For about six months of my life a few years ago, I got to walk through a portal and discover a different world. I’d never known it existed but, like in a children’s fairy tale, some old witch muttered a spell and suddenly everything changed.
I was in my late twenties and in a long-term relationship for the first time. I had a boyfriend and he was lovely and suddenly our lives became dinner parties. We went to them, talked about them, even hosted one.
The social shift was so stark that I asked around, both in person and online. Had everyone been having dinner parties this whole time? Had I been blithely unaware of it all, due to having spent most of my twenties single?
Some friends argued that the passing of time was the real culprit. I was nearing 30 and socialising was organically moving from the pub into the home. They were wrong. The relationship ended after about a year, and the portal closed again. Are people still having dinner parties? You’ll have to ask someone else. I have no idea.
It made me quite angry at first; I’m more than capable of eating roast potatoes and drinking Tesco’s surprisingly nice Picpoul with or without a partner. Isn’t this what our foremothers fought for? (Don’t answer that.)
After a while, I made my peace with it. Couples should be allowed to want to hang out with other couples. Forcing your way into social occasions that weren’t meant for you will just be awkward for everyone, as I once found when out with three pairs of friends in a Spanish restaurant. Even the most comfortable single person, it turns out, will feel Bridget Jones-esque when confronted with the reality of “tapas for one”.
After all, adult life is about decisions and consequences: had I been truly desperate to attend more dinner parties, there are relationships I could have started or stayed in. I would rather wait to make sure I’ve got the right person, and as a result I will, for the time being, keep belonging in bars instead of dining rooms.
When that person does come along and – assuming it all goes right – we end up having a child, I would expect things to change again. Babies are terrific but they are chaos; it would be odd for them not to upend your life entirely.
Still, the question of where they do and don’t belong remains a thorny one. Most recently, a feature in the Guardian prompted a new row on the topic. If you believe that children shouldn’t be allowed in some pubs or restaurants, the argument goes, then you think that mothers should not be able to be a part of society. Excluding babies and small children from certain spaces excludes the women who, in most cases, are the ones caring for them.
It certainly sounds righteous, and there is obviously much to say about how the burden of parenting still overwhelmingly falls on mothers. No one ever seems worried that fathers might be excluded from pubs and restaurants that don’t welcome children, which feels telling. Still, there is a more interesting debate hiding in plain sight here, which is: should parents expect their social lives not to change at all when they have a baby?
It isn’t clear that little children enjoy being in grown-up restaurants, expected to stay reasonably still and not make too much noise. As for the parents, making sure that small humans don’t make a mess and ruin everyone’s lunch does not, at least from the outside, look like a fun and stress-free experience.
People go to pub gardens so they can drink and smoke and swear with their friends. Is trying to relentlessly keep kids away from lit cigarettes, fragile glasses and words they really ought not to hear really so thrilling that it is a right that must be fought for on behalf of all new parents?
The point about appropriate spaces also goes both ways. It would never occur to me to go to Giraffe, which is clearly a family-friendly space, with a group of female friends so we could run through our recent dating experiences, sinking glasses of white wine and loudly going into prurient detail. It is not a world for my ilk and that is fine, so the opposite should also be socially acceptable. Not everything is for everyone.
That should be seen as a good thing. Adult life is about choices and consequences, but it is also a series of doors opening and closing. It would be tedious if we all spent the whole time in the same spaces, doing the same things.
I was a pub friend then I became a dinner friend for a little while, and I am now a pub friend again. People go out for meals and drinks then they have kids and everything changes. In time the kids will grow up and get their own lives and their parents will return to their meals and drinks, and won’t they taste even better when no one is threatening to jam half a mound of butter up their nose?