I have never felt as out of my depth as this has made me feel. I’m not usually adverse to putting myself in situations that are unfamiliar but this was different: there was secret handshakes and preferred topics of conversation, Christ, there was even songs to learn. I’m 38 years old and had no idea that by singing ‘sleeping bunnies’ I would have to enquire through the medium of song, whether or not my child was ill.
It was all his fault.
The beautiful little future heir of our amassed pile of fuck all was bored, not fidgety- too long a car journey bored; but actually to his core screaming out for more stimulus. The kind of stimulus that can only come through interaction and contact with other children. He has no siblings and sadly our families and friends are too far away geographically for it to be a reasonable journey for an 18month old to make on a bus on his own.
My much more payable wife works fulltime so it fell to me to take the little future captain of Scotland to a mother and toddler group.We are new to our present house and area,an ardent attempt to downsize;move closer to my wife’s work and negate the need to have two cars.In theory?genius. In reality? not so genius.
I found all the relevant information pretty easily. Older women directed, instructed and informed me of the myriad of activities from their swivel chairs in council run offices of child services. They were nice enough, never completely patronising or condescending in the face of really dumb questions. It seems the church runs most groups where we live, my atheistic hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I neednt have worried, stupidity aside, there was no religious overtones in any of the groups, even the Salvation army’s obligatory end of group prayer was ridiculed by the uncontrollable band of little hell midget’s that passed as toddlers, refusing to give the nice Polish woman the requisite amount of silence to thank her God for stuff.
I’ve always believed strongly in the phrase ‘misenplac’, being prepared for every eventuality; admittedly professionally not personally. Personally i’ve always been a disaster. With the little future nobel prize winner in my custody, I like to think that i have covered most scenarious. His miracle bag of stuff essentially contains a full wardrobe change, toiletries, snacks, drinks and enough wipes to smear snot out of one orifice and into all other remaining orifices.
The mile and a half walk to any of the groups is relatively pleasant, ignoring the 9am populus that seems to consist of tradesman drinking tea in their vans, the really miserable looking elderly and spotted teenagers ironically chosing sportswear to hide their rotund figures while they buy crisps and fizzy juice from the local co-op. A shop that puts prepared mashed potatoes in its vegetable section and only runs special offers on things that contain 80% sugar.
I talk to the little future leader of the U.N pretty much all the way there, his pram faces outwards and I want him to know that I’m still there and also I’m sure he’s feeling the same sense of trepidation and bewilderment. Conversationally it’s very similar to accompanying a foreign Alzheimer’s patient to a poetry recital, but god dammit it’s cute when he identifies a ‘doggie’ or a ‘bus’ from 60 yards out and more importantly we’re in it together, there is generational solidarity.
Arriving at a group, through a church foyer, has a sense of a cult about it, not the setting but the prams and pushchairs all stacked like the starting grid of a Mothercare grand prix. The little future platinum selling artist is a little nervous and unsure of his new surroundings and when unchained from his vehicle’s manacles, grips my leg while i unpack and arrange our paraphernalia in a manner least attractive to tea leaf mums fond of stealing brik a brak.
I sign us in and drop my pound coin in the wee metal tea-pot, open the door marked sternly – ‘for safety reasons make sure the door is closed’- and enter the hall.
There are fucking children everywhere.
There must be about 20-30 mums scattered around the vestibule, some in groups, some surrounded by packs of baying toddlers, others sipping coffee alone. Nearly everyone looks tired. I smile the smile of hello without commitment or familiarity and ease the little future Turner prize winner towards toys and loud plastic things that carry toddler pheromones.
Some mums are nice, exchanging pleasantries and looking genuinely affable, some are quiet and totally absorbed by their offspring, some sit in ready formed groups. There is a few who look genuinely relieved to be in adult company, even if it’s just the superficial non intrusive pleasantries. A dichotomy of social class, circumstances, aspirations and life styles.
I’m the only man.
I struggle with conversation that is entirely child centric, don’t get me wrong the little future lottery winner is the best thing to have happened since a Scottish grand slam and I can shout from the roof tops about his escapades, development, idiosyncrasies, his bodily functions and regulatory of said functions all in chronological order if i felt so inclined. I don’t.
I completely understand the importance of support and advice from knowledgable peers especially on topics like the multiplicity of keeping junior healthy and happy and the conformation that what is happening to you or around you is perfectly normal. From what I’ve been exposed to however I havent seen that side, although i am sure it exists. Instead I’ve witnessed a little banality that is nothing more than a bit of a whinge at less than ideal domesticity.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a mum and that my experience in certain areas is second-hand that prevents me from assimilating into Mother & toddler culture. I’m pretty happy with that though. I’ve had some nice chats with a few mums, just never below the parental facade line. I tend to have a nodding acquaintance now with a few of the mums, which is a result of 5 minute disclosures over a matter of weeks. I must try harder I think..I just don’t know how to get past the initial conversations to delve deeper, even marginally. The responsibility probably lies firmly at my door, but i wonder if it could be because of my chromosome deficiency. Maybe it’s just the groups I go to that there seems to be a gender divide.
An incident that happened a few weeks in was just beautifully awkward.
I was straddling/ sitting on a low counter, the little future Time magazine’s man of the year was playing beside me with a plastic Noah’s arc. An arc that incidently had one of each animal but two Noah’s, i never mentioned the gay Noah to the organisers, but the arc’s interior did look vibrant and colourful. I was talking to a nice mum about something and wasn’t aware of another mother on her hands and knees chasing a plastic toy behind me. I turned to pick up an errant escapee from gay Noah’s arc and was confronted with the sight of two large white breasts barely contained within a loose top. I wasn’t looking intentionally but i clocked them, the mother then looked up and clocked me clocking them and i adverted my gaze in what i hoped was a nonchalant oblivious manner. Two minites later the mother tied a scarf around her neck,obscuring her cleavage from unwanted viewing.
I felt a pervert.
Surrounded by toddlers and in a church, it kind of brought home there is a difference that i can’t get away from. A man amongst them brