Monday morning, down to the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse for a bit of late breakfast. Black Americano with a toasted bun and a glass of water. That’s what I order every time. A tangle of push-chairs [can’t think of a better collective description] sits at the top of the stairs. I go down and a tangle of babies welcome me, as do their mums.
This is Mmm & Co – 'Monday morning mums', 'mighty meeting of mums' - whatever you might want to call it. The mums and babies who attend aren’t hung up on names, and neither are they hung up on what has to happen every week. This is a place to relax, chill out, have a laugh or share tales of woe - even tear out your hair if that’s what you feel you need to do. In other words, with other mums around you - who know what life’s like with babies and young children - it’s a place to step back from the weekly run-of-the-mill.
And for the babies? This is a place to roll about on rugs, eye each other up, grab all the best toys, attempt to toddle upstairs [and be brought down again] snuggle up, feed and generally hang loose whilst the focus isn’t only on them for a while. It’s on their mums and the need for coffee and chat.
I wish there had been something like this when I had my family. The only mums & toddlers group I ever came across was in a village hall, with an icy atmosphere and watery coffee in polystyrene cups. Mmm & Co, by contrast, provides a venue that mums [or baby-caring dads, I guess] would want to come to anyway. This is an adult space. It’s not municipal, if you know what I mean. It’s somewhere people can feel at home, entirely within their comfort zone.
And that feeling at home is crucial. The mums who come - whether with first babies, or pregnant-and-in-waiting – are mostly in that transition stage between being individuals with sole responsibility for themselves, and being parents. They are making inroads into a whole new life, including a whole new way of thinking. This means that some steep learning curves are happening, and it’s good to have a place to meet where questions can be asked and advice received, and where this can be done in a spirit of equality amongst peers, which is absolutely central to what Mmm & Co is about.
Good to have a place, too, where mums and babies feel really welcome. No matter how many of them turn up [and it can be anything from ten to thirtyish] everybody attests to the welcome they receive at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, staff carrying buggies up and down stairs, opening doors, heating baby food, trotting down with drinks. Obviously this coffeehouse wants not just grown-up customers but babies too.
Sitting next to me is Simone, with bright pinkish-red hair, a pretty baby in a daisy-print dress at her breast. She lives on the outskirts of Hanwood, but drives in for Mmm & Co every week. There’s someone else here from Worthen, which is twelve miles out. People seem to feel this is worth travelling distances for.
I ask what else is going on around the county for mums and babies. There are National Childbirth coffee mornings, someone says. Then someone else mentions Bumps & Babes, which meets in children’s centres county wide. Across Shropshire, too, there are breast-feeding groups. And here in Shrewsbury, as well as all of above, the list that people come up with covers Buggy Fit [baby jogging] by the river in the Quarry, baby swimming in the Quarry Pool, story time in the library and baby cinema at the Old Market Hall. One of the mums saw Salmon Fishing in theYemen that way, all the buggies up the front, the side lights left on and the volume slightly turned down. Another mum saw Skyfall. But they both agree this only works when babies are still young enough to not take notice of where they are.
These babies, with the exception of newborn Frank, definitely know where they are today. They’re getting to know each other too, and making friends. Some of the mums in the group knew each other originally from school, but others - like Simone who comes from Switzerland, and met her Shrewsbury partner in Thailand - are relative newcomers to the town. One person in the group came to the coffee shop anyway, saw what was going on and joined in. Another caught sight of the buggies through the window and came in.
'There's a natural progression,' says Su Barber, speaking for the group. 'Mums tend to come in either when they’re pregnant or with new babies. They make friends, have their babies, keep on coming, develop networks and gradually slope off.’
The group’s loosely held together by Su and co-founder, Marina, who as well as being mothers themselves both have experience of working with pregnant women as doulas. The word ‘doula’ is taken from the Greek, meaning ‘woman caregiver’, and refers to an experienced older woman who offers emotional and practical support to a new mum over the period of her pregnancy, childbirth and its aftermath. Plainly Mmm & Co is a natural extension of that support, and though it continues to function when neither Su nor Marina is available, there’s no doubt it benefits from what they have to offer.
Another Sue comes in with baby Frank who's five weeks old and fast asleep. Frank’s a sweetie. Everybody coos over him. But he’s not such a sweetie at home, according to his mum. He’s not settling well and this is hard, especially in the evenings. Sue, his mum, wants to know what to do, and immediately the advice is there. ‘What we used to do…’ someone says, ‘and, ‘I’ve sometimes found..’ says someone else. ‘It’s easy, isn’t it, to get upset…’ says someone else, and this is quickly followed by, ‘It seemed to help with us to...’ and ‘Have you thought about…?’
All the while the mums are talking, the babies are either sleeping, snuggling, rolling, staring wide-eyed at the world around them or attempting to crawl or trot. What’s it like being a baby in Shrewsbury, I wonder. Someone says the cobbles are a pain unless their baby is in a sling, but someone else thinks cobbles help jiggle babies off to sleep. I ask about breastfeeding. No problem everyone agrees. Babies can be breastfed comfortably all over town. And shopping, I ask? Some find a few of the older, quainter shops hard to get round with buggies, but generally people agree that it’s a welcoming town. The sofas are great in the Birds Nest Café. The new café, Eat Up, might be on the first floor but it has very helpful staff, a lift and lots of toys. There’s the square for sitting out in on sunny days, and there’s the Quarry too. The babies love the ducks on the river and in the Dingle. And the swings and slides are always worth dropping by.
At some point in the morning, almost imperceptibly, the meeting takes on a more formal air. Smaller groups of chatting mums merge into a more coherent whole. It’s time to go round the room, each mum in turn, introducing themselves to the group, talking about their week, sharing what’s on their mind. This week, Marina kicks off with her son, Phinn, who’s had a cough and given it to her. ‘That’s about it,’ she says. ‘Now that he’s older, things don’t change that much from week to week.’
Sue’s Frank has been grizzly, which she’s already shared. Willow has been off her food, and a few people suggest things her mum might try. Laura’s Luke has been coughing every two hours through the night and she’s really tired. Oh, and it’s his birthday today. Sam and Evie are working on a new bedtime routine helped by Lyndsey who’s Evie’s other mum. Everybody has had bedtime issues at one time or another, so they all pitch in with advice. But it’s gentle advice. Nobody’s getting heavy with anybody else.
One of the mums tells us about a nasty scare she had with her little lad this week, ending up with him in A & E, certain he had meningitis, only to be told there was little wrong but a snotty nose. She’s feeling thrown by the whole thing - guilty for not heeding advice and going sooner, equally guilty for going at all. But she’s not on her own in feeling like this. Every mum in the group knows what guilt is like, and how it can eat at your self-confidence. She did the right things, they all agree. She monitored her little lad’s condition closely, didn’t get panicked in the early stages but acted fast when a real risk of trouble sprang up.
Somebody starts singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I don’t notice who starts it, but soon everybody is joining in. It’s a lovely quiet moment at the end of the morning before coats start being pulled on and coffee cups gathered up. Simone’s baby is on the rug on her tummy in her daisy frock. Jessica looks well and truly stuck, afraid to move with Baby Toby asleep on her lap. Evie’s being stuffed into a bright red coat. Luke and Laura have gone. Frank, in his fluffy baby bear suit, complete with ears, is fast asleep. Su and Marina are clearing up.
‘See you next week…’ [mewing noise in background; babies on the move] ‘Are you up for coffee sometime…?’ ‘Have you seen my nappy bag..?’ ‘See you. Goodbye...’ ‘Goodbye, goodbye.’