We watch from the sidelines. Some of us smile; some with perfectly glossed lips like maraschino cherries, while some of us haven’t even had time to pluck our moustaches, our upper lips prickly with stray hairs. But we smile anyway as we enjoy the freedom of talking to another adult without being interrupted. We are often viewed as a monolith, but sometimes, during moments like these, bits of us start to shine through again. We are the same, but different. Tall, short, fat, skinny, athletic, black, brown, white, pink, beautiful, plain, ugly, rich, poor, whatever; it’s all pretty subjective anyway. We are different, but the same.

Some of us frown, our brows – whether unkempt or perfectly groomed – furrow as we run through our multiple to-do lists that we keep stored in the filing cabinets of our brains. Our social anxiety stops us from looking around in case we catch someone’s eye, forcing us into uncomfortable conversation which ends in the inevitable exchange of phone numbers and promises of hangouts and play dates that will never happen. We crave comfort and human interaction, but we shy away from it too. Why? Were we always like this?

Some of us like raccoons, with big dark circles around our eyes. Cracks like dry riverbeds run from the corners of our eyes and over our foreheads, where we have scrunched our faces with laughter or stress. Or both. We are tired, exhausted from working full time jobs only to go home to our other full time jobs. Or even just exhausted from the monotony of our lives, of having no time for ourselves, or for real rest. These are our moments to just sit. It’s not ideal relaxation time, considering the constant echos of basketballs being bounced around by masses of laughing kids and the hard, cold chairs that make our buttocks numb, but we make the most of it.

Some of us are dishevelled with stains from sticky little hands all over our clothes. We have our hair scraped back to keep it out of our faces, or we’ve chucked on our hijab or a silk bonnet, not worrying about the stray hairs poking out or the fact that our headwear doesn’t match the rest of our rapidly thrown together outfits. We have on clothes from Primark and Asda, the cheap material bobbled up from over washing and overuse. Bargain leggings underneath long sweaters in an attempt to hide our overhanging bellies. Pushchairs by our sides as we hope to keep the younger ones entertained with Paw Patrol on Youtube so that we can have a little chat with our neighbours. A phone hits the floor and we gasp, praying it’s not cracked. The little one reaches out for it and even though we worry it will be thrown again, we give it back anyway for a few more precious minutes of carefree gossip.

Some of us are immaculately dressed, as if we were going to a fancy lunch with the ladies or an important business meeting. Our heels clacking on the wooden floor like the tick-tock of an enormous clock. Beautifully styled hair, as if we’ve just stepped out of a salon or elegant hijabs gracing our heads. Some of us are in tight clothes, the curves of our bodies accentuated by the material that clings like skin to muscle while others are in abayas or jilbabs, our bodies covered with loose flowing material from our heads to the floor, with only our faces and hands visible to the naked eye. Some of us are in brightly coloured baatis and djellabas, our gorgeous patterns brightening up the sports hall. We express ourselves through our clothes, our make up, our hair or headwear. We wear our identities with pride.

Some of us are in the latest Jordans with carefully coordinated tracksuits and accessories, as if it’s our turn to play next. We have bare faces & glowing skin, thanks to our giant water bottles – we stay hydrated! – and our daily trips to the gym. This is what stops us from falling apart; the gym has become the glue that holds us together, our personal trainers now our best friends and the only real adult human interactions we have. Those snatched conversations we have with others in the changing room or on our way out are the highlights of our days and one of the rare occasions we find to practice our social skills.

Some of us look interested, while others are lost in our own world of thoughts and dreams that will never materialise. Memories of the past or hopes for the future, or of course present day worries, our minds all wander different realms. But we all sit or stand together, there on the sidelines.

Obviously when they look at us we show them our wide toothy smiles no matter how we are feeling inside. Some of us have perfectly whitened teeth like in a Colgate commercial, others have yellow teeth, some stained with coffee, red wine, or occasionally tobacco, some even have braces, desperately trying to straighten the teeth that we heard so many jokes about as children. But we all smile when we catch them checking to see if we are watching them, desperate to make us proud.

