Small children are like insulation.
Not that I'm suggesting you try lining the loft with them. Well, probably not anyway. (They'd complain too much to make it worth it.) Then again, I do know from experience that strapping one to your front will make you very warm, very quickly. They also have a tendency to lie around in awkward places such as doorways - despite being irritating and potentially dangerous, this does have its advantages in terms of draft exclusion.
I'm really talking about the way they offer shielding from public embarrassment. If you have small children with you, you can get away with almost anything. Wearing a pink, woolly hat and using a Power Puff Girls umbrella? Check. Discussing the contents of nappies with complete strangers? Check. Singing 137 out-of-tune verses of The Wheels on the Bus on the bus? Check. Skipping down the street? Check. Leaving a puddle of pee in the middle of a shop? Check.
Honestly, the world is your oyster. Should anyone challenge you, all that's necessary is to look sheepish and wave a small child in their face. They'll shake their head with a mixture of understanding and pity and then let you on your way. It's like having a reusable Get out of
Make the most of it while you can. My kids are older now and not quite as cute as they used to be. Marie can still smile sweetly to extricate us from the worst disasters but people are starting to catch on. Lewis and Fraser, meanwhile, have gone from protective assets to social liabilities. They look old enough to have developed some concept of tact but they've really only got to the point where they're loud and understandable when they say something inappropriate. You know, like, 'This is boring,' during the minute's silence at church on Remembrance Sunday.
Yep, gone are the days when all we had to put a brave face on during the service was Lewis' gurgly breast-feeding or a hasty retreat to the changing facilities after one of Fraser's explosive bowel movements. Now we have to persuade the kids to leave the detailed discussion of Hindu festivals they've been studying at school until later.
This was particularly important the other day, when we were helping our minister, Mike, lead the worship. Despite plenty of rehearsals, there really was no telling what the three of them might say or do.
When it came down to it, however, the boys curled up on a pew and pretended to be invisible so we wouldn't force them to get up in front of everyone and do anything. This was slightly disappointing but markedly better than them getting to the front and launching into the alternative version of Jingle Bells. (The one involving Batman's poor personal hygiene that we sang when we were at primary school.) I reassured them that they didn't have to take part if they didn't want to and left them in the duck-and-cover position. Sarah took the chance to coach Marie on her prayer one last time. I went to make some frantic final preparations for my childrens' talk.
When Mike came to check on me later, I was still in the gents with a foot pump.
"Five minutes until the organist launches into the first song, whether we're there or not. If no one's keeping an eye on her, it'll be something from Evita. We need to go. You ready?"
"Almost. I think there's only one more." I jammed my beach ball further into sink. "Pass me some of that tape."
Mike looked at me with professional concern. "Should I ask?"
"Probably best not to," I said, craning my head round, looking for a tell-tale trail of bubbles in the water.
Mike's pretty good with the kids but many other people I've heard give a childrens' talk haven't been so great. Normal practice seems to be to concentrate on a visual aid, such as a ration book, ThighMaster, Rubik's Cube or rotary telephone. Most of the talk is spent explaining about this object the kids have never seen before, then the last minute or so is taken up by drawing an analogy as to how the thing is exactly like God.
I've always been a little suspect of this approach but having children of my own has only made me more wary. It's much better to tell kids straight rather than dressing it up with metaphors and finger puppets. Keep it short and simple. They may not agree with you but at least they'll have taken in what you were trying to say. Leave the finger puppetry for the adults - it'll keep them focused while you tell them something they've heard a dozen times before but using an analogy that will hopefully finally make them understand it.
That's all very well in theory, of course. Unfortunately, having the courage to break with tradition is something else entirely. Not to mention that, what with the kids being ill, I'd left things to the last moment. My goal for my talk had shifted away from entertaining enlightenment and was heading more in the direction of survival.
I took comfort in the fact that I'd at least chosen a visual aid that the children could recognise.
"Yes!" I spotted the leak, grabbed a towel, wiped the ball dry and applied the tape. Then I set to work with the foot pump.
Mike shook his head. "Just look me in the eye and promise you're going to do better than the student we had over the summer."
"What? The one with the arc welder?"
"Oh, yeah, I certainly hope so." I finished inflating and we hurried out into the corridor. "I'll definitely leave fewer scorch marks on the choir."
Mike appeared less than reassured. "So how is a leaky beach ball like...?"
"I told you not to ask."
"Fine," he said. "I'll ask something else. Have you taken the time to figure out where you're going with your life yet?"
"You're asking me that now?"
"Are you ever less pre-occupied?"
"Well, I'm normally less nervous."
"Which isn't the same."
And then we were through the door and into the church. The organist scowled and the intro to Don't Cry for Me Argentina morphed awkwardly into the first verse of Once in Royal David's City. There was nothing left to do but get on with the service...
In the end, things went reasonably well. Lewis kept quiet, Fraser decided he would read one of the readings after all and people laughed in the right places when Sarah and I did a sketch about Mary and Joseph. Marie's prayer was a hit. It included saying thank you for the usual suspects, such as friends, family, the rain which helps the flowers grow and all the animals. For some reason, slugs and snails got a special mention, though, and bedtime toys. Everyone was so delighted by this, it helped me get away with a slightly incoherent talk about beach balls.
Mike has already signed us up to help out again in the new year. I'm just hoping I still have some insulation left by then...
Yours in a woman's world,