There’s a big sign on the door: “Mum and toddler group”. Even the sign is telling me I should turn around and go home.
I know if I don’t go in Sarah will kill me. I made a promise.
I look around. As expected, I’m the only man in the room.
“Out! Out!” Anna cries, bouncing up and down trying to get out of the buggy. She clearly recognises the place and I know there’s no going back now.
“Hold your horses”, I say crouching down besides her.
“Excuse me, would you mind standing out of the door way to do that?” a woman asks me. She is trying to get past pushing an enormous buggy. It’s like the BMW of buggies. Big, shiny, and all for show.
“Sorry,” I hear myself saying, as I steer Anna’s buggy to a corner.
By now Anna is starting to get frantic, “Out! OUT! OUT!”
I see the same woman looking at me with pity or disapproval, I can’t tell which. l I fumble with the clasp of the buggy straps. Why won’t it bloody open? The other woman is beside me now, cramping me. With no effort she lifts her baby out, pops her onto her hip. She parks the buggy in a bay of other buggies and now there’s no room left for anymore.
Eventually I get Anna free and she potters off to the toys. I don’t know what to do with the buggy so I just leave it the corner. I look for a seat, somewhere I can watch Anna.
I sit down on a small chair in the middle of a row and I feel my arse cheeks spilling over the sides. The chair is the kind we had in primary school, with red metal legs and a tiny wooden seat. I feel stupid and too big sitting on it but better than standing there like an iijit with my hands in my pockets.
There are toddlers running around everywhere, screaming. I wonder if I’m the only person in the room who finds the noise head wrecking.
I watch Anna. She is playing with a toy train, rolling it on the floor under a table. She looks happy.
A woman sits down 3 chairs away with a baby boy on her knee, younger than Anna, not yet walking. The woman is about 30, brown bobbed hair. Efficient looking. I smile at her.
“Hiya” I say.
“How’s it going?” she replies and looks away, uninterested. She pulls out a bottle with water from her bag and pours in milk powder. The boy waves his arms in excitement as he sees the bottle transform into creamy white milk.
I contemplate saying something, but don’t know what to say.
Maybe “Nice baby”, but I think that sounds creepy. Maybe “Have you been here before?” ,but that sounds like a chat-up line. Maybe “It’s my first time”, and I grin to myself at how that could be taken.
Before I can think of something to say, another woman sits down next to her . They start chatting easily. I wonder do they know each other. Why can mothers always start conversations with other women that they’ve never met before?
I hear a yell and see Anna about to bite a little boy who is trying to grab the train off her.
“Anna!” I shout, jumping up, “Don’t bite!”
I grab her but I am too late, she has bitten the boy who is now roaring. Then Anna starts roaring. Great, I think. I see women everywhere staring at me. I can feel them thinking I can’t discipline my child. My stomach clenches. Will I get kicked out? My one year old expelled from the group for biting?
“Shhh pet,” I soothe Anna, “It’s OK, calm down. You’re a good girl but you shouldn’t bite. Biting is a bold thing to do isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Anna sniffs.
“And good girls shouldn’t do bold things, should they?” I ask.
“No.” Anna says burying her face in my chest.
I look to see the little boy in his mum’s arms, a young woman, early twenties with orange streaky hair.
“I’m really sorry” I say to her, “Is he alright?”
I know I should probably insist that Anna apologises herself but I know that’ll start a tantrum and I’m not in the mood to draw that on me. I’ve long known that becoming a parent means apologising for someone else’s behaviour. Repeatedly.
“He’ll be fine,” the woman replies, “Don’t worry about it. They’re demons at this age! Peter bit his cousin only last week. And actually it was him to stole your daughters train.”
I feel relief sweep through me. She’s not angry.
“Well, she shouldn’t have bitten him, I really am sorry.”
She smiles again and moves to comfort her son away from the biter.
When Anna has calmed down I look for something new to play with. I spot a xylophone. I let her bang away at it and walk back to my chair. There is a woman sitting on the chair next to mine. I sit down enthusiastically, seeing my chance to get to know somebody. Sarah seemed to know everyone here, before she went back to work. The woman tenses as I approach. Now I feel awkward. Maybe I look desperate. I probably am desperate.
“Hi”, I say to her, “I’m Adam”
“Lucy,” she says, blushing. I realise that there are two tiny legs poking out from under her jumper. She’s breastfeeding a young baby, only a couple of weeks old probably. Tiny little bare feet.
The woman starts to squirm in her chair.
I wonder should I tell her that my wife Sarah breastfed Anna until her 1st birthday, only 4 months ago and it’s really no big deal to me, she doesn’t need to feel awkward. I consider the word breastfeeding and realise there is something intimate even in the word itself. Maybe I could use the word nursing.
Her baby kicks me in the elbow. I look down just as the mum takes the baby off her breast. I catch a glimpse of her nipple and look quickly away but I can see she is embarrased. Her embarrassment is contagious. She starts fumbling, trying to clip back her bra while holding the baby and trying not to expose herself. I can see out of the corner of my eye that she is blushing bright red.
I decide now is a good time to go play with Anna. I walk tom Anna without looking back.
“Do you want to do some painting?” She looks at me excited, flapping her arms and babbling in her own baby language. I take this to mean yes.
I walk with her to the art table and put one of the plastic aprons on her. The sleeves are too long and I struggle with her wriggly body trying to roll up the sleeves.
“One second Anna”, I say but she is starting to whine. Eventually it is on. I have sweat on my forehead. I feel exhausted. I’d kill for a coffee.
Anna clambers onto one of the tiny chairs and the woman doing the painting smiles at her.
“Hello angel,” she says “Here is a paintbrush. You can use any colour you like.”
“Thanks” I say to her, helping Anna dip the brush into the yellow paint. “Let’s go with yellow first.” “Lellow” Anna sings to herself, “Lellow lellow lellow lellow”
She squashes the brush onto the paper, then the table, smearing yellow paint blobs everywhere. Thankfully everything is covered in plastic, fully equipped for a toddlers lack of painting skills.
I look at my daughter. She is beaming. She has a large blob of yellow paint on her nose. I can’t help but laugh at her. She laughs back at me, thinking it is hilarious but not knowing what I’m laughing at. This makes me laugh even more. The facilitator smiles at me. My first truly friendly smile at the toddler group.
After awhile I can see Anna starting to lose interest. She rubs her eyes spreading paint over her forehead. She’s tired.
“Have you had enough painting?” I ask her.
She nods her head and climbs off her chair.
I take off her apron and use one of the wipes on the table to clean her hands and face. She squirms when I rub her nose.
“Will we go home?” I ask her, hoping she’ll say yes.
She frantically shakes her head from side to side, no. We both know who the boss is.
I walk her over to my chair. The breastfeeding mum has gone. I sit down and help Anna climb onto my knee, trying to balance us both on the miniture chair. She rests her head on my chest and I give her the soother from the changing bag. She relaxes into me, her eyes closing.
I see a woman start handing coffee out over a counter but now I’m stuck under Anna.
Maybe I should just sneak out when she falls asleep. I look at the buggy and wonder how easy it would be to escape around the toys, kids and other buggies. Impossible. There is no way out amidst the bedlam. I look at the door just as it opens.
A man walks in holding a girl in his arms, younger than Anna. He looks around the room awkwardly, unsure where to go. His eyes fall on mine, I smile at him, give him a wave. He looks relieved and walks over.
“Heya,” he says sitting down next to me, “For awhile there I thought I was the only man here. Imagine how hard that would be?!” He sits his daughter on the ground. She picks up a building block and shoves it into her drooly mouth.
“Tell me about it.”