• Allie Atkinson

Braving The Baby Groups

Baby groups are a bit like Marmite aren’t they? Some people love them, whilst others can’t think of anything worse.

For me, I wanted to love them but found they were a huge source of anxiety and uncomfortable feelings until recently. I had known some friends who had become a mum before me, and I had seen how much they and their baby had enjoyed the various activities.

And so I assumed I would too.

Anxiety had kicked in for me before I even booked myself in for two reasons… the choice and the price. The commitment of block booking in most cases made it very easy for me to talk myself out of booking at all. What if we missed a week or two? Could I justify the amount that would end up costing me per group? And which one do I choose? There were so many that all had fantastic write-ups on the benefits for the baby, I had no idea which would be the best for him, and so I ended up choosing none of them! I did try a free music session, and my baby slept through most of it, causing me to question how much he would really gain for the amount I would be spending too.

I’d see the photos of others taking their baby to groups, bonding with them, bonding with other mums and I worried I was keeping my baby from experiencing the same thing. Was I being a bad mum by not taking him to Baby Massage? Or Baby Yoga? Or Baby Sign? I remember little waves of panic washing over me that my baby was going to be a long way behind because I hadn't taken him to any groups. He wasn’t at all by the way, but I worried about that for a long time.

But, there were some groups we attended when he was very young. The first was a postnatal group for new mums in the area run by health visitors, and I am very grateful for that group. It provided a base for new mums to meet each other, trade experiences and discuss any issues or concerns they had with a health visitor there and then. In fact, I met one of my best friends there, and many other friends too. And in the early days of what I now know was postnatal mental illness, it offered me a little bit of comfort at times. But there was also anxiety. Anxiety that I would look like a bad mum if I talked about how I really felt. Anxiety that J would be unsettled and I wouldn’t know how to calm him in front of everyone. Anxiety that I would be judged and isolated amongst the group. There were times when I felt pressured to act like we’d had a great week, and I was loving motherhood, and everything was peaches and ice cream, when the reality was, I’d spent my week pendulum swinging between rage and tears on very little sleep. Looking back, I wonder how many other mums there had felt the same way and had felt the same pressure to be ok, and I wish I had been more honest about my feelings, maybe it would have helped someone else too.

After a couple of sessions, some of us also began going to a sensory group on another morning. J was not a fan at all. Whilst other mums had told me how wonderful the sensory groups were, how much their baby loved it, and how they had slept following the session… J found it too overwhelming with all of the lights, and sounds, and probably, all of the people. He didn’t sleep afterwards. Not straight afterwards. Not hours afterwards. In fact, he didn’t even sleep the night afterwards. And after two or three times of trying, and others around me commenting that the group was probably the reason for him being unsettled, I gave up. We stopped going.

In reflection, this was really the start of my turbulent relationship with groups. I would book for sessions, fully intent on attending but then as the day drew closer, I would begin to talk myself out of it. Or we would attend one session, and then I would replay the morning in my mind afterwards, convinced that I was not welcome and the other mums probably thought I was doing a bad job. I became very good at finding excuses for us not to go.

“We’re running too late.”

“J has a sniffly nose.”

“It’s too cold to take him out today.”

“He’s unsettled, maybe he’s not in the mood.”

And then, I began using us not going to the sessions as a reason to not book at all because it was too expensive to pay for something we were not attending. This continued as a pattern, even after having my second baby. In fact, it spiralled even more due to her lymphatic condition. To begin with we were unsure how her immune system would cope in a group situation, but even after reassurance from the hospital, I continued to find reasons to cancel sessions.

In reality, it was my anxiety ruling the roost. I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in with the other mums and that I would be judged in some way. Maybe for where I live, the way I looked, the fact I was a stay-at-home mum, the way I held my baby or talked to my toddler or played with my children. What if I couldn’t balance both of my children’s needs in front of the other mums? What if they both refused to join in or both cried at the same time? There were a million and one possibilities that I thought people may judge me for. I found myself cringing if someone asked me what I did for my job or whether I was from the village where the group was held, because I worried that if I answered wrong, I would be excluded from conversations. Not intentionally maybe, but gradually, the other mums would group together based around common interests and knowledge, and I’d be left on the outside being unsure whether I was welcome at all.

I did find it was much easier if I had a friend who was going with me, or who already attended. I had someone there I knew, a support network, but often I would still find a reason why the group wasn’t right for us, and after a week or two, we would leave. When I reflect on those groups now, I realise my whole focus had been on the other mums and proving that I was a good mum. I was so preoccupied with what the other mums thought of me, or what I needed to be to fit in with the other mums that I completely missed the main point of the groups… spending time with my children.

I would replay conversations following the group worrying that I may have said something to insult another mum along the way, or upset someone. There would be moments when I would think about the fun I had with my children, of course, but often the anxiety won, and this would mean we probably wouldn’t attend again the next week.

But, there was one light bulb moment for me when I realised I needed to become more self-aware of what I was doing to fit in, and that happened when I was shopping with my eldest daughter. Due to C’s condition, she needs to have boots custom made for her by Great Ormond Street Hospital, meaning that she only has one or two pairs available for her to wear for every occasion. And on this particular day, I was shopping for a pair of shoes for a new group we were attending the next day. I had pushed my little girl around a number of shops in some kind of blind panic looking for the ‘perfect’ shoes that would help me to ‘fit in’. The anxiety of attending a group in which I knew no one prompted me to place such high value on the shoes I was going to wear. I needed everything to be perfect to prove my worth as a fellow mum. And the best bit… I was only looking for a pair of nude ballet pumps! Nothing that stood out. Something plain that would look presentable but not create too much attention. And as I stood, trying on numerous shoes, I saw my two year old little girl with a visible difference watching me. Watching her mother place such value on a pair of shoes. And I realised I needed to do better. I needed to learn how to be comfortable being the way that I am so that I could teach her how to be comfortable in herself.

My whole outlook began to shift from that day, although it has taken almost three years and another two lots of cognitive behaviour therapy to reach the point I am at now. I realised my issue with baby groups and the opinions of other mums were connected to how I felt about myself in general, but most of all, as a mum. And to feel better attending those groups, I needed to focus inwards, rather than looking for approval from the outside.

Now I try to focus much more on the experience of the group with my child, and see any connection with another mum as a bonus, but not a necessity. And actually overall, I have found making those connections easier because I have taken the pressure away. There are still struggles. There are still times when I panic that I have looked rude for asking another mum her name, or that I’m being judged when I look away at the very moment my child makes a ‘questionable choice’. There are still mornings when I have to give myself a little encouragement, but we still go. We always go.

And to the other mums who find the baby groups a little tough to approach, my advice would be to focus on you.

Focus on what you want to experience with your child in that group.