I was living in London, 3500 miles away from family and friends when I was pregnant with my first child.
With no immediate support structure, I asked my midwives for their advice about the transition into motherhood. They recommended my husband and I enroll in National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes to prepare us for parenthood. It would be a good way to learn about late pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery. Even better, though, we’d meet other couples going through the same thing.
For eight weeks, ten couples expecting their first baby crowded into the sitting room of midwife Caroline Flint. Taking childbirth classes from Caroline was like taking Catechism classes from the Pope. She was a former president of the Royal College of Midwives, and her reputation as one of Britain’s staunches birth-rights supporters was well-known.
Caroline welcomed us all in to the group. We introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about where we were from. Many of my concerns washed away as I heard one woman from Mexico, another from Denmark, and two from South Africa express their fears about being so far from home. Even better, we had a warm group collegiality that made me look forward to our weekly meetings.
Over the course of the class, Caroline helped us create realistic expectations about new parenthood. Not one to mince words, she was clear that it was likely to be a rough transition. And rather than simply encourage us to keep in contact, she gave us a calendar with weekly meetings for another three months. Those sessions would take us through the time the last of the ten babies was due. Because we were all a little bit afraid of letting Caroline down, we kept our weekly meetings as per her schedule.
We hadn’t really realized it as it was happening, but it soon became clear that we’d forged a bond. Our required weekly meetings were supplemented with additional gatherings. There were meet ups in the park on sunny days. We’d take our little ones to Baby Day at the cinema en masse. Some of us even celebrated Christmas together. We’d become family to each other.
Our support went beyond weekday mommy and me sessions. We formed a babysitting cooperative in recognition of the importance of couple-time and date nights. Watching other babies and caring for them like my own only strengthened my connection to the group.
The first year of my son’s life was bathed in a golden haze. I have incredibly fond memories of chatting in cafes over coffee. I loved going on long walks with my friends in parts of London I never would have seen as an American expat. My shoulders can still feel the tug of the baby carrier as I held my sleeping son at a museum exhibition, chatting to one of my friends as her baby slept on her chest. Truly, I have never been so well-supported in my life.
My husband and I moved from London back to the US just a few days before our son turned one. Our final stop before boarding the plane was at a birthday party of another NCT baby. We hugged and cried as we left our friends, unsure when and if we’d see them again.
Fortunately, bonds forged in life transitions don’t break easily. We visited London nearly annually, and each time our NCT families would gather. As it is with good friends, it was like no time at all had passed between visits. The summer our babies turned five, we had a group birthday party. Nine of the ten families were there.
As the years passed, I lost touch with a few of the families. There was a core group of about seven of us who kept in contact. The rise of Facebook made it easier, and I could now not only hear about the big events in the kids’ lives but the daily goings-on as well.
In the last fifteen years, we’ve seen each other through new jobs, more than one divorce, moves out of the country, and the births of many new siblings. Even when we go weeks or months between communications, when we message or chat or meet up the bond is instantly renewed. Watching each others’ babies grow up into thoughtful, mature young adults is a gift.
Unfortunately, one of my dear friends was lost to breast cancer last summer, just before her son turned 14. Her death rocked our little group hard. It was then that I realized that these friends didn’t just get me through early motherhood. They’d been with me through every one of the major events of my adult life (other than getting married).
When I visited London recently and reconnected with several of the families, I told them that I really had to stop thinking of them as my “new friends.” When you’ve known someone for more than a third of your life and shared with them some of the most trying and stressful times, they’re forged into your heart.
The little village that I wandered into became a lifeline in the most emotional year of my life. What I continue to learn from them is that sometimes you go a long way from home to find your family.
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