One of the many, many, many, many, many things people don’t tell you about before you have a baby (the most important, incidentally, is that epidurals can fail. Totally. It is my moral duty to tell you) is how much socialising you have to do.
They warn you about the isolation, about how you certainly can’t go out for the first six weeks because there are no apparent breaks in the nappy-feeding-sleeping cycle (you’re supposed to sleep too, during the sleeping part. You won’t, because you’re too busy crying and doing the laundry. Oh, it’s such a magical time) and that you’ll be lucky to see daylight for the first three months unless you are a baby-wrangling natural who can change a nappy with one hand while puréeing three sorts of organic veg with the other. And they are right to do so. But no-one talks about what happens in the months and – I am beginning to fear – years afterwards, which is essentially a forced march through an overpopulated hell.
I’m an introvert. Always have been, always will be. Didn’t have to read Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking – currently powering its way up the US bestseller lists, as anything that essentially tells bookworms how wonderful and hard done by they are is wont to do – to know that (although I did read it. As I am wont to do with anything that tells bookworms how wonderful and hard done by they are. I am, more specifically, a needy, gullible introvert). I have the school reports to prove it. Sometimes they are kind and say ‘self-possessed’. Sometimes they are not and say ‘anti-social’, ‘strange’ and ‘unfriendly’.
As this is a lifelong state, I have visited the shores of enforced socialisation before. When I worked in the City, either temping or trainee-solicitoring I well remember the terrible weeks and months when it seemed that all office birthdays, client evenings and Christmas/ summer parties would arrive at once, in one big, gregarious clusterf***. As a freelance journalist, dependent on networking to help conjure the next commission out of the ether, things were even worse.
“Every few weeks I crack. I flee. I barricade myself in the house”
Now it’s playgroups, health visitor clinics, impromptu gatherings and conversations in the park with other people, buggies our only common bond. This is all in addition to the fact that your baby is already a constant companion. Every few weeks, therefore, I do what I have always done. I crack. I flee. I barricade myself in the house – every door, window, curtain shut against the outside world – and press myself into the farthest corner of the sofa. Husband and baby are summarily ejected from the building with instructions not to return – forever, ideally, but failing that until the next nappy/mealtime. Do you know what I mean when I say I am possessed by the feeling that I simply cannot be alone enough? In times of real stress, I break out my childhood copy of The Wombles and feverishly re-read. All I want at that moment is to join them in their lovely burrow, so brilliantly hidden from prying eyes and yapping mouths.
I suspect, that you don’t have to be a lifelong introvert, or even an introvert at all, to experience, perhaps in less potent form, this feeling. We all need time to retreat, recuperate, restore the energies we are constantly depleting. We are always charging around, doing something – at work, with family and friends and (the part we barely notice) all the points in between. We are, I think, not even fully aware – so routine and unthinking does it become – of how many interactions, spoken and unspoken negotiations and compromises we engage in simply by living in crowded, lively cities. They give so much, in the way of entertainment and opportunities, that we forget that they take something too.
In the old days, of course, they used to have something called a weekend. This was two days of rest and recuperation needed from the previous five. It still lives on among our parents and our own folk-memories, but I can’t remember the last time I had one. Can you? By the time our children are grown, they will need the concept explaining to them like Lady Doodah in Downton Abbey – who could not conceive of a life interrupted by work and requiring such a break – though for precisely opposite reasons. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got to go to ‘Boppin Tots’ (my freak-baby loves to dance).
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