Soft play hell

Since starting school last year, 5 year old has been invited to and attended around 20 birthday parties. 2 thirds of these have taken place in the venue I will end up in if I don’t become a better person before my life is over. I talk ofcourse about the living hell that is soft play structures.
I am not a slender woman. I am not a healthy, energetic, fit woman. The very idea of having to fight my way up foam steps, through rollers designed for tiny people, down tube slides that don’t look big enough for my thighs let alone any other part of me and into a ball pool filled with goodness knows what bodily fluids terrifies me intensely.
But eventually you have to join in. I cannot, in all good conscience, forever ignore the last line of the invite. You know the bit, that subtle yet clearly desperate plea from the birthday child’s parent that says ‘parents are welcome to stay and accompany their child’. First degree blackmail if you ask me.
I have avoided this for the last year quite skillfully. 5 year old often goes with friends and one of their parents. On a few occasions, significant other has taken both the squigglers in order for 2 year old to run off some steam and take his aggression out on new children while hubby can appear the dutiful parent by attending.
Finally I have succumbed and, quite frankly, my regret was palpable from the moment I walked in.
Having started my new job I have very much missed my girl-friends. My ladies who lunch with children and my only line of sanity in a world of children’s tv and nappy changes. My other competitive non-doer mums who have become my oasis in the desert.
So under the guise of catching up over coffee, I finally surrendered to the party invite on the understanding that 5 year old would find the party host if she needed anything and not bother me!
Now this particular friend – I’m going to refer to her as ‘the cleaner’ from here on in for ease – is a much more sociable creature than I could ever hope to be. She’s a midday supervisor (dinner lady to you and I) afterall so automatically has a link to the other parents as she is considered to have inside information on our children. So while the cleaner networks I am forced to start a new blog because interacting with strangers is just not my thing!
And given the strangers that are here it’s no surprise. Now bear in mind that there are women here that I ‘know’ in so much as I have witnessed them on the playground or we have a mutual friend somewhere along the line. We are on shy smile terms at best, a cold nod at worst.
I am happy to observe these mums from a distance but there are 3 in particular who I could say hello to but instead I would rather blog about them anonymously! (Is it any wonder my circle of friends is so small?!)
First there’s super aggressive mum. We spoke briefly at the beginning of the school year and she seemed quite annoyed that I did not agree with her when she said the reception classes really should ‘get their arses in gear because we haven’t got all bloody day to stand around waiting’. She was quite adamant that our shared reception teacher should actually start getting them ready to leave immediately after lunch so she didn’t have to wait. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no easy-going Earth Mother and I did notice very early on that our classroom always seems to be the last door to open but this is because it’s a class full of children like mine that can’t possibly get their coat on now because they’ve seen a rather pretty light on the wall and it needs to be inspected.
There is something about this particular mum that makes me think she is ready to start punching at all times so I have always been polite and generous with my playground smiles but, right or wrong, I do avoid her!
Next to her, rather unfortunately, is meek and mild mum. I have actually tried to start conversations with this mum which is very unlike me but she always looks so very sad. One quiet day in the playground she was particularly watery-eyed and even my own meagre maternal instinct can’t ignore a crying woman so I used chasing my son as a good way to stop when I passed her. Now, the cleaner would probably have had the sense and confidence to go up to her and say ‘are you okay?’ you know, the sensible thing to do. I on the other hand am not used to talking to strangers so all I managed was eye contact, a pitying smile and the words ‘has someone died’. She looked at me like I’d just escaped, gave me a very nervous giggle and turned away. We have not spoken since but equally I haven’t seen her speaking to anyone else either so I think I’m in the clear. She now sits shaking next to aggressive mum, teary eyed and ready to run every time there’s a loud noise.
