You are not a rubbish parent. Just because some mum you met has her kids signed up for three stimulating activities every day doesn't mean you are a lazy waste of space. Who knows how much help she's getting, how much she's exaggerating and what potent cocktail of medication she's taking? As a full-time parent with a small child, you are probably working an eighty hour week and suffering from sleep deprivation. You don't need to add guilt to that. Even good parents need to let Scooby Doo take some of the burden of childcare from time to time. Look after yourself. Sneak off for a coffee when you can. Have quiet days. Don't worry you haven't taken Sam to a museum for a few months or even left the house since Sunday. Do the amount of stuff that keeps you and your family sane and happy. Some stimulation is great. Too much just creates tired, crotchety know-it-alls. That's not really something to aim for...
I took the children out Saturday morning. We went to the kids' club at the cinema in the shopping centre. This is fantastic. It's cheap and it counts as getting them out of the house away from the TV even though it's really just taking them on a bus to an absolutely enormous TV and then giving them sweets.
Marie's still a little young and so I dropped her off in the centre's creche for a couple of hours. I'd normally leave her at home but Sarah had to go into work. Manager Steve is trying to impress the top brass and for some reason he believes doing stupid overtime is more impressive than actually getting the job done without needing to do overtime. Sarah is seriously considering using Voodoo on him.
I went into the cinema with the boys and there was an unusually long queue. That there was a queue at all at quarter to ten on a Saturday morning was fairly strange. Still, we waited... and waited... and waited. The film was nearly starting before we got anywhere near the front and found out what was going on. Just ahead of us were a group of nine-year-olds and ahead of them was a mum and her seven-year-old. The mum got to the desk and asked, "What's on?" My mind boggled. Who turns up at the cinema with a young child without checking the listings? More than that, the woman had been standing in a queue for fifteen minutes with nothing to look at but a vast bank of brightly illuminated screens telling her what was on. Nonetheless, the man behind the desk patiently explained there was a choice between Cars, Deck the Halls and Barnyard. The woman discussed this choice loudly with her son. They settled on Cars, bought their tickets and the queue finally moved forwards. The three boys reached the desk. "What's on?" asked the tallest. The ticket guy patiently explained their choice again, although he had to be a little louder this time in order to be heard above the noise of me banging my head against a pillar. The youths then had an argument about whether they wanted to see a Christmas film in March. Eventually they decided they didn't. They bought tickets for Barnyard and then walked off without them.
The ticket guy and I shook our heads at each other. He called them back, gave them their tickets and then it was our turn. "Three for Barnyard," I said, handing over the money. He politely gave me my tickets and the correct change. I have to suspect they weren't paying him anywhere near enough.
We had a quick (but expensive) stop at the pick'n'mix display, grabbed some popcorn and then hurried into the film. We were just in time to be mildly entertained for an hour and a half.
Last year was the year of the CGI movie. I can think of seven without even trying; most of them involving cute, fluffy creatures. Of course Pixar used to be the masters of this kind of thing, with only Shrek being memorable among all the wannabees of the computer generated world. Then Cars came along. I can only imagine how the planning meeting for that must have gone:
Disney Exec: We'd like something with more obvious marketing potential. You know, something where the toy is actually on the screen. I was thinking maybe Toy Story 3.
Pixar Producer: Look, no. I'm not going to tell you again.
Disney Exec: Sorry, sorry. You don't want to sully your creative integrity. I get it. How about a film about cars then. Kids love cars.
Pixar Producer: Yeah, maybe. I can't think of a good story off-hand, though.
Disney Exec: Just recycle something.
Pixar Producer: Er... Did you have something particular in mind?
Disney Exec: You could remake Days of Thunder.
Pixar Producer: That's a little obvious. We might get sued.
Disney Exec: OK, how about Doc Hollywood.
Pixar Producer: Yes, that's definitely... less obvious. How about we kind of mix them together?
Disney Exec: Sounds great. Have a six figure bonus. Oh, and can you make it dull, at least half an hour too long and impenetrably American?
Pixar Producer: Er, why?
Disney Exec: No reason.
Pixar Producer: OK, I'll see what I can do. (He slinks off, wishing he'd agreed to another Toy Story).
