Me, my best friend and her baby (3): The bombshell, the break-up, the repair

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The Independent Online
Alexandra Carter, 27, and Rachel Hooper, 27, a physiotherapist, had been close friends since they were 14 and were students when Alexandra had Jessie (now six).

ALEX: 'It came as a bombshell discovering I was pregnant. I was 20 years old and had just started a degree course. I had always wanted lots of children but I expected to have them later.

Once I had taken it in, I felt excited and nervous. I was in a secure relationship and I felt fine about that. So when I told Rachel I was dismayed by her reaction. She was horrified and implied that I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I thought she would be excited because I was. I realised then that there was going to be a change in our friendship; suddenly we were on different wavelengths.

I wasn't allowed visitors in hospital, so it was three weeks or so before Rachel was able to visit me. I felt ill, miserable and very lonely. I know Rachel was overawed by the little bundle, but she couldn't really appreciate my situation and all it entailed. I really needed a supportive friend, but the tremendous impact Jessie's arrival had on me was something alien to Rachel and I probably needed more than she was able to give.

The bonding process was easy; the animal-ness of having a child wasn't a problem, but it was emotionally throwing. Having my first child when I was young meant I had to do a lot of my growing up alongside Jessie.

I remember everyone congratulating me and feeling that it was the other mothers with older children they should be congratulating because they had managed to make their children live for four or five years. I wondered how on earth I was going to keep my tiny baby alive and nourish her so she would grow.

My friendship with Rachel after Jessie was born had a certain distance. We were apart geographically; I wanted to carry on my life as I had done before and I tried to meet up with Rachel and be independent, but I would end up in an exhausted heap. There was one difficult train journey to see her when Jessie squidged banana all over some commuter's newspaper] You can't carry on as if nothing's changed; children are so unpredictable in their moods.

Rachel didn't realise how difficult it was; there was one occasion I went to stay with her for the weekend and she wanted to go to a party. She said: 'You can put the baby to sleep upstairs on the floor.' But Jessie was at the crawling stage and there was no way she could go to sleep on the floor; she would have been at the top of the stairs in no time. I had to say we couldn't stay at the party and there was a bad atmosphere because of this. In her house she had lots of ornaments that I had to sweep off to the side before Jessie reached them. I couldn't relax.

In retrospect I can see I was so involved with myself I probably didn't give Rachel the attention I should have. I was jealous of her freedom to do what she wanted when she wanted and with whom she wanted. I saw Rachel pursuing her career and being fulfilled intellectually and socially. She could go on holiday, she could have flings. She had money because she was working. I was jealous of all her parties and her lie-ins.

All my friends seemed to be going places and I felt stuck in a rut. It felt like aeons before I would have the freedom to discover my own potential. My friends seemed to be proving themselves and I was terrified that one day I would have to do the same and be found out as a fraud. As a mother you can feel you are doing nothing. I felt so insecure about what I was doing.

I found myself connecting to older women who had children, even my own mother. Giving birth is like an initiation rite. It also made me look at life with a new perspective - you realise how each generation is really so brief.

Now Rachel has children we are closer again. Her first pregnancy was unplanned, although I think she would have preferred life to follow a nice, neat path. Now she understands. Our friendship always had a strong foundation, but it was rocked by the arrival of my first baby and it took the birth of her child for it to regain its balance.'

RACHEL: 'I was horrified when I heard Alex was pregnant. I thought it was a waste of her life. She was only 21. She didn't have a career and wasn't married - not that that was an issue, but I felt really sorry for her. If I'd been in her position I would have reacted with horror but she coped very differently.

She went through her wedding when she was incredibly pregnant and I had no concept of what that must have been like for her. We went to choose the material for my bridesmaid's dress together and her energy levels were terribly low but I couldn't sympathise.

She had a difficult birth, suffering from pre-eclampsia. She went through a depression and I didn't understand it. My lack of comprehension prevented me from being able to relate to her as easily as I had done in the past - we had always talked a great deal about everything.

I remember I felt quite jealous that she seemed to be turning to new friends who were mothers and fathers and who offered her support. I wanted to have this role but my life was so different from hers at that time. I was involved in my career and I realised that others were better qualified to help. She was the only one of our peer group to have a child at that time and I think she felt isolated from us. But it was difficult to overcome the barrier between us. Even when we did try to talk there would be interruptions from Jessie or I would have limited time.

Also I was baffled by her depression and mood swings. There were times when I was tempted to think: 'Pull yourself out of this.' When we were at school I always used to wish I was like Alex; I envied her brain and her looks, her ability to appreciate things and the way she writes and uses language beautifully. I felt critical that she lacked a positive attitude at that time.

With hindsight I think I let her down. One weekend she came to stay and there was a party, but she said we couldn't go because Jessie wouldn't have gone to sleep; I didn't understand this at all. I wasn't very helpful.

I also resented the fact that I seemed to make more effort to phone her at that time. I think she needed a lot of help and support - but it isn't always easy for her to accept it when it's offered.

I know she envied me my career, but I didn't think she should return to her course once she had had Jessie. I did not think it was essential to her life now she had a child, and I imagined it would be hard to cope with. I know now that she wishes she had a career at times.

Things have changed for the better between us now I have children. However, I don't think it will ever be the same as it was before either of us had families - the part of yourself you had for friends isn't there once you have children; you just have to accept that.

Even if I had not had children, I think there would always have been a link between us; Jessie is my godchild and as she grows older I find her more and more interesting. I have always felt very close to her. My interest in Alex and Jessie would have been there, but not my understanding of what life is really like for them.'

(Photograph omitted)