Mary and I belting out 'Don't You Want me Baby' by The Human League - 80s classic - at my wedding in 1999. Thin and still smoking. Glory be the days!
‘Will you do my hair for Max’s wedding?’
My friend Mary’s son got married last Saturday.
I have always been in slight denial about the existence of Maximillian. Mary had her first son when she was just out of college which was an extraordinarily brave thing to do.
We were daughters of the first generation of Irish feminists. Our mothers were Irish emigrants who moved to London hoping for some swinging sixties action then found themselves somehow, still going to mass on Sunday mornings and bringing their daughters for Irish dancing classes in chilly church halls.
The size of their families and source of their general discontent was mostly down to moral dilly-dallying when it came to taking the pill. As they stood in their small, scullery kitchens (nobody had big kitchen in those days except for people posh enough to employ staff to cook in them) washing piles of terry nappies in a primitive twin-tub, they determined their daughters wouldn’t land up in the same boat. I don’t know one girl in my strict convent girls school that wasn’t marched up to the GP the minute her periods started and put on the pill under the auspice of ‘regulating her menstrual cycle’. The only two ‘good girls’ whose parents were Catholic enough not to take these steps were pregnant before our final school exams - one of them by a young curate.
Our generation knew that getting pregnant was not only a terrible sin that would ruin our lives, but had the added shame of being a betrayal of the 60’s and 70’s generation of women’s efforts to liberate us. If we got pregnant we’d not only be in trouble with the priest and our parents, but Mary Robinson and Nell McCafferty might come around to our house and stand outside with placards. Put simply, pregnancy – ever actually – was considered something of a no-no.
So when I discovered that my brightest, most sophisticated, most dynamic, career-minded, ambitious friend of mine was having a baby, I was more astonished than impressed.
We were both young and single, working hard and enjoying life. Mary just got on with single motherhood. She never complained or bored me with talk of nappies or first steps and certainly never put pressure on me to help her out. Looking back, I never offered any help. Mary’s baby son was there but he was never really a part of my relationship with her. Although I knew she loved Max, I had absolutely no idea how much, or how important a driving force he was in her life. I never really thought about how isolating it must have been for her among childless peers, or as a much younger mother at the school gates.
Then, in our late thirties, the unexpected happened. We both got pregnant at the same time, me for the first time and Mary for the second. Our life experiences came into sync again when our sons Oliver and Leo were born. But it wasn’t until I had my own ‘should-know-better’ pregnancy at forty-five I began to understand what Mary had been through. Even though Mary and I only have three children between us they span in ages from twenty-eight to five!
Mary has been here for me in the past five years in a way I wasn’t for her when max was small. So I flew over to London be there for my friend on the day of her sons wedding.
To be honest, I felt like it was Mary getting married. Her outfit was stunning. The dress was scarlet Vivienne Westwood, the coat was Christian Dior and the shoes - O.M.G! – they were metallic, glimmering, magnificent Jimmy Choos. The fascinator was a wedding staple of mine, two black and red structured feathered balls very delicate and no hint of ‘quivering wedding-hen’. Mary sat in front of her bedroom mirror and I blow dried her hair then teased it up into a French pleat. As I pinned the fascinator into place I looked at her perfectly made-up face, her matt red lipstick seemed to be the same shade and set into the same perfect, enviable bow it was when were teens together, terrorizing young men in North London discos.
‘You look beautiful,’ I said.
‘Thanks for being here,’ she said.
I wanted to say sorry, to apologise for past sins as a selfish young woman. But apologies like that are senseless. You do what you can when you can. Last Saturday I did Mary’s hair for her sons wedding, doled out tissues from my handbag and minded her Jimmy Choo shoes while she danced until dawn. Most important of all though, I gloried in the success of my oldest friend for rearing and letting go of her first born-son. And I allowed myself to feeI proud of her – and him.