One of the hardest things I have found with being a Mum is the loneliness. You wouldn't think that you could feel lonely when you spend every hour of every day attached to a tiny human being (or two) but you certainly can.
It can be the loneliness of a day with no adult conversation. Of saying the same thing repeatedly, with no effect.
It's the loneliness of day time television, different social circles and no one to relieve you when you child is tantruming for the tenth time.
So I've always been a big fan of Mum and Baby/Toddler groups.
Well, I say 'always'. That's exaggerating.
At first, I actually hated them.
They were excruciatingly painful at times.
Endless small talk. Judging glances. Screaming children. Badly made tea.
I can definitely see why some Mums avoid these groups like the plague.
But I am a convert. Approach these strange sub-societies in the right way and they can become a break in your day, even a highlight of your week. Here are my top tips for not just surviving toddler groups, but actually enjoying them.
Do your research
Check the internet, ask around, try your local church or library. Most churches will have some sort of group for Mums, large or small. If you're vehemently against the odd bible story then you may want to stay clear but they're not doing it to recruit you so don't panic if you're not usually a church-goer. I find that NetMums have really good listings for groups and you should be able to find out the timetable for your local Children's Centre via Google.
Make sure you know where you're going and how to get there, you don't want to turn up hot, sweaty and stressed. That said, I turned up like that to a group once and it's now my favourite! Make sure you have some small change, most groups charge around £1-2 per family but sometimes they charge by child and it can vary. I've found that the first session is often free but this isn't always the case so make sure you have change either way!
Have realistic expectations
This is not love at first sight. You will not walk into the room instantly find your BFF. In essence, this is a room full of women (usually) where the only thing you appear to have in common is your ability to produce a child. Everyone from the Health Visitor to magazines will encourage you to go out and make friends, they make it sound easy. It's not. You'll have to make a lot of small talk with a lot of different people and drink a lot of weak tea before you work out who your friends are.
Do as your toddler does
I'm not suggesting that you run straight to the Cosy Coupe, yank out the current occupant and drive off a la Grand Theft Auto. However, there is a lot to be said for jumping straight in with toddler abandonment.
If I try out a new group I always get really nervous - sick feeling in my tummy, slightly sweaty, creepy fake smile but don't let nerves put you off. Nearly every other person in the room has been in your shoes and no matter how intimidating it is, people aren't that scary. I promise.
Keep at it
Alongside having realistic expectations, you really need to visit a group a few times to really get a feel for it. Groups fluctuate. They have busy weeks and quiet weeks. Good weeks and bad weeks. Once you've gone a couple of times you'll find that people recognise you, smile and remember your child's name. After a while, new people appear and you're one of the regulars.
Seriously. Be yourself. A sleep-deprived haze of motherhood isn't a great time to re-invent yourself into an all singing and dancing super woman. If you want to make friends then sooner or later they'll see through the facade anyway. If you're happy, be happy. If you're tired and cranky then you'll probably find yourself in good company.
Don't judge lest ye be judged
The golden rule. You're not here to be judged are you? Neither is the Mum who just gave her child an extra biscuit (or three) to stop them screaming the house down. Or the Mum who looks like she's wearing her pyjamas. It might not always seem like it, but they're trying their best and don't need unsolicited advice or snide comments.
Collect friends not cliques
This is a hard one. Friendship groups will form. You tend to find that childminders and nannies sit together, if there are a couple of dads they'll gravitate to the same place, as will Grandparents. This is natural and all well and good but there is not a boundary around these groups. They are as human as you are and you never know where a future friend might be waiting. I'll chat with anyone, adult or child, and I make no assumptions. I do have 'my friends' now but I don't stop in one place for long and move around, chatting as I go.
Chat with the leaders
No matter how the group is run, there will be some leaders or organisers in one form or another. If you're new or painfully shy then try and pick them out. They're used to making new people feel welcome and it's a good indicator that the rest of the group is nice and friendly. If they're a mini-dictator with a penchant for unsolicited advice you may find yourself trying somewhere new in a few weeks!
If you've give the group a fair chance and you're still not liking it then try somewhere else. It's not mandatory to just attend mum and baby groups - you can try classes, coffee mornings, libraries and events at your local Children's Centre. It might take a while, but you will find something to suit you, don't put yourself through something you really can't stand when something perfect is out there.
In time, after making friends and getting used to things you'll find that the couple of hours spent at a playgroup can be really enjoyable. Friendly groups attract more friendly people who can provide a listening ear, support and a smile when you need it the most. You'll find laughter, shared moans and an understanding of what it is like to be in your shoes. Thursday morning toddler group is the highlight of my week and I hope that in time, a good toddler group will be the best part of yours.