My friend Connie and I each have the same photograph of our sons making magic potions on my back verandah. They are about five years old, sitting at the old wooden table, their hair tousled, their expressions serious as they use eye-droppers to squeeze food colouring into tiny bottles of water – blue, red, yellow, green. A soft morning light makes their faces glow. A winged dragon sits on the table between them.
It is a perfect image of childhood creativity and friendship – of course I love it – but it also reveals something about my friendship with Connie, and most friends at that stage of my life.
Nearly all my friends for some years were also the mothers of my two sons’ friends. As my teenage son later remarked, Mum, you wouldn’t have any friends if it weren’t for us. I’d like to think I would have found other ways to make friends, but he was basically right – their friendships created a framework for mine.
The making of friends does require some shared geography. Perhaps it’s that you live next door to each other, or you work or study together, creating a natural space for connection. The dropping off and picking up of kids provides that space for getting to know someone without having to take the risk of rebuff. Still, you do have to rely on your children’s discrimination in picking friends with mothers you are going to like!
Especially in primary school, my sons were good at picking mother-friends for me. As well as Connie, there was Merril, Cathy – and even Paula, who I thought at first glance was a too-tidy middle-class housewife, but who became one of my closest friends. I had misjudged her: she was a lover of books and ideas, unconventional, passionately dedicated to making a better world.
My friendship with her outlasted our son’s friendship when they went their separate ways as adults. It’s not that my mother-friends and I always talked about our kids – far from it – but it was there in shared experiences and shared values. We knew about getting up earlier than we would like every day, about staring in the fridge to see what materialised, then packing school lunches, about standing on the sides of chilly soccer fields.
But we also understood that being a parent was something we would, at times, put all else aside for. We all had jobs but for those years, being a parent took as much of our time and energy as our work did. It meant we could talk about our kids if we needed to without feeling self-indulgent or suburban. It was okay to express motherly pride or motherly shame, without judgment.
It doesn’t mean that all my friends have children. There’s Jane, for instance, and Miriam, both child-free, or at least without children of their own, and both now past child-bearing age.
I met Jane when I was 16, the only friend I still have from my brief pre-motherhood years. We were romantic teenagers and the currency of our friendship, what mattered to us, was what was poetic, beautiful, remarkable.
Soon after leaving school, we hitch-hiked around New Zealand and ended up staying for several years. Just before my 21st birthday, in a share house in Auckland, I had a golden-haired son and suddenly my life was radically different from hers. She was single and working in IT, although it wasn’t called that then; I was at home, washing nappies and doing artist modelling on the side. But our shared sensibility, our way of looking at the world, ran like a glowing thread through the change in our circumstances.
For us both, my child was part of what was poetic, beautiful, remarkable – our lives were outwardly different, but still the same inner compass.
I met Miriam in another share house back in Sydney when my first son was three. She was shy and gentle and, at first, her friendship was with the three-year-old rather than with me. He’d wake early, take a book off his shelf and trot into Miriam’s room and snuggle up with her. She was a potter and I have a photograph of the two of them armed with spoons, burnishing pots nearly as large as him – each of them, pots included, rounded and softly shining. We became friends, slowly and quietly, not through him, but through her art-making and my writing.
By the time my next child arrived, we had moved to the Blue Mountains, still in a share house with Miriam. The new child was an angel who wouldn’t sleep, but she was there, picking him up, cuddling him, rocking him. When she could see I was worn out, she took him without a word and walked around the garden with him, softly humming.
For birthdays and Christmases she gave him delicate presents – a paper Balinese puppet, a plaster copy of a Donatello cherub, which he loved better than any of his other gifts. She was his other mother, always there for him – and for me. Later on, when she married a man who already had a three-year-old son, I thought, lucky little boy. Over the years, as she mothered the boy, our connection grew to include our lives as mothers, a central thread for us both.
I recently went to visit Connie in her new one-bedroom apartment. We have known each other through many changes and both of our sons now have their own children. When she opened the door, I saw the wall was covered in photographs – and there in the middle was the magic-potion photograph, the two little faces still glowing in the morning light after all these years.
(UQP) by Patti Miller is out now. She also gives memoir-writing workshops in Paris.
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