Mum number 3 in the close by group is part of what I refer to as the ‘beautiful family’. She is gut wrenchingly pretty, always impeccably dressed and made-up and perpetually serene. Her husband is painfully handsome and I often find myself staring at him open mouthed – very embarrassing at my age. She has 2 sons – the youngest is in 5 year old’s class and by all accounts is the Hugh Hefner of reception children. His older brother has moved on to become a very popular child and always looks like he’s just been snogging someone. You just know that these children will continue to grow in popularity and you can’t even console yourself with the possibility of them being ugly teenagers when you look at their parents. They are also very rich. Not that I’m bitter…
Now the cleaner chastised me severely at the end of soft play hell when she found out that I do already know beautiful mum but have made no effort to become friends with her. She is infact a lovely, down to earth woman who I have had encounters with many times over the last few years. I have no problem with her and she is always very friendly when I see her, no reason infact not to get to know her better and make a new friend. Except, as I explained to the cleaner, I do not make a habit of pursuing friendships with people when I know I cannot maintain my own standards to match theirs. My current circle of friends fully expect to see me in clothes I have pulled from the bottom of the washing basket, wearing no make-up, hair scraped back and angry face firmly fixed. They also know we are usually skint and I feel no pressure to pretend otherwise. The cleaner was not impressed and I know why. She is a woman that has enough confidence to carry herself among any group of people. She has the Essex attitude down to a tee which not only makes her approachable but makes it seem easy for her to approach others. But anyway, my life is such that I am only just acclimatising to having friends as an adult and I do not need the complication of friends that I feel inferior to.
That said, the cleaner, the beautiful mum and the unsociable blogger did all have coffee together after the party for a couple of hours and it was very nice so we’ll see if polite smiles become chatter in September when we return to the school run.
My other observations of soft play hell consist of militant lunch supervision and the cling on 8 year old.
At a 5 year old’s birthday party is it acceptable to bring your 8 year old with you? Usually I would say yes but in the case of this particular 8 year old the answer is definitely no. Now, I may be on my own in admitting this but I know I’m not alone in the concept. There are some children in this world that I just don’t like. Some of them I have come to dislike over time as I’ve gotten to know them, others I take an instant dislike to and this girl is sadly one of them. Now I’m all for making allowances when it comes to upbringing, issues and lack of parenting but I can’t help myself from sometimes meeting a child and thinking ‘I’m glad you’re not one of mine’. She took to carrying my daughter around like a baby shortly after we arrived which did not go down well and she also spent quite some time sitting with us asking when she could sing justin beiber – when soft play hell freezes over was my reaction to that. I’m sure in her own way she is a sweet child that struggles to makes friends and will eventually come into herself and find a way of being less annoying. However, after firmly planting herself at the head of the party table and loudly declaring how much she wished she was allowed party food too because she’s oh so hungry while her father took a not so subtle step back, my opinion was set.
Which brings me neatly to lunch and my final point. If you ever subject yourself to a party at soft play hell in the future then you will see this for yourself.
After pointing 5 year old in the direction of the table, making sure she had a drink and enough junk food to make her morbidly obese I sat back down a safe distance away from the party. And then I saw it. Apparently I have the only child in Suffolk that can eat unsupervised. Every parent there stationed themselves firmly behind their child like an army General and did not abandon their post until long after the yoghurts were gone. A military line of arm-crossed, fixed stare parents, watching over their child to ensure what exactly? That the child next to them didn’t spit in their squash? So they didn’t have to reach out and pick a single item of food out for themselves? Or perhaps it is a new competition that I was unaware of? Your child ate 15 chicken nuggets but mine ate only cucumber and dust. Your child is probably hyperactive due to the 4 cups of sugary lemonade consumed whereas mine is centred and calm due to all the chamomile tea? Can their children really not be trusted to eat alone or is it that these parents are laying claim to their children to make it apparent they attended the party. I now fear that only the cleaner and the beautiful mum know that I was a party parent and the rest of the crowd may believe me to be some weirdo who sidled her way into a 5 year old’s birthday just to sit and watch.
The answer is clear. I must either be more involved and interactive at the next one, socialise, network, play and supervise lunch like a bodyguard OR stay home and send 5 year old with a friend. It’s a tough one.

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