I tried playgroup again when I had my second baby, thinking maybe I’d like it more than I had the first time around. Instead, I came away thinking there are not enough swear words in all the languages of the world to describe how much I hate playgroup.
My hatred of it is somewhat baffling to me, because a great many of my favourite moments as a mother have been spent in the company of other mums and their children. And I actually love the friendship of women above almost all else. I also love talking, and eating cake and drinking tea. I even love a bunch of children playing at my feet. All these moments happen at playgroup, so why do I hate it?
Well, there are the conversations about teething, for one. I have nothing left to give to that conversation. I have talked all the teething I am ever going to manage in this lifetime. Now I want to talk about something juicy - like our sex lives, or our politics.
There’s also the endless comparison of baby sleep patterns at playgroup. There’s no topic of parenting analysed more than this one – and for good reason – but again, I'm done. When I first became a parent I found this topic irresistible; months of my life were dedicated to trying to understand, tinker with and master baby sleep patterns. I pursued it single-mindedly until I eventually came to the conclusion that if it could be figured out I would have figured it out by now. These days I approach the whole terrible mystery with an accepting sense of futility. And that doesn't feel bleak – it feels liberating.
Then there’s the competitiveness of toddler milestones at playgroup. I’m a second-time parent, so look at all the 'adult words' I don't give about how old my toddler was when he matched shapes in a developmental toy.
Speaking of toddlers, I don't like all the pained politeness parents put on when adjudicating squabbles between children. I want parents at playgroup to lose it a little (just a little) – preferably not at a toddler, but maybe at the swing set itself, because the kids are having trouble sharing right now. I would like less passive aggression and more honest exasperation from parents.
Actually, I’d like more honest everything at playgroups. There can be a stifling sense of fear in the air, I have found, and it ranges all the way from a fear of germs to a fear of being different. But this conformity, though borne of vulnerability, is silencing enough to cause another vulnerability all of its own - the fear that you are freakishly alone.
Becoming a mother, for me, was about the most intense and all-consuming experience of my life. Nothing has transformed me quite like motherhood. I expected mothers would want to talk about that more, about the disintegration and re-assembling we were experiencing, and about the injustices we were finding as parents, either in our homes or in our workplaces. But mothers' groups and playgroups, as well-organised and lovingly tended with mini-muffins as they are, have too frequently been a disturbingly sanitised vision of motherhood for me. And I can't tell if it’s because no-one wants to talk about the gritty stuff, or if it’s because no-one else is experiencing it.
I once attended a mother's group where the discussions were arranged around well-meaning but prim icebreakers; rather than talk about anything too heavy, we discussed topics like 'your favourite family recipe'. On one memorable occasion we were asked to share an important object in our handbags. Around the circle we went, each nominating an item to be knowingly chuckled over. Very occasionally, a mother revealed the tiniest glimpse into her life outside parenting, so instead of showing off the nappy wipes, she would offer something like red lipstick. I spent the time thinking about the most offensive thing I could pretend to have in my handbag, just to break the stupor. Everybody STOP! Let's not talk about what's in our effing handbag, let's talk about what's inside our effing heads! But I didn't say that. I smiled tightly instead.
I guess I needed playgroup more than it needed me. I was desperate and lonely, as new mothers often are, with my crying baby and a partner working long hours. I had seemingly endless days to fill. I wanted to shout at everyone at the mothers' group, but I wanted to hug them more. And it’s just as well I didn't have the outburst that would have had me thrown out, because I ended up making a new friend there, and that about saved my life.
Playgroups are a sanctuary when you need a place where people won't tut-tut about your baby crying, or the fact that it still takes you 10 minutes of fiddling about with your breasts exposed to get your baby feeding. And these groups really are a wonderful source of information when you actually want to know about latest teething remedies and the best wipes. (And don't get me wrong, there is no shame in the fact that the minutiae of parenting practicalities can feel like your whole world). Playgroups are also, like a singles bar, a haven for making new connections.
But re-visiting playgroup, new baby in tow, I quickly realised I was neither unseasoned enough to find 'baby sleep' discussions useful, nor fragile enough to pretend otherwise. This time, I would be prone to outbursts.
However, I have changed my mind on something. Now I know that it isn't so much that playgroup is the worst, but that it brings out the worst in me.
Andie Fox blogs at bluemilk.wordpress.com.