I’ve not been to a toddler group for about three years. Last time I went, I pretty much swore off them, having had my fill. However, last Wednesday’s rain was set in, T was in a very busy mood and I was feeling too skint to blow £20 on a morning chaining tea at soft play. So, against my better judgement, I decided to revisit a group held in a local church, just to give T a morning out. After all, we are home alone together, now that M has started school, and I felt a bit under pressure to entertain the lively little lad.
Like most such toddler groups, this one was run by well meaning Christian ladies whose own kids are much older and who want to provide a service to local Mums, with a less than subtle undercurrent of converting them to see the light, where possible. Pleasant as they were and much as T enjoyed bombing about playing with manky old toys, I was very quickly reminded why I stopped going.
The fact that these groups are so inextricably linked to churches creates an automatic issue for me. I’m not religious and don’t want to bring my kids up in a religious way. At one group I attended I was faced with a full on conversion attempt by the pushy vicar telling me I was bound for hell. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that one. Everything is about God at these groups. The story and song time is religious, even the colouring pictures are holy scenes. But, much as that puts me off, it isn’t the real problem I have with them. The big issue for me is that they are such apparently happy, friendly places but I found that they can be anything but for the people who are really in need of a bit of compassion.
I am sure lots of Mums have very positive experiences of toddler groups. I didn’t. I’ve been to many in my time, some better than others, but the one that sticks in my memory was a group I used to go to with a small, angry baby H. I was a brand new Mum, going through an extremely painful and traumatic transition from breezy freedom to being at the mercy of a tiny rage monster. I had some lovely new Mum friends but I also had many seemingly endless days to fill with a miserable baby in tow.
So, I signed up to lots of groups, hoping to keep the baby happy and inject some adult conversation into my day, above and beyond trying to engage the Sainsbury’s cashier in a chat, out of sheer desperation to speak to a grown up. These were not my happiest days, I’ll freely admit.
Some baby and toddler activities were brilliant. Anything involving music was a winner. But the standard toddler groups were awkward and ultimately disappointing. They were full of cliques of local Mums who had known each other for years and basically had very little time for interlopers like me, recently out of London and with no network. I don’t think they meant to be mean, but they had their friends and weren’t really interested in meeting anyone else.
I’m not a shy person and am usually happy to kick start conversations but I felt like a fish out of water. I was at a pretty low ebb and not really able to rally and keep trying to make friends: being shattered, lonely and miserable, reaching out to unfriendly women who shut you out, was pretty demoralising. So, I sat and drank tea each week, trying to look busy and not like the sad, lonely one with no mates. Dire as it was, it was still better than the alternative of sitting at home with the baby.
To give them their due, the ladies running this particular group were lovely. It is possible they spotted a Mum-on-the-Edge and took pity, chatting to me and offering well meaning advice, tea and cake, without mentioning God once (other than shoving the odd church flyer at me).
That first toddler group feels like another lifetime now. I look back on that anxious, sad and stressed Mum with great sympathy but almost as if she is another person. Seven years of parenting and three kids later, I feel like I have changed beyond measure. I am too busy to have time to fill, I am confident in my own parenting abilities and I have a wonderful network of friends. But I still have room for more and I would never be one of those cliquey Mums who cut people out.
At last Wednesday’s toddler group, T and I rocked up noisily to pay our 50p entry fee. We were a very different duo to that angry baby and desperate Mum of the early days. T is a happy lad in a way that H never was and I was only there for the stewed tea and to give my lad something to do for a couple of hours.
Apart from that, it was all painfully familiar. Mums in cliques, friendly organisers giving me concerned looks as I sat on my own with my boy. The difference was just in my outlook. T had no interest in doing any of the organised activities and I had no interest in chatting to the other Mums. Instead of sitting there longing for someone to befriend me, I was pretty keen to avoid the banal chat. Not one of the other Mums approached me as a new face to say hello to anyway. The me of today was delighted but I was very aware of how the new Mum me would have felt to be so ignored.
T had an absolute riot. He would be delighted to go back next week. I don’t think we will though. I think I’d rather pay for soft play. It was interesting to go back in time and revisit how I felt and remind myself how things have changed for me. But I don’t need it. In fact, I think I may actually need to never go again. Who wants to be made to feel like the outsider, whilst simultaneously having their kids being told that God wants to use them? Not I.
It all feels rather one-sided to me and not worth the paltry 50p entry fee. I’m glad I went back though, if only to be reminded how things were, that I hadn’t imagined how miserable it could be. It also showed me how far I’ve come and that I survived it.
It felt good leave and go out into the rain, happy in the knowledge that the toddler group thing really isn’t for me.