Disney Exec: You do that. (A week later, he jumps ship and goes off to plan Sony's PlayStation 3 marketing strategy).
Barnyard was OK but nothing special and it gave the impression of having been created by townies. The farmer is a vegan so it's really more of an animal sanctuary he runs than a farm. Also, the male cows have udders. Never mind that the cows walk around on two legs when nobody's looking, it's the udders that break my suspension of disbelief. Ho well. My kids are convinced that milk comes from supermarkets anyway.
At least the moral message of the film was clear: 'A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.' Again, this coming from a cow was a little odd but I had the kids repeating it on the way home.
We collected Marie from the creche and were about to set off for the bus when a gaggle of smiling, highly-scrubbed children rushed over to us, closely followed by their immaculate, beaming mother. It was Julia from our street, and her kids. They all seemed delighted to see us.
Julia is known as SuperMum in our house. (If there was some form of punctuation which signified a roll of the eyes when saying a word then SuperMum would definitely have it. Maybe I should invent some. How about Super~Mum?) She has four children under the age of ten WHOM SHE HOME~SCHOOLS. She also has a successful career as an artist. Last time I asked how she was, she brought me round a pie to say thankyou. Not only had she made the pie herself, she had grown the apples as a project with her kids. The only thing me and my kids can grow is sunflowers. (Our pies taste terrible).
Super~Mum's most annoying trait, however, is that she constantly suggests I perform heroic feats of parenting. Kids bored? Take them on a daytrip to Aberdeen. Kids not eating? Cook them a traditional Bolivian meal. Kids afraid of a bit of dirt? Go on a family pot-holing expedition. Kids watching too much TV? Tip the TV out the window and enroll them in an acrobatics class instead.
These ideas are, of course, insane. The very thought of attempting any of them with my three children makes we want to go and have a lie down in a darkened room. Merely contemplating them sends dizzying tendrils of madness scurrying though my brain. Unfortunately, these aren't the crazy witterings of an American child psychologist or of a creepy elderly gentleman on the bus. Julia has actually done these things herself. With four children. I know this for a fact - I salvaged a battered flatscreen from her shrubbery and fixed it up and now her kids are always lurking outside our lounge window desperately trying to catch a glimpse of Scooby Doo. Since our lounge is one storey up, I can only assume that the acrobatics class is going well.
There were a lot of greetings and polite questions and then it transpired that they were going bowling. We were invited to join them. Before I knew it, I was wearing slippy shoes and trying to prevent children from dropping heavy spherical objects on my toes. I don't really know how it happened. Julia just didn't seem to understand how an unplanned excursion might be in any way troublesome or tiring. It didn't help that Fraser loves bowling and jumped up and down at the prospect. If I hadn't gone, I would have felt both rubbish and guilty.
I shouldn't have gone. It was a nightmare. I had to help the boys bowl while keeping Marie entertained and listening to Julia regale me with the joys of eating Bolivian snacks down a mineshaft. My multi-tasking skills were tested to their limits. Fraser kept bowling too slowly, the ball drifting to a halt against the bumper halfway down the lane. Fortunately, our lane was right at the end so I could walk down beside it and give the ball a shove. Unfortunately, the final time I did this I turned round to discover that, despite being told not to several~times, Fraser had taken his second bowl. This was bad. That he'd decided to bowl his sister was somewhat worse. A blur of fluffy pink whizzed towards me, arms outstretched and yelling, "I get strike! I get strike!"
I grabbed a fistful of knitted jumper as it went past and yanked Marie to safety. "You not carry me," she complained. "I am ball!"
We managed to get away soon after that but I was shattered. I flicked on Scooby Doo as soon as we got home and lay on the sofa for a rest. A couple of hours later, Julia popped round with a pie to say thankyou for the lovely time. I felt the need to stand up to her; to explain that it hadn't been that lovely really; to suggest she consider the feelings of other parents slightly more carefully; to get her to give her own kids a break. I chickened out, though. Instead, I invited her and the kids along to Scary Karen's parent and toddler group.
I know this was bad and wrong. I'm hoping their evil superpowers will somehow neutralise each other but there's a good chance that their very meeting will create a rift in space and time that will cause the entire universe to unravel. I'll try to be a stronger man next time.
Get some sleep while you can.
Yours in a woman's world,