Pa Whitehouse imparted some advice when I was a feral youth: “Don’t look up to people and don’t look down on people – treat the Queen as you would the bin man”; “However close you are to someone, don’t call them your ‘best friend’ – it isolates others”. And “Try and talk about ‘things’ not ‘people.”
Now, much like my financial planning and inability to listen to his driving advice (my 1987 Ford Escort – with spoiler – ended up embedded in the front of our house due to my loose acquaintance with the handbrake) none of the above went into the lugholes.
Until, perhaps a year ago when I started trying to build a business (pressing buttons sporadically in the hope The Internet would spunk some dosh).
Those core parental nuggets of advice started slipping in when words like ‘squad’ and ‘gang’ started edging into my subconscious.
What is this squad? Should I be in one? Does one require this athleisure clothing I’ve been hearing good things about? After a mild run-in – I was 100 metres away in the entrance of Poundland – with an actual gang outside Northampton’s Ritzy in 1996, I didn’t want to really be in one of those. I still occasionally hold my keys between my index and middle finger as a weapon in the hope that I can poke someone into submission if trouble descends.
Either way, squad or gang, I realised I had neither. I was a floater, perhaps; a human floater in the friendship pan of Domestos dreams.
I had a bunch of people I knew who definitely didn’t want me to die. I had rock solid friends (some who I had never even met on Facebook; including my ex boyfriend’s wife, who I accidentally friend requested… and she accepted. We’ve been going steady for three years) and I’d never be stuck for a Nandos dining comrade. But they weren’t united in any way, really other than by knowing me. It felt like a ‘squad goal’ was, perhaps to be in the same place, wearing the same Mac Lady Danger lipstick at least once a week swathed in achingly cool Scandi apparel.
I was on my own loitering near the bargain bin in Tesco wearing a faded hoodie that read ‘Whiteho’ (they were sluttier times) with a weird hair prong that refused to be tamed.
As young girls we tend to ‘group’ together in our vulnerability instead of ebbing and flowing with confidence. I was told to ‘get a life’ by a skirt-hoiked-up-to-the-eyeballs girl on our French exchange trip in 1994; I responded, adrenalin-pumping with ‘get a haircut’. (Her barnet needed a coiff; it was factual). Five years later we were put in the same Economics group and became good mates despite being on different sides of the friendship fence.
I was in the ‘vaguely passable’ group of non-geeks and non-mean girls. She was bona-fide ‘cool girl’ elite. I had a brace (with multicoloured bands; the dream) and had worked out how to bleach my barnet with Sun-In, so I was sitting in no (wo)man’s land in many ways.
As a mother you need people, you need bosomy hugs – virtual or real – when the maternal chips are not just down, but bulldozed and crumbling; you need that tribe (that’s a more inclusive, familial term, perhaps) of people who will wipe your baby’s puke off your shoulder as you dash to the bog with the first twinges of the Norovirus.
But geographically and emotionally they don’t have to be lumped together as one all-singing, all-dancing unit. Spice Girls? Nice Girls? The awkward phrase ‘Instamums’? Just People Trying To Keep Small Humans Alive Together, really.
That’s not to say if you’ve got a core crew you’re singing from a different hymn sheet. I’m firmly ensconced in two groups of girls (at 35 are we girls? I got called a ‘lady’ in Boots recently). But neither is my ‘squad’ or ‘gang’ because coming back to Pa Whitehouse’s core principles, that isolates others. There’s always room at the inn for more; no weird passwords and no dodge handshakes.
It’s a ‘support network’: there’s the mate who chats about the grot stories on the Daily Mail bar of shame at the school gates, the one who you’ve known for 25 years and while it’s longevity that keeps you together, she knows about that dishwasher-like snog from Dean from Abbey National in 1995. There’s the mate that’s popped up from NCT because you literally needed somone to go through fanny-gate with. There’s the ones who you’ve met through vague Instagram lurking, who start to feel like total keepers despite, somewhat bizarrely, only having met twice.
Over the years I’d gathered a merry band of eclectic people who don’t want me to cark it; It’s friendship pick ‘n’ mix if anything.
There’s even my Aunty Janet who is still distressed by the moniker ‘Mother Pukka’ but champions our Flex Appeal (a campaign to push for flexible working for people who happen to be parents) at every church meeting she goes to.
Perhaps my favourite is a mate-of-a-mate who came to an event I was talking at a few weeks ago, asked if I fancied lunch (always a yes, regardless of the hour) and said “my best mate has just moved to New York, my other mama mates have moved out of London. I’ve been abandoned and you’re, like, 5 minutes down the road. Will you be my friend?” Two weeks later I’m closer to her than a Gillette Venus razor to an overrun armpit.
That’s not to say there isn’t any negative unburdening in those relationships – sorry Pa, Whitehouse but humans can be bell-ends and that needs to be vented. I can’t handle the ‘tutters’. Who tuts? Just articulate your issue.
But anyone can sit anywhere, really. You can sit with us, them, the woman at Brixton Tube station playing Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping merrily on her Pringle tin. Don’t make the mistake of thinking others have this elusive squad gang thang down because there’s a photo of them with a few other mothers on The Internet – a place that can make you feel inspired but also the loneliest, mammary-leaking mama on the planet.
It’s all just one massive mosh pit of knackered souls holding on to the nearest gurning person in the hope that they, too, found a three-month-old soggy milk-laden breast pad behind the bed.
Then, when passing on Pa Whitehouse’s core principles to Mae, she pipes up: “But Mama, you’re my best friend.”
And therein lies the ultimate squad goal.