“Karl told me about a playgroup in Maraetai. Why don’t you take her there?” My partner stares at me in the bathroom mirror.
I look away, the unspoken words prickling. “They’re not really my cup of tea.”
The baby stirs, sucking on her hand. She’ll need feeding soon.
“How do you know? You’ve never been.”
I watch my partner shaving, each pass exposing fresh, pink skin in a sea of white, and a stab of jealousy twists in my stomach.
“They’re for older children,” I say, pulling my dressing gown across my chest. “Not for little babies.”
“Think about it. You might make some friends there. You know, find your tribe or whatever.”
The razor tapping on the sink wakes the baby, and she cries.
“I have friends,” I say, carrying her out of the room.
I have friends.
Friendships take time to adjust after a baby.
I stand at the entrance to the playgroup, and look at the real mothers inside, bouncing babies on their knees, drinking coffee, chatting, looking happy. The capsule swings in the crook of my elbow as I wrestle with the baby gate, balancing a ridiculously sized bag of baby paraphernalia under my arm.
“Here, let me help.” An older lady with a grey bob and a grey expression opens the gate.
“Thanks,” I say. “Those baby gates shred any self-confidence left after the birth, right?”
Her powdered face remains impassive, and a tingle of apprehension crawls across my confidence.
“Tea and coffee are on the counter, next to the cake. Just help yourself,” she says.
The noise is assaulting. Weeks of daytime solitude have left me unprepared for the hustle and bustle of the room.
A handful of mothers sit on the floor playing blocks with their toddlers. A group of preschoolers squabble over a pram. Two mothers snatch a conversation, while one ignores the snotty nosed toddler clinging to her leg.
A small group of women are enjoying an uninterrupted conversation at a large table near the coffee. I weave my way through the snotty noses and tantrums to the hallowed ground.
“Hi, I’m Anna,” I say, resting the capsule and ridiculously large bag on the floor next to an empty seat.
“Lisa.” The woman gives a small nod.
She doesn't have baby vomit on her shoulder. My fingers creep to the crunchy white splotch on my jumper.
“Jenny.” Her clean, shiny hair cascades around her shoulders.
Lisa… Jenny… I clutch at the names, but they escape.
“That’s a lot of names to remember on three hours’ sleep,” I say.
“Isn’t your baby sleeping through the night, yet?”
“She’s only eight weeks old.”
Another woman raises an eyebrow.
My baby stirs and I rock the capsule, hoping she’ll sleep for at least half a coffee and a piece of cake.
Her eyes edge shut. Success.
“The cake looks good. Do we just help ourselves?”
Several women nod.
The knife is heavy as I cut a piece of carrot cake, sliding it onto my plate.
“Breastfeeding always made me hungry, too.”
I pause, looking at the woman that spoke.
She nods at the cake on my plate. “I was always starving when I was feeding.”
I smile and dip my head, my greasy hair hiding my burning cheeks. I pick up a mug.
“The decaf is on the right.” Someone points to a tin banished to the edge of the counter. “Unless you have caffeine while you’re feeding?”
“No, of course not,” I say.
I sit and listen to their chatter, rocking the capsule with my toe, and hope the baby’s bottle isn’t poking out of the bag.
The bottle, the great thief of self-esteem.
My coffee’s devoid of all joy, but I sip it anyway, learning the intricacies of their reproductive systems and the state of their marriages, but not their names.
“How’s the cake?” asks a woman with plum lipstick.
I nod. “Good.”
She smiles. So does the woman next to her. But only with her mouth. Her forehead doesn’t move. Neither do her eyes.
I’m wondering if she’s had Botox.
I’m staring at her.
Everyone is staring at me.
I realise they’re waiting for an answer to a question I didn’t hear.
“No.” If in doubt, deny.
The women seem shocked. The playgroup, the great social minefield.
One raises an eyebrow.
I glance at my baby sleeping in her capsule, her eyebrows so delicate. Will she wield them as weapons when she’s older?
“Sorry, what was the question?”
“I asked if breastfeeding was going well.”
I think of the bottle in the bag. I wouldn’t say it’s going great.
“Yep, it’s going well.”
My baby stirs. She sucks on her hand. My stomach twists. The timing is not ideal.
I stand. “I need to feed her now, actually.”
I pick up the capsule. And the ridiculous bag. The bottle falls and rolls along the floor.
Plum raises an eyebrow.
Botox picks up the bottle.
“Is this formula?” she asks, brandishing the bottle like I’m feeding my baby vodka.
"No, it’s expressed…” I trail off.
This group of women sitting around the table, staring at me, they are not my tribe.
My tribe supports mothers. My tribe recognises a woman doing her best. My tribe lifts women at their most vulnerable, it doesn’t tear them to pieces.
I grab the bottle.
And make a scathing retort.
I leave their gaping faces and stagger through the blocks and snotty noses to the insurmountable gate.
It won’t open.
I clatter and scramble over the gate with my howling baby and ridiculous bag, leaving the gate openers and the hallowed ground in my wake.
It’s quite the exit. They’ll have something to discuss for weeks to come.
“Did you go to the playgroup today?” My partner shovels her fork into the mashed potato. She always eats her meat last.
She puts down her fork. “Did it go okay? Did you find your tribe?”
I think of the ladies at the table, the shock on their faces, their eyes wide in disbelief.
“No, it didn’t go great.”
“I got hassled about breastfeeding.”
Her jaw clenches as I tell my story and I feel a truth pushing through the hidden space inside me.
“So I made a scathing remark and left.”
She leans forward, her mashed potato abandoned, present and listening.
“What was your scathing comment?” she asks.
My partner. Supporting me. Seeing me. Lifting me at my most vulnerable.
I pick at my nails. “I told them I gave up breastfeeding because it interfered with my cocaine habit.”
She looks at me, her eyes wide and mouth gaping.
A smile plays on her lips, and then she laughs.
I laugh, too.
The weight of the day evaporates, and a truth emerges. We're two sleep deprived women, and we're doing our best.
I’ve found my tribe. She’s sitting right next to me.