Kids’ Birthday Parties: This is Your Life Now

What can I say about birthday parties for the under-5s?

Well, it’s nice for them to get a chance to let their hair down and hang out with their friends. After all, they spend the majority of their time within the bosoms of their families, and what time they don’t is spent trapped within institutions; institutions that will carry them to their graves.

I’m talking about the parents, of course. Poor bastards: walking about with baby puke patches on their best jumpers, sporting big black panda eyes and stress lines like seismographs on their foreheads, and grinning at each other like frightened chimps as they desperately fight to stave off the twin horrors of sleep and full mental breakdown, all while trying to pretend that somehow it was all worth it.I guess the old saying’s true: a moment on the hips, a lifetime of IKEA trips.

Remember when your social calendar was measured in weekly increments rather than bi-annually? Remember when you used to gaze across the horizon of your life and see nothing but unfettered fun and wine-tinged sunsets? Remember when you used to hit the town in a loudly-laughing posse of posers, and then stay out drinking and dancing till dawn, leaping the next day’s hangovers like they were half-foot-high hurdles? If you hit the town with your posse these days,try to herd you into some dingy old men’s pub with a vaguely nautical name, where even the women have anchor tattoos on their biceps. But you don’t have to worry about any of that, because nobody asks you to go ‘out out’ anymore anyway.

They ask you to kids’ birthday parties instead. This multi-coloured nightmare is your social life now: coffee and cake at the soft play surrounded by a thousand screaming kids. You’ve all got so much to talk about and catch up on, you and your friends, but good luck talking about anything other than your kids. Your brain may cycle through a database of potential topics – politics, entertainment, nutrition, religion – but whatever it is you think you’re going to talk about, you can’t open your mouth without saying something like: ‘Apparently Skye’s in the ninetieth centile for weight’ or ‘What Jason lacks in language skills he certainly makes up for in spatial awareness.’

If you do manage to kick-start a non-parenting related conversation it will inevitably be cut short by one of your children running up to you screaming with a blood-covered face (‘Daddy, I tried to put my head through the wall like a ghost but it hurt me!’), or loudly agitating for a shit.

Mind you, I find that kids are handy to have around in these sorts of situations, especially since I discovered just how bad I am at mingling. There’s nothing like quitting drinking to reveal how socially awkward you are at root. I’m really ferociously bad at shooting the breeze or shooting the shit, or whatever shooting-based analogy you care to use. I’m bloody awful at it. After a few minutes dribbling out the kind of small talk an old tramp at a bus-stop would be ashamed to profer, it’s nice to be able to go:

‘WHAT’S THAT, JACK? YOU WANT ME TO GO DOWN THE CHUTE WITH YOU?’

‘Jamie, I don’t think he said anyth…’

‘I’LL BE RIGHT THERE, SON! Hold my miniature box of Smarties, will you.’

I usually swagger into these parties desperately sucking in my stomach muscles (what exists of them) to retract my bulk in case I encounter old acquaintances who haven’t borne witness to my gradual slide into jelly-bellied oblivion, and who might yet still be fooled into thinking that I play squash every now and again, or occasionally eat lettuce. It’s a fragile illusion, usually broken simply because it’s really hard to hold a fat torso in the shape of a capital ‘C’ for more than twenty minutes without getting stomach cramps.

Towards the end of these soft-play parties the kids are typically ushered into a side-compartment of the main hall to have a spot of grub. Invariably, their eating-space is fenced in and cordoned off like the canteen in a maximum-security prison, an association only lent more substance by the fact that they can get tattoos done after their snacks. Seeing my eldest son standing in his vest later that night looking like an old lifer always makes me regret not having asked the resident face-painter to daub a little blue tear-drop beneath one of his eyes. In preparation for the next party I’m teaching him to say: ‘Hey esse! Do we got a fuckin’ problem here?’

Whether the party is held at a soft-play or in a house it always ends with gifts being handed out to the attendees; wee bags of ‘fuck off’ as I like to call them. What an ingeniously polite way to get rid of people. Treat them as you entreat them to leave and it doesn’t seem so harsh. ‘It’s been a fun two hours, but please take your toy helicopters and little whistles, and get the fuck out of my house.’ Adult parties often drag on without any clear or definite end, so I think we would benefit enormously from introducing some sort of gift bag system:

‘So my Sally’s language skills may not be the best, but, I’ll tell you, her spatial awaren… oh, what’s this?’

‘It’s a bag of marshmallows and vodka miniatures. Now fuck off.’

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READ MORE ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF SOFT-PLAYS BY CLICKING HERE

Existential nightmare at the soft-play warehouse

softplay

Last week we took our son to soft-play, or The Hunger Games with rubber-foam-ladders as I like to call it. We entered the reception area and were buzzed through a security door into a giant warehouse filled with bright primary colours and screams. It felt like we were visiting a criminally insane toddler on death row. Those screams. Those… screams. I closed my eyes and imagined the thudding din of helicopter blades alongside the cacophony of piercing shrieks. This could be a war movie, I thought; ‘Nam, only more brutal. Why was this happening to us?

It was mid-week. The schools in our area were all in session, which we thought would guarantee us a quiet afternoon with a low kid-count: silence of the bambinos. Unfortunately, we hadn’t known that a neighbouring town’s schools were closed for in-service days (or Teachers’ Gin Days if you like), and that, as a consequence, the soft-play would be the site of a full-scale osmotic invasion of hyperactive, psychopathic Stirling kids. Sartre was bang on when he said that ‘Hell is other people’, but his aphoristic aim should’ve been more precise: hell is other people’s kids.

