Parenting: No mum's Land - life as a stay at home mum beyond the baby years

I take my toddler to a local village parent toddler group and I see you all sat together, bouncing chubby cheeked babies on knee, the badge of new motherhood sat discernibly on your elated and sleep deprived faces. 

You crowd together sat on the floor in a circle, cooing over your babies and comparing notes on what they eat, how they sleep, and the latest new skill they have mastered.

I look and feel a pang in my heart that that was me but a moment ago; first with my Girl Inspiration who thrust me into the role of mummy, and then joined not long after by Boy Inspiration, who promoted me to a mama of two under two. 

The pandemic meant we didn't get to go to many groups with my boy, but when he was a baby he came everywhere I took Girl Inspiration to, and she was a curious and lively one year old. I rarely got chance to sit still or chat to the other mum's, as I dashed around, red cheeked, trying to meet the needs of both of my babies. But as a new mum to one, I did sit in those groups, in circles, sharing in something un-chartered.

I remember one outing I had with Girl Inspiration as a baby, as I was grappling with breastfeeding and weaning, a couple of mum's, with toddlers shrieking and wheeling around the table, shouted over how they wished they still had it that easy. 'Try being a mum to a toddler' they said.

At the time it bothered me. Couldn't they see I was up every 45 minutes in the night, that I was still breastfeeding my reflux baby round the clock and finding this new motherhood thing a steep learning curve. Yes my baby was adorable and my heart was so full, but I also felt very overwhelmed and separate from my old self and life. It did not feel easy at all. 

But, fast forward a few years and although I don't subscribe to the competitive mothering attitudes that seem to be everywhere these days, and there is no easier or harder in motherhood really, just different and new challenges, there are new experiences and observations life has brought since my children are no longer babies. I have since encountered the new challenges that mothering toddlers and preschoolers can bring and that ain't easy either. The noise, the mess, the pushing of boundaries, the letting them go, which feels like it just might break your heart entirely, and I'm full of anticipation and gratitude for much more to come.

I was once that mum sat in a circle cooing, and arm to arm with comrades in new motherhood, and babies round my feet, and it has all too fast changed. Time, all at once seeming to have raced by and also feeling like a life time ago since they were born. They grow so fast and change so quickly, during a time of not much sleep and days sometimes rolling into one, that time can feel elastic and holds no meaning in the same way it used to.

Now, my eldest, still so young but suddenly looking so big, is venturing out into the world without me and a piece of my heart is permanently on the outside, and I now take my two, nearly three year old to groups to try to make up for lost time. Watching the many mum's of babies sat together made me aware of how lonely life with a toddler can be.

We're a dwindling minority at playgroups, with many toddlers being in nursery and mum's back at work or fully ensconced in the care work that household manager and full time carer brings. Our children, whilst still cute and chubby cheeked, don't sit quietly in one place or totter adorably round the room on shaky legs. Our toddlers can be loud, boisterous, fast, inquisitive and strong willed. We are not welcome at the baby table, as so to speak.

Don't get me wrong, it can be great fun as we explore the room looking for activities and we devour them hungrily and move on to the next, but we never really stay in one place long enough to have a conversation with anyone. I appreciate the loving and slightly too rough cuddles and being grabbed by the hand by my curly haired toddler to show me something. I also sometimes appreciate the new found independence toddlerhood can bring, when I'm not anxiously following him around on tenterhooks at the next daring thing he wants to do. Aware that soon enough he will be bound for pre-school too and I have to teach him to navigate situations without me.

But it can feel a little like being on the outside of a beautiful, messy and exclusive club. The mum's of these tiny precious babies, not all that welcoming of loud and boisterous toddlers, who are in essence still babies themselves but in slightly bigger bodies. Still unsure of the world, still making sense of socialising and how they are perceived. Lacking the ability to regulate themselves and still needing lots of reassurance and support from us mum's. Especially lockdown babies who have missed years of building confidence at parent toddler groups.

But I also get it, as that was probably me too. As a mum to tiny babies, I was so worried about my baby getting stood on by an over exuberant toddler, or was not used to the noise that can come out of someone so small, as my still tiny baby mewled in diminutive cries and coo-ed next to me. My head and heart was so full of the needs of my babies, that older children felt out of step with us, and I probably lacked a bit of patience with them feeling that they should perhaps know better or perhaps older toddlers should be 'elsewhere'. How naive we all are. That we don't see that we are them and they are us. Mothers of past, present and future, full of the experiences we have had and have yet to come.

There aren't many parents of toddlers to chat to at the groups now, and of the toddlers that are there, it is mainly grandparents who take them. Occasionally there's another mum of an older toddler there but the conversation has changed, it feels less like a club. We wear our motherhood differently now, still coaching and coaxing with 'remember to share' and 'say hello to Billy' but there is less of a feeling of 'being in it together'. 

The talk occasionally turns a bit more to us as people again, not just someone's mum, as we try to meld together the fractured pieces of ourselves, past and present, into something new. Or we might trade secrets around potty training, or this new found independence and the limit pushing it can come with. But mostly people are rushing to and from pick up and drop offs, or to jobs, whether at home or work, and those conversations are few and far between.

The days can be long and lonely as a stay at home mum and sometimes you long for a group to share it all with, like in the early days. Just like those mum's said to me when I was just starting out, mothering toddlers can be hard, and I can see now that you don't stop needing a village as they grow out of nap schedules, milk and nappies. You still need it as much. For although you're no longer a new mum and you've maybe been around the block before, there are always new challenges, new personalities and new experiences to deal with as you enter into life as a mum to older children.

So I implore you, if you are about to embark on motherhood, or you have a newborn, an older baby, or you are mum to a toddler. Or perhaps even mum to school age children, tweens or teens, or if you're even about to become an empty-nester, remember that they have been you, and you will be them one day and it really all happens in a blink of an eye. Let's unite in our motherhood and the beauty and chaos that can bring. We all need support and so do our children. 

Does this ring true for you? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments below...

* please be assured that I do understand that these issues can apply to all parents and carers, not just mums. I use motherhood as short hand, and also because it aligns with my own personal experiences. Also I do realise that for parents of disabled children, the caring responsibilities never end and it is a unique experience. I am here as an empathetic and supportive ear, always open minded and always willing to learn, if you wish to share in the comments.

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