the comfortable silences, is important too. But how to do this? For me, partly it’s about squeezing in power-palling sessions when I can. Partly it’s about staying in touch in other ways. Social media- so often maligned for ruining ‘real’ communication, is a godsend in this respect. There are many friends who, even though we may not be able to meet or talk often, because of geography or the fact that we are frankly a bit crap, still feel very close, because of social media.

There will be a time, in maybe ten years, when I think/hope I’ll have much more time for connecting with these friends in person. But in the meantime, in my heart of hearts I know I can try harder, and do better. I value my friendships, and don’t want to lose them. So while I may not be able to magic an ill child better, or leave the babies alone in the house, I can apologise for not attending a party, but offer a dinner invitation instead. I can plan mate dates, and stick to them. Because I would give up anything for my kids, but I don’t have to give up being a good friend. Until the next tummy bug at least.

 

 

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Chapter Fifteen: I’m Still Tiny

Leila seems to be having a bit of a delayed reaction to the arrival of her baby brother, or maybe it’s a timely reaction to the new, louder, more awake version of her baby brother, who takes up more of my time and attention.

Her discombobulation manifests itself in an added dose of threenager fierceness, and in an uncharacteristic clinginess to me. ‘I need you’ she says, ‘I want to be WITH you, be WITH me mummy’. And, this morning, as she clutched me so tightly, it’s like she wanted to be inside my skin again: ‘I’m still tiny. I’m still so small’.

It also manifests itself in the classic Leila (the original early bird) stunt of waking up before dawn, and bouncing in and out of her bedroom like a jack-in-the-box. Though she did have the courtesy to knock insistently on our door at 6am this morning, instead of appearing ghost-like by our bed breathing ‘Daddy’ into the darkness in alarming fashion, as she has done before.

So come 1pm today we knew, even if she didn’t agree, that she needed a nap. Leila’s afternoon nap has been undergoing a slow and tortured demise, like a fish on land that keeps flapping into life before giving up completely. Some days she will, many she won’t, some days she actually asks for one. Today she was not asking, and she was not napping. I bundled Asher into his pram in the porch and left him to squawk his way into sleep (poor second child) and went to relieve G who had been trying to get Leila to nap for longer than is good for anyone’s sanity.

Overcome with tiredness myself- before Asher, I had all but forgotten the crushing, bruising fatigue that comes with having a young baby- I did something that Leila and I have never done. I lay down with her for a nap. Unlike her brother, she has never been one for co-sleeping, even when we’ve tried it in desperation during dodgy sleep patches (one memorable night sticks out, near Christmas 2011, of Leila aged nearly two chirrupping ‘ingle bells, ingle bells’ at 1am, sitting bolt upright between us in bed). But today I squashed myself onto her toddler bed, and put my arms around her. I tried to emulate a relaxation session such as you do at the end of a yoga class or similar, as I know G has used this technique to help her nap before.

‘Feel your eyes get heavy…’, I murmured, feeling my eyes get heavy. ‘Let your face relax’, as I dribbled onto her forehead. At first she thrashed about and made irritating kissy sounds with her mouth. Then she turned onto her side facing me and said quietly ‘no talking, while we have our nap’ and within seconds she was asleep, my lips pressed to her head, her breath in warm gusts on my neck.

It was unfamiliar and lovely, to have my little livewire sleeping in my arms. Her face in repose looked just as it did when she was a baby. I started to drift off myself, but toddler beds are a bit cramped for grown-up legs, plus I am a terrible napper- worse than Leila- so after a while I started to extricate myself as silently as possible: unsmooshing my face from her forehead, gently lifting my arm from her body, unfolding myself from around her. It brought to mind those baby days with her, when after shushing her to sleep in her cot, I’d curse the pop of a kneecap as I stood up, or the deafening swish of denim as I crept from the room.

As I tried to lift my head from the pillow, something kept me there. As well as the sweet, grassy Leila-smell of her head, it was something more physical: her fingers curled into my hair, grasping. Just like her brother does. Just as she did as a baby. I couldn’t bear to uncurl her fingers just yet, so I watched her sleeping a little longer.

She’s still tiny. She’s still so small.

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She loves him really