I wasn’t alone in my pain. I could see it etched into the weather-beaten faces of the parents who fringed the perimeter of the play-area, their wearied flesh pressed and wedged into the cheap plastic seats. We walked past a succession of toothless, sunken-cheeked grannies, who were all wearing the same expression, one that silently screamed: ‘I WISH YOU COULD STILL FUCKING SMOKE IN PLACES LIKE THESE… YOUNG LUNGS BE DAMNED!’ Their dark, haunted eyes evoked the horror of a holocaust. I smiled faintly at them, and steeled myself for the nightmare to come.

Kids are crazy little bastards (apart from my kid, of course, who’s clearly an exceptional human being, and nothing at all like your shitty little disease-ridden mental cases), propelled by sugar and selfishness. They lack both the developmental capacity to credit other people with having selves distinct from their own, and the ability to show compassion and regard for the well-being of others. Helping our son safely navigate the tunnels, ladders, ball-pits and climbing platforms of each of the three mini-fortresses was a hazardous and stressful endeavour. Kids careened about with the frenetic zeal of angry dwarf Gladiators, as they pushed, shoved, kicked, and thudded their way through the mazes. Our son became a tiny Indiana Jones, dodging four-limbed-boulders here, ducking roof-bound punch-bags there, all the while cooing and smiling, oblivious to the great danger that threatened to engulf him from every direction.

My fear was focused at the microbial level, on the shiny surfaces that were slick with sweat and saliva and piss and Christ knows what else. I was sure that my hands carried the traces of the bogeys and bum-kernels of a thousand wet-nosed, shat-nappied children, and every disease, from swine-flu to AIDS, was busy gleefully replicating itself in my blood. Who cleans this place? Do they get down on their hands and knees and scrub every inch of every surface, or do they shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, ‘Screw it, kids are ill all the time anyway, and I only get paid £5 an hour, so fuck this, I’m going to spray some Febreeze over this ball-pit and then go out for a smoke.’

ballpit

Despite all that, the three of us soon found ourselves in the ball-pit, doing the back-stroke through the multi-coloured sea of circular-filth-nuggets. Our son was delighted with the ball tsunami his thrashing and splashing created. A few other kids jumped in just as we were beginning a ball-fight, and before long all fire was concentrated on my face. I retaliated, of course, because where else are you going to get the chance to throw things at children and get away with it? Once the blood-lust abated, I fished my son out of the balls, sat him upright and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm: “WHO WANTS TO GET OUT OF HERE AND GO DOWN THE CHUTE?” Three random kids thrust their arms into the air, shouting “ME!”

“Well, I wasn’t actually talking to you guys, but, what the hell, I guess you can come along.”

And so we dragged a comet’s tail of kids behind us as we clambered out of the ball-pit and began the long, slow journey to the top of the fortress. One little boy, slightly older than our son, went out of his way to help little Jack navigate the climbing platforms, pulling him up at each level and making sure he was safe and steady. Once we reached the higher levels, he stuck to Jack like glue, protecting him from the hordes of wayward children as they sped towards us on their savage and singular trajectories. I figured I would have to re-evaluate my stance on the inherent psychopathy of children. Here was a noble and nurturing boy, a credit to his sub-species. I guess I was wrong, I thought. Kids are sweet and caring and kind after all.

I quickly re-re-evaluated, though, and come to the conclusion that he was the fucking worst of the lot. Clearly he was responding to me as the alpha of the pack, and keeping Jack safe was his way of appeasing me and showing due deference. If I’d ordered him to pick up Jack and hurl him from the battlements, the sick little bastard would have done it without hesitation. I guess that’s why I felt completely justified when I kicked the little boy in the stomach and hurled him down the chute backwards.

When I told my partner I was going to write about our experience at the soft-play area, she said: “Just remember to write that we all had a nice, fun time, because we did. Don’t do what you usually do and make our perfectly normal, happy family times sound nightmarish and horrible. And for Christ’s sake, don’t say something sick like you kicked that nice little boy in the stomach and then hurled him down a chute backwards.”

“Oh, and please try to call it something nice like, ‘Family Fun Times’ or ‘Super Soft-play Day’. Don’t call it something awful like, oh, I dunno, ‘Existential Nightmare at the Soft-Play Warehouse.'”

Folks, I did have a really, really nice time, it’s just that ‘nice’ isn’t all that funny or interesting to anyone except us, and – most importantly – this is Jamie Andrew With Hands, not fucking Mumsnet.

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Do. Not. Eat. The. Food. I waited an hour for Nachos that cost me a fiver, and when I say Nachos, I mean half a bag of Doritos that somebody had blown snot over and then shoved in a microwave for twelve seconds.
  • Do check your socks before leaving. I was lucky this time, having by chance selected the one pair of socks I own that doesn’t have a gaping hole in the toe. You don’t want to be prancing around a plastic fortress looking like Albert Steptoe.
  • Finding a parking place at these day-glo hell-holes is perhaps the most heart-busting part of the saga. You won’t find one. Even though these soft-plays are usually inside giant warehouses, there are only ever about six parking spaces. You’ll find yourself driving round and around like The Hulk on steroids, unleashing torrents of vile, paranoia-themed bile at your fellow space-seekers, shouting at families for not waddling back to their cars quickly enough, and trying to manoeuvre your car into a four-inch gap before finally screaming ‘FUCK IT’ and angrily mounting the kerb to park on the pavement.

More family-related articles for you to enjoy:

A celebration of public breastfeeding

Baby talk: Baby’s first workplace visit

Happy Fathers’ Day to me

Weighting it all up