Every other week I go to a parent-child group known as "Tots". (It meets every week, but on alternate weeks I stay home to visit with a friend from Nikosia who comes down to Larnaka once every two weeks.) I think it might officially even be called "Mums and Tots", but there are regularly several fathers, grandmothers, and babysitters there as well. And lots and lots of "tots", the youngest one ever probably being Elisabeth last June when she was four days old, and the oldest one usually being Katie. Rarely are there any other children over three, as most children here go to nursery school at age two or three.
We meet in a local church, in the main room, which is nice and big and all carpeted. Half a dozen or so play areas (baby toys, toy kitchen, building, dress-up, etc.) are set up, as well as chairs around the edges. It is loosely structured and very comfortable. The first half hour is "free play", i.e. children play and grown-ups talk to other grown-ups. This is very exciting! (The children also appear to enjoy this time.) Then there's snack time, and then the older children go into another room to hear a story or two. This is an even more exciting time, because pretty much only babies are left and the grown-ups even get to hear each other while they talk. Then the older children come back and there's more free play time, with playdough at one table and a craft at another. After tidy-up time, we all sit in a huge circle and sing songs.
Most people probably think I go to Tots to give Katie, Helen, and Elisabeth some social interaction, a chance to play with other children and different toys, and so on. That isn't entirely untrue, and of course, I wouldn't go if they didn't enjoy it. I also like it that they get to play with playdough and do messy crafts, and I don't have to clean it up. But in all honesty, my main motivation is to get OUT and to talk with ADULTS. I do see other adults during the week, getting together with my friend Sue at least once a week, often twice, my friend from Nikosia every other week, and occasional other visitors, as well as house group once a week and often having people over for a meal, and playing games with Sue and Richard once or twice a week. But the children are almost always also fully involved in whatever activity we have, or in the case of playing games, we focus on the game. My main real communication with friends goes on via e-mail. So my only opportunity to interact with other adults (or whatever one wants to call them and/or me...people older than my children, anyway) is Tots. With 30-40 children from newborn to age five playing around us, we have considerably more opportunity to converse than at home with my six. It's quieter, too.
Admittedly, most of this contact is fairly superficial. We sit on the carpet with each other and talk about babies' teeth and whether he's crawling yet or what she said yesterday and so on--our children pretty much tend to stay the topic. But it's companionable and I enjoy it.
I also like it that it's a constantly changing group (although I miss some of the people who don't come any more, now that their children are in nursery), with new faces every time I go. I like meeting new people and hearing about different experiences, and lately, there have been more and more Cypriots, too, some who don't even speak English, which means I get to practice my Greek. (Well, sort of. I can tell them how old my baby is and ask them how old their babies are, but we don't generally get a whole lot further than that.) And the best is when people don't know how many children I have.
It's not that I'm in the slightest bit embarrassed about the number of children I have, it's that the number isn't relevant. Six is just a number. Having six (living) children doesn't make me braver or stronger or crazier or smarter or dumber or more patient or more tired or more energetic or better or worse or anything else-er than someone with two or three or eight or ten or 19. I might BE braver or crazier etc., but I'm still a mommy who goes as goo-goo over my newest baby as I did over my first, and I get just as tired when a baby keeps me up all night, and just as frustrated when the baby is inconsolable and I don't know why. I don't have any more answers than anyone else. Actually, I probably don't have as many. When I had only one child, I knew that the best way to hold a fussy baby was like this. Then I had a second child, and I knew that some babies like this and some like that. When I was pregnant with my third, I wondered if he'd be more like my first or more like my second. Nope--my third is like my third, and like nobody else on the face of the earth. And so it goes. A friend of mine in Germany had this quotation on the birth announcement she sent for their sixth child: Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories. ~John Wilmot
So anyway, I have the idea that most of the other parents at Tots are looking for the same thing I am--friendly chit-chat with people who use whole sentences. The topic doesn't matter a whole lot, but there's a certain amount of asking what others think, and a certain amount of looking for ideas. Mostly, I think, it's about reassurance that we're not alone. I'm not generally too big on "wanting to belong", but I confess that I enjoy that feeling of belonging. Of sitting with other parents who know what I'm going through, good and bad, because they're going through the same thing.
Which is where the problem comes in when people hear how many children I have. We'll be sitting there rolling balls back and forth with our two little nine-month-olds, commenting about how one has more teeth and the other more hair and so on, oh look, isn't it cute how they're looking at each other, nice and easy and companionable. Non-threatening. Then we might even mention something that's less positive, such as the baby teething all night. We start to exchange coping strategies. We both want to hear the other's ideas or feelings, we're curious and we're sympathetic. And then, eventually, I get asked, "Do you have other children?" Sometimes I can deflect a bit, by saying, "See that girl over there in the red dress?That's my two-year-old." I didn't say she was my ONLY other child. But people are persistant and I'm a lousy liar, and invariably it comes out that I have six. And invariably, a wall goes up.
I don't know how many times I've heard, "Oh, then you're an expert!" Um, no, not exactly. Elisabeth is the only Elisabeth I've ever had. Marie is the only oldest child I've ever had. Jacob is the only first son I've ever had. Katie is most certainly the only Katie of this type that the world has ever seen. People never really believe me that having more than 1.3 children doesn't make me an expert.
They also never really believe me that I'm not super-organized and I'm not super-patient. (That's what separates my friends and family from casual acquaintances: my friends and family are laughing themselves silly at the idea of me being organized or patient.) They laugh off my protests and claim I'm being falsely modest. They no longer have any sympathy to offer on how to juggle laundry and teething, and worse, they no longer accept any sympathy from me on the same subject. They say that I couldn't possibly understand, since I obviously am above that, that they're just being silly, that it doesn't matter. That's the hardest thing for me, when they won't open up any more because they're so sure that I won't have any sympathy on the matter.
Most don't seem to believe that we're not just one big happy jolly family 100% of the time, because that's what big families are. The others don't believe that life isn't miserable with so many children around. Nobody believes that there are great times and awful times and loud times and quiet times (sometimes, yes truly, sometimes even when the children are NOT all asleep and ARE all home!) and fun times and sad times and even middling times. Basically, that we're people, too. And that the numbers don't matter.
We have Marie and Jacob and Lukas and Katie and Helen and Elisabeth. Not numbers.