My own family live on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. I boarded a plane more than twenty years ago, and broke my mother's heart by cancelling the return flight. No doubt at least one of my children will do the same to me in years to come, although I may burn all their documents and empty their bank accounts in order to keep them close. (I can say this now that they are asleep, but a few hours ago, as they threw sand at each other and on strangers on the beach, I'd have been happy to book them one-way tickets to anywhere.) I feel the distance from my family more each year, as I begin to understand exactly what I left behind. And I feel far, far away from them: my parents, my brother and his wife, and the cousins my children will never know.
All the same, in recent years I've realised that although my family is at the heart of who I grew up to be, there are other bonds in my life that are every bit as crucial. They help me to make sense of things, or make me feel less bereft when there is no sense to be made. I hope that this is mutual. Other than the life-changing connections you make when you choose a partner or start a family, most of us belong to a succession of 'tribes': people you find at various stages of your life who really 'get' what you are going through at the time. You may drift from tribe to tribe as people's circumstances change or needs evolve, but if you are exceptionally lucky, some people drift with you. And when you've stuck with each other long enough, you know it's pretty likely to be permanent. I could count these people on the fingers of one hand, yet feel ridiculously lucky to have so many of them.
In case this doesn't make sense, here are some of my past and present tribes:
- Uni tribe French degrees brought us together, and The Celtic Arms. There was a broken engagement for one of us and a relationship ended by a partner's suicide. And oh my god, there were raspberry buns and cider and wine and M&Ms and the knowledge that at least three other freaks in New Zealand wanted to read French literature.
- Publishing tribe The job where I fitted, and so I stayed. A whole building full of print junkies, who had been trained to talk about 'business' and 'products' in job interviews rather than professing their deep and undying love of books and hoping that would be enough. And yet as soon as the contracts were signed, we were swooning over the newest titles in print and hanging out in Waterstones in the name of 'competitor research'. Everything at that company was a bit rubbish, but we were in it together. And there were manuscripts. Heaven.
- New Mum tribe The tribe where limits fall away. Nipple pain, nappy contents, peeing yourself if you run downhill -- it's all up for conversational grabs.
- Twin Mum tribe Like New Mum tribe but with even less sleep and double the pregnancy hormones for twice as long. And with endless back pain and sad farewells to trampolining. (Yes, that's YOU, my long-lost pelvic floor.) It's PND-tastic and if you actually manage to leave the house to see somebody, she (you wouldn't bother moving for a man) must be pretty important. This, though, was my first experience of the virtual tribe. Nobody seemed to have had enough sleep to set up a facebook group at that point, but we bonded over google groups. How to get crayon off a tv, how to get poo stains off the sofa, how to get them to stop biting each other, or just feel less ashamed when strangers noticed the tooth-marks... At the time it felt like Blitz Spirit, but in retrospect I see those as simple, carefree days.
- SEN tribe Before I realised I was a SEN Mum, I just thought I was a Crap Mum. Then I met people like me with kids like mine and issues like ours and understood that I was home. In our facebook group you can be Proud Mum, Grieving Mum, Triumphant Mum, Sad Mum, Frustrated Mum, Depressed Mum, Desperate Mum, Drunk Mum and most definitely Sweary Mum and there's always someone around to empathise. 'Your son thinks he's a cat? Mine did that! My friend's son thinks he's a horse!' You child tries a new food and everyone is cheering with you. There's a lump in the toe of a school sock and every member recoils in horror. It's a whole new world where our kids belong, and so we Mums belong.