It’s so rare that some ‘humorous’ ‘lifestyle’ piece engages me at all, let alone makes me feel a burning wrath. But the Guardian Weekend extract from Hadley Freeman’s new book made me want to cry all of the tears. I don’t really have any strong feelings on her writing either way: sometimes her column is one of those ‘can’t believe I spent that time I’ll never get back reading this’, other times it’s sharp, witty and political.
The Guardian’s extract ranges from the former with ‘How to cheer up your friend who is depressed about being single without lying to them, patronising them or making them feel even worse’, which basically assumes that either a) all of her readers are 12 years old, or b) none of her readers have ever had a human relationship before, through to the latter, with ‘Talking about eating disorders without using a single photo of Kate Moss’, which is moving, pointed and angry. Despite her writing that ‘I don’t believe personal experience imbues one with expertise’ and that she has ‘no interest in contributing to that pile [of eating disorder memoirs]’, this section is fascinating; you can tell she actually feels something here, something that has moved and shaped and influenced her, not just something she’s typing to up her word count.
Then we’re fully into the enragement zone. ‘What to expect when your friends are expecting’. In summary (and I really am not being unfair here – this is what she says will happen):
1. After shagging, your friends will have a ‘sleep-depriving, bank-account-emptying bundle of joy’
2. Once the pregnancy is announced, you will ‘learn, in the most extraordinary detail, tales of your friends’ sex lives’
3. The last month of your friend’s pregnancy will be ‘the Gross-Out Stage’, as she will now be so accustomed to simply being ‘treated as a baby pod’ that she will now thoughtlessly use words and phrases to you like ‘mucus plug’, ‘leakage’, ‘dilate’ and ‘vaginal wall’
4. Your friend, having just given birth, will now ‘feel the need to describe the childbirth in varying amounts of detail’
5. Your friend – previously source of ‘chatty cups of tea and many ranting glasses of wine – will become a ‘mewling creature’, ‘covered in babysick’ and ‘living only from feed to feed, nap to nap’ – see what she did there? Your friend is now like a baby herself! Hahahhaha!
6. The only socialisation you now have with your friend is buying their child ridiculously expensive Petit Bateau outfits
7. You will now be so ‘indoctrinated with the thought that ringing a doorbell causes chaos’ that you text your own parents when you’re standing outside their house!
8. You can’t hope for a proper conversation – even if it seems like they’re listening, they’re actually only capable of wondering ‘has he swallowed a pound coin?! Has he stuck his fingers in a plug socket?!’
9. You’ll feel bad because your hilarious child-free adventures are ultimately empty compared to your friend’s attempt to raise a human
10. If they have a second child, don’t expect to hear from them for ‘at least the next five years!’
I’m actually shaking with anger right now. What a fucking load of toxic garbage. It’s exactly this kind of faux-casual ‘God, having kids wrecks your life, doesn’t it!’ rubbish that makes it really hard for (particularly, but not exclusively) women to feel like they are allowed to retain their personality after a baby. When I had my first kid, at 26, I slogged my guts out to reassure friends that I wasn’t about to transform into any of these clichés – not, I hasten to add, that you MUST avoid them; you will be tired, and probably covered with sick, and possibly unphased about showing your rack off to a whole tube carriage because, frankly, if you have to feed your baby you couldn’t really give a fuck if a stranger sees your nipple; and there are plenty of friends of friends I hear about who go down this path whole-hog – but I was young/selfish enough to want to keep my personality. I didn’t want to become one of those parents who say proudly ‘I haven’t read a book since I had the baby’, or that never has a night out or night away (bliss!) because The Baby Needs Me, and I was delighted to see that no one treated me differently. No one was tiptoeing around me, and because my friends and I are humans, with some previous experience of human interaction, I was able to gauge who I could tell about the amazing, fantastic, mindblowing and 100% hilarious experience of pushing that baby out, and who wouldn’t give the smallest monkeys about it. They, in turn, could also gauge that I still wanted to hear about their lives, as I always had done, having had a baby rather than a lobotomy. But slog it was to convince them, to begin with, exactly because of pieces like this.
And as the baby got older, yes, I may have had to occasionally tear my eyes from my pals’ to check that no coins were being swallowed, but those without experience of small children may not appreciate what a simple skill this is – I don’t have to graunchingly change gears to do a two-second check about the location of my spawn, nor does my reaching over to pull some blade from their grasp signal my sudden inability to hear and understand what my friend and I are continuing to talk about. It’s like anything that requires two-track multitasking: stirring one pan and checking the other isn’t boiling over, putting laundry in a washing machine and not adding metal kitchen utensils, answering the phone and breathing.
Each of the ten points of listed here vary from completely untrue – if you’ve got a relationship where you talk about your sex lives, why shouldn’t that continue? And if you haven’t, why should that start? I’ve never come across that pregnancy-banging-detail-insistence, hurt as it may make me feel (it doesn’t) – to the frankly juvenile – ugh! My friend’s having a baby and now she wants to talk about VAGINAL WALLS OH MY GOD I NEED SOME BLEACH AND A SCRUBBING BRUSH FOR MY EARS and NOW SHE’S HAD IT AND WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IT AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! God, it’s so tiresome. Just grow up. Vagina vagina vagina, etc.
Ultimately, I think what’s entirely missing from this extract is any sense of empathy, either from this nameless, shameless friend, or Hadley Freeman herself. We all have changes in our life, some chosen, some forced on us; some expected, some surprising, in good and bad ways. We lose parents, siblings, partners; we change jobs; we move house, city, country. We stop liking 20/20 on a night out. We start liking table tennis. We change. That is, really, one of the main features of being alive. But the point of these relationships that we build up over our time on earth is that, while it can be an enormous help to have someone who’s been through what you’re going through, it’s not essential. Friends can still love us and support us when their parents are still alive, when they’re still stuck in a job they hate, when they can’t stand our partner. And we can do the same for them. So when there’s yet another article on those life-wrecking babies and the zombie idiots their mothers turn into, I just want to weep. Can’t we all just be a little kinder (she says, having written a 1,300 word blog on this bullshit)? Can’t we all just be a bit more thoughtful? A pregnant shouldn’t have to live in terror of boring those around her with this terrifying, amazing experience they’re going through, and friends-of-pregnants shouldn’t have this pre-emptive idea that they’ve basically lost their friend until the infants fuck off out of the parental home.
So come on. Let’s stop this nonsense. To hugely butcher-phrase Singin’ in the Rain’s Don Lockwood:
Empathy, always empathy.