My husband and I are surveying the festoon of birthday party invites that Mouse has received. I’ve got the Facebook Events tab open on my screen, he’s in charge of snail-mail and the calendar. This is how we’ve opted to spend our bloody date night and I’ve delayed opening the wine so that I can tackle the admin with a clear head.
“That one will be good, they’re both high earners.”
“Are you alright to sort out an eye patch and foam cutlass?”
“Who even is this child?”
Then comes our first inevitable scheduling conflict. “Shall we pick and choose, or back to back it?” my husband asks. “Back to back, then we can get away with not giving her lunch or dinner.”
When you become a parent for the first time, you actively seek out other parents with babies of the same age, so that you can compare and contrast their temperament and development and be reassured that, however bloody awful you’ve got it, someone else is sometimes making a bigger hash of things than you. The problem with this is that you later get a three to four month stretch where every child on the block is celebrating a birthday, and not only do your child’s social engagements surpass your own, they also require you to be a PA, fashion advisor, chauffeur, body guard and first aider rolled into one.
Mouse is now three, so I’m hoping that next year we’ll be fully established in the style of party that allows the parent to vacate the premises. For now though, we’re still very much ensconced in the supervisory zone, and the top ranking destination for many parties is the absolute bastard that is soft play. Soft play centres are usually to be found lurking around the arse end of an industrial estate. Their title will almost always either contain the word ‘wacky’, and / or substitute a perfectly lovely ‘s’ for a ‘z’, e.g Wacky Critterz. The first time you walk into one, you’ll nod at your adult companion (safety in numbers – a cruel lesson to be learned) and say “Well, this all looks really nice doesn’t it? I read that they do Starbucks too!” You’re forgiven for being momentarily blinded by all the colours of the rainbow in PVC foam bars and plastic balls, but be under no illusion that these places are sodding awful for adults. Unless, of course, you’re a virile young father, because if you enter the fray and crawl around the upper tiers you’ll be rewarded with the sight of cleavage (boobs AND bum) of all shapes and sizes. Mums, for our part, absolutely go mad for a DILF. When a DILF rocks up at a baby group, we’ve struck gold. Never worry that no-one will speak to you, DILF, or feel intimidated by our collective beauty. You’re just fine here, stay awhile. Anyway, I digress.
A party at soft play is even worse than just going there to kill an hour because it’s raining and you’re sick of watching Minions. A party gathers together 10-15 other children and parent combos that know you, so you really need to not lose your shit – you’d do well to pop a bit of make-up on and neck some electrolytes in the car park.
Once you’ve sourced the birthday child and put a ridiculously oversized netted bib on your own child for identification purposes, they’re let loose. But you can’t fuck off to the integral Starbucks franchise yet, oh no. You have to watch from the sidelines and make sure that your child is Settling In, and isn’t being maimed by the bigger kids, or getting stuck at the top of a slide.
Then, and only then, you may invest 40% of your attention to the task of getting in amongst it with the other parents and catching up with whose child can do what.
In one such soft play party instance, a mum I recognise from The Circuit but don’t actually know very well is stood next to me with her proper camera – no quick smartphone snaps for her. I realise that I ought to stay in this position because then I won’t feature in any of her shots. “This is a great setup isn’t it?” she says. “It’s just so nice to have a little bit of a break while they play.” She glances down at Moo, wriggling about in my arms. I glance down at Moo, wriggling about in my arms, then back at her. Shit the bed, you think this is a break? If it is, then I’m going to require a cash ‘n’ carry haul of Kit Kats as recompense.
A klaxon sounds and we’re onto Stage 2: Feeding Time at the Zoo. Round up your Critterz, wipe the snot from their faces and concede that their left sock ain’t never coming home. The food is brought out by an assortment of 16 year old staff. All the parents make a big show of tucking their children into their chairs and unfolding napkins, while discreetly eyeing up the wares. This particular party is like food porn, the parents have definitely, uncharacteristically gone for the deluxe package. I was expecting soft skips and primula-cheese-on-cheap-white, but I think I spy brioche over there with the hot dogs! Those chips look skin on and twice baked. That pizza base is most definitely hand stretched and I’d wager that’s goats cheese. It’s 4.30pm and I’m suddenly blinded by hunger because about now I’d be tucking into a Belgian bun. All the parents glance surreptitiously at each other…when is it acceptable to…? Right, her in the smock top at the far end is going in. I flirt with an abandoned carrot stick, migrate to a spot of dip, then throw caution to the wind and take a hoisin duck pinwheel wrap. OMG, soooooo good, I wonder what pudding is? Is it foolish to hope for a profiterole stack?
Based on the level of catering, I’m suddenly a bit giddy with excitement about the party bags. What’ll it be, what’ll it be? I’m thinking a decent book, a sweetie cone that I can eat in the car, maybe a small craft kit? I’m brought back to the here and now by the unveiling of the birthday cake – a three-tiered monolith of sponge and regal ice decorated to look like a jungle scene. If he’s into animals, his parents might have been better off holding the party at the local zoo, but never mind. We’re off to a farm for someone else’s party in three weekends time so it should scratch that itch. Two renditions of happy birthday later (the dad didn’t hit record the first time), and it’s time to scoop up your hot, sweaty, sticky child and force them to say goodbye to the birthday boy and thank the parent folk. By this time everyone really wants to leave, and the din of frazzled children and mildly shouty parents has made the whole thing feel quite unsavoury.
After a party comes an inevitable slump. It’s all been a bit much – too much sugar has been onboarded, it was very hot in there, the children get very excitable when they see each other, and so on. Your best bet is to serve a very low key snack for supper (Cheerios or something of that ilk) and then try to spin the whole thing in your favour by slipping them off to bed 15 mins ahead of schedule.
Then, with a lurch, I remember the hastily botched together present that I’ve given the birthday boy. It’s not a BAD gift but it is from my stockpile rather than specifically chosen with him in mind. I hope he’s into Alvin and the Chipmunks, or we risk not making the cut next year.
-SJW June 2016