Marie starting nursery seems to have been a tantalisingly close prospect for a long time now. Back at the beginning of the year, I thought there'd be an in-take after the October Week holiday and, since Marie's birthday is late September, I was hoping she'd get in then. Just before the summer holidays, I found out she wouldn't be eligible for a place until after Christmas. More recently, I started to hear rumours of place shortages at the nursery attached to the boys' school. There were tales of kids having to wait months, even though they were already three; accounts of parents having to beg, plead and shout to get their children in; whispers of vast hordes of Polish four-year-olds invading the area and demanding pre-school education; suggestions that Marie might have to wait until August 2008...
I'd got used to thinking it was several months away - just about in sight but too distant to really plan for. Now, suddenly, I know she's got a morning place in January. I'll have a couple of hours or so each day without children. In five weeks. It's actually going to happen. I can hardly believe it. I'm BobBIng UP aNd DOwn aS I tYPe. There are all kinds of possibilities.
I can hardly wait but, now it's all more of a reality, I can't help feeling a little pang of fear. I will no longer have a small child in my care every minute of the day to justify my existence. On occasion, I will have to be a person in my own right. That's going to be strange.
Stranger still, there will be no more parent and toddler.
Admittedly, I've been feeling like I'm serving out my time there for a while. I go along and drink my hot drink, eat some biscuits and stare into space while Marie entertains herself. I chat a bit but, if no one I know is around, I'm not desperate to introduce myself to new people.
The idealised image of these groups suggests I should have a core band of friends to go to the cafe and talk potty issues and sleep deprivation with by now. It's not happened, though. I just haven't collected a little clique of coffee-drinking companions.
Some of this is probably down to being a man. Place thirty mums and a dad in a room and tell them to make some friends, and the dad is almost bound to be at a disadvantage. Throw in another dad, and the two of them will stick together but there's no saying that they'll have anything more in common than being trapped in a room full of sleep deprived women and children with potty issues. This is not necessarily a recipe for long term friendship.
Oh and, chances are, the second dad will just be giving his partner a break on his day off from work and the first dad will never see him again anyway.
Yep, some of the reasons for not having a coffee shop clique are down to being a man but, let's face it, some of them are down to me. I'm quite shy, I struggle to start conversations and I've never been much of a coffee shop person. On top of that, when Lewis was young, I had depression, which is never helpful when making friends. When Marie was small, there simply wasn't time in the schedule between changes, feeds and school runs for any caffeine-based socialising .
It's not like it's been a total washout, though. I have made a few friends who live close by - just not very many of them compared with the number of people I've chatted to. I've made far more acquaintances. Unfortunately, in most cases, at the point I was starting to get to know them better, they disappeared. One week they were at parent and toddler and the next they weren't... ever again.
At one of the groups I attend, the other parents have all changed three or four times. Even the helpers have changed twice.
Often they've gone without me noticing. It's quite normal for people to be off sick or on holiday for weeks at a time. It's only after a month that it becomes clear they're not coming back. And there's no way of contacting them. The organisers aren't allowed to hand out personal details (if they even have them) and, by then, two-thirds of the other parents are liable to struggle to remember who I'm talking about, let alone where they live. (My descriptions don't usually help much. 'You know, that tired looking mum with brown hair and a couple of kids. She used to wear a scarf quite a lot...')
Where have these people gone?
There's no way of knowing. Have they moved house or got a job? Have they fallen out with someone or found a better group elsewhere? Has the kid taken to napping in the middle of the morning? Has the parent taken to lounging around in coffee shops? Are they all OK? Has there been a disaster? Was it anything to do with zombies?
It would be nice to know. Sometimes the family shows up again at nursery or with another child or when the kid starts napping in the afternoon once more. Other times, they're just gone. Vanished. Disappeared.
I wonder where they all went...
New people ask me, "Have you been coming here for a while?"
It's quite interesting watching their reaction when I say, "Six and a half years."
There's nearly always a slight double-take and some nervous laughter. New helpers realise that I know a great deal more about how the group works than they do. New parents realise the length of journey they might have begun.
And now my own journey is about to change course. In a few weeks, I will be one of the disappeared.
I can't help feeling a little sad and, as I said before, a little scared. Where has the time gone? What mark have I left? Will people wonder where I've gone and then struggle to remember my name?
I have to assume so.
Still, I've given plenty of advice and sympathy in my time. Hopefully it's done some good. More than that, parent and toddler has got me out of the house, given me the chance to talk to people old enough not to idolise the Teletubbies and provided me with a steady supply of hot drinks and biscuits. I've been very glad of it... but it's time to move on. I have a different life ahead of me.
I'm kind of hoping that it involves coffee shops and not zombies...
Yours in a woman's world,