There are certain things to do with parenting which, although parents of every class engage in them, still seem to be the preserve of a certain type of upper-middle-class mother (I use “upper-middle-class” in the vaguest and most annoying sense of the word). For instance, “doing the school run” has become one of these. Long before Gill Hornby gave it the mummy-lit treatment in The Hive (which I’m sort of enjoying), the simple act of dropping off your kids at the school gates has felt like something only posh, Polly Filla-types do. I blame Easy Living’s School Runway for the fact that, the first time I had to take my son to school, I honestly expected to get back to my car and find it had been magically transformed into a 4×4 (for better or worse, it hadn’t).
“Throwing a children’s party” has become another of these “just for posh parents only it isn’t really” things. This Friday’s Daily Mail reports that the average cost of a child’s party “soars to £309 as parents battle to outdo one another”. Indeed, because that’s totally what parenting is like. When we’re not panicking about looking catwalk-ready in the playground, we’re stressing over who’s throwing the coolest parties for their tots (to be fair, according to the survey by VoucherCodes.co.uk only 14% of those interviewed reported feeling this particular pressure but hey, it’s always a nice conceit to pretend parents are every bit as petty and superficial as their kids. Which we’re not. AT ALL, okay?).
Today my partner and I threw a birthday party for our four-year-old. It wasn’t his actual birthday – that was two weeks ago – but due to our organisational “issues” he believes the big day was today. So anyhow, here I am, throwing a real, live children’s party. Not only that, but I’m now writing a mummy blog post about it. It’s not quite the image of alternative, non-conformist parenting I hoped to live up to but hey-ho. At the very least, though, I’d like to point out that it’s not quite how the Daily Mail would have you believe.
In my experience – which is admittedly limited – throwing a children’s party is not like engaging in a massive, flashy buy-a-thon in which you attempt to put one over on the sad, loser children of others. It’s more like being in an episode of The Apprentice, only one in which you are the only team and the whole focus is on how incompetent you’re going to be now that you’ve been tasked with organising a one-off event for a difficult client and no, you can’t now say “but I’ve never done this before” because didn’t you put “parent” on your CV? It’s truly awful.
From the moment you get going, you have a constant Sir Alan voiceover in your head, enumerating all your varied fuck-ups. If you dwell on it for too long, you even start to see real life in camera shots, panning back to show unimpressive, underpopulated venues or to focus in on distinctly amateur-looking birthday cakes. When people leave the room you wonder if they’re going off to tell a hidden camera they’re “a bit worried” about your decision-making and delegation skills. You can even pre-empt the boardroom telling-off that never actually happens, but which you know yourself to fully deserve.
Last year I threw a party for my elder son but had it on a Friday evening in a local soft-play barn. I booked the cheapest option at the cheapest time, with the venue providing all the food, and it was fine, despite feeling like a total cop-out (I did at least muster up the strength to make my Jabba the Hutt cake). This time, my partner and I decided to do it “properly”. Not as properly as my parents used to do it – they used to invite children to our actual house, but I fear other children won’t have as highly developed immune systems as mine – but more properly than last time. So we booked a local school and sorted out the food and entertainment ourselves (I use the term “sorted out” loosely).
Had this been an actual episode of The Apprentice, here are just a few of the “highlights” that would have been noted from Team Incompetence:
- Poor budget management. The team spent [shamefully ridiculous amount] on total crap at Sainsbury’s because it was a) pirate-themed and b) cheap if you only looked at the price per unit. Altogether, pirate disposable tableware, party bags, eye patches, telescopes, balloons etc. add up to a HUGE amount. Sadly, the final tally showed this expenditure was not recovered in kind by presents.
- Lack of marketing strategy. Four-year-old only wanted to invite a very select few (four people) to his party. Instead of using the well-known tactic of assuming that kids haven’t a bloody clue what they really want, Team Incompetence went along with this before panicking at the last minute that no one would turn up (especially given four-year-old’s well-documented, if brief, “mini-Begbie out of Transpotting” phases of nursery thuggishness). So more invitations were sent, with days to go. In the end there were seven children in total, albeit three of them siblings of those who’d been invited. Many a sandwich and an over-priced eye patch is now going spare.
- Pass the parcel ratio fail. “How many layers do you add? Do you put a consolation sweet in each? Does everyone have to get one?” “I dunno, I’m not the bloody expert.” “Pass the parcel was your idea.” “I see. That’s what you’re going to say in the boardroom, isn’t it?” “Um…”
- The madcap “helium balloons tied to balls” idea. Looked really cool for five minutes before all the balls rolled around and somehow knotted the balloons together into one big mass. Parents of guests spent half an hour untangling them, balloons spent five minutes getting tangled up again. “They haven’t thought this one through” says imaginary Nick.
- “I like to move it, move it”. Verses of which are not in fact suitable for children’s party background music. In future, best stick to “Gangnam style” with its — to my sons at least — mysterious “saxilator”.
All in all, it was just terribly cringe. Had it been a normal party I could have just worked on getting everyone drunk but that’s not the done thing (it probably was in the seventies, which is how I imagine my parents coped). The little people were having a whale of a time just tearing about being little but I couldn’t work out exactly which “party” aspect of it was adding any value for them. To be honest, it’s not even clear to me what “party” means to them (a nice time with friends, during which you’re briefly forced to sit down and eat sandwiches when you’d rather be running about?).
My son, at least, was oblivious to my worries. He actually fell asleep this evening telling me “my pirate party was beautiful”. As a parent, what more could you want? A week off work to recover, that’s what. Not least because tomorrow it’s back to doing the sodding school run.