Lucy Mangan says: Pay it forward

Lucy Mangan says: Pay it forward

We all think we know what to buy a new mum. But until you've had your own, seriously, you haven't a clue.

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There are many good sides to being what doctors call an "elderly primigravida" (woman who has her first pregnancy at 35 or older – I was 37), the Daily Mail calls an affront to nature (albeit not in those exact words) and my mother calls "Will one of you get on with it and make me a grandmother before I die?"

Generally speaking, you're solvent, you've left the chaotic years of renting, job-changing, one-night-standing and STI-sampling behind you, you know who you are, what you want and how to get it without causing too much upset along the way.

The only downside is that once you finally have had a baby, you realise how bad a friend you were throughout the previous decade to all those who did so before you.

Now, look – I'm not a bad person. I'm not unsympathetic or unimaginative, I don't think. I did the best I could for post-partum pals. I visited. I took presents. I made cups of tea. I told them when their boobs were hanging out and when they'd forgotten to put trousers on. I even stopped a baby rolling off a couch once, when I realised just in time that although his mother appeared to be staring at him she had actually gone to sleep with her eyes open.

But there's no getting away from the fact that until you've had one of your own, you don't actually understand what it's like. You don't know that your friend's vagina still hurts and leaks and is going to for weeks. You don't know that she is basically high on hormones and in post-traumatic shock at the same time. And sure, you've had a few late nights in your time, but you don't honestly know what true sleep-deprivation is.

You don't honestly know what it's like to have to – absolutely have, have, have to - get up and feed, change, walk, rock a baby that won't stop crying for hours even though every cell in your body is screaming for rest. And you don't know that your friend's life has been turned upside down and inside out and she is still waiting for the pieces to settle and hoping that it will one day resemble a modicum of civilisation she can live inside and feel happy and safe once again.

I actually apologised to one of my friends for my former ineptitude – for not knowing that I should have brought some ready-meals, told her to have a bath while I looked after the baby, tidied the flat rather than sitting there politely thinking the old rules about not interfering in someone's life and mess still applied. "Oh God," she said. "Forget it. We've all been there. The only thing you can do once you've had your own is pay it forward."

And that's it, of course. Now when the few friends who still had to fall have their babies, I am in like Flynn, with helpful presents of muslin squares, hand moisturiser, freezable sanitary towel things (instead of books and DVD box sets - what was I thinking?), clearing surfaces, filling freezers and ignoring all protestations to the contrary. I'm sure I'm overstepping boundaries everywhere, but I'm equally sure it's better this way.

Pay it forward. It's all you can do.

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