There is an unspoken code between us, certain things that we must do, whether we like it or not. If one child does something funny, our code states that we must all laugh and acknowledge the mother, in a sort of congratulatory way; if a child falls over we must all collectively look upon with pity and make a loud heartfelt ‘aww’ sound, then look at the mother and give her a kind of uncomfortable grimace, showing our sympathy. If one child scores, we all celebrate as if it were our own child, clapping & cheering and nodding in approval. When a child misbehaves, we look the other way while their mother desperately tries to catch their eye with the ‘you better behave yourself’ glare.

Some of us exude happiness. Our postures relaxed but confident, we present ourselves to the world with bright eyes and strength in our voices. Then there are the noticeably depressed, with dark shadows hiding the light that should be shining from our faces. We sit hunched over, trying to make ourselves as small as possible so as not to attract attention. We look at the happy ones and wish we could be like them. Some of us are just tired. We want sleep. There are never enough hours in our days to finish our tasks.

Some of us anxiously wait for training to finish. We struggle with being out in public, surrounded by people, bright lights & noise. When the coach calls ‘hometime!’, our children run to us. Some of us get hugs and kisses, many don’t. The older kids are too cool for all that and some of the younger ones are noticeably starved of affection, never having learned to give or receive it.

Some of us have water bottles in our hands ready to hydrate our little ones. Some of us forgot to bring one. Some of us are in a rush and hurry them along, while others take our time. We listen to them chatter at a hundred miles an hour, while they spin circles around us, still excited, the blood rushing through their little bodies like speeding cars on the motorway. Some of us are leaving here to walk home. A few of us will wait in the cold at the bus stop, ready to fight our way onto the noisy bus that will take us where we need to go. Some will descend to the tube. Others will drive, at least able to enjoy the quiet, warm, personal space. We will all go home. Sometimes, one of us won’t make it, and our name will appear on the news over the next few days; ‘Missing’ and then eventually; ‘Body Found’. Sometimes we don’t even go missing, we are simply found, already lifeless, with our children clinging to our still warm bodies.

Some of us will go home to a happy place. A safe place. A home full of love and stability. A family. Warm, heated rooms & hot showers. Peace. 

Some of us will go home to an empty house. The lights are off and there is no welcome as we unlock the door. We will do our best to bring the warmth and happiness in with us, so that they do not feel the loneliness we feel when we enter.

Some of us go home to full fridges and cupboards. We make delicious suppers with a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows on the side, so our kids go to bed with full stomachs and happy thoughts.

Some of us go home to empty fridges and cupboards. The food bank isn’t open until Friday, so we have two more days of dry toast and water. Little stomachs go to bed hungry, all snuggled up in the same bed as us to try and keep warm. We can’t afford the heating. We sing them lullabies and then cry silently, praying for better days to come.

Some of us go home to a war zone. A place of fear and pain, we unlock our front doors deep in prayer, hoping that he is in a good mood tonight. We go home to bruises and cuts, insults and degradation. We are scared, but we smile and laugh in an attempt to make them feel safe and comfortable.

Some of us go home, never to leave. Tonight he beat us again, but this time he didn’t stop. For some of us, this would be the last time we are with our little ones. We did our best.

All of us went home thinking about how to protect our babies and give them better than what we have. We do our best to keep them safe, warm, healthy and happy. We work hard to make sure they are clean, fed, groomed, educated, stable and loved. We fight our battles with mental health issues, exhaustion, abuse, poverty, discrimination and overwork all the while trying to make sure that our babies are not collateral damage. We face and overcome hardships and tribulations that many could never even imagine, and we often do it with smiles on our faces and a child on our hips. We have immeasurable strength, determination and tenacity. We do not give up. Our bodies, some ravaged by pregnancies and childbirth and breast feeding and illness, some perfectly snapped back into shape with the only sign that we ever had another human grow inside us the slight stretch marks around our stomachs and breasts. Some of our bodies were unable to go through those processes, and so we found our role in other ways. We are the same, but different. Different paths with the same destination. Some roads smooth, or even paved with gold. Some roads rocky and full of danger. Regardless of how we came to motherhood, we are miraculous. We conquer our fears and stand strong where others would fall. We give where others take. We love where others hate. We fight where others surrender. We survive, often against the odds. We are all different, but the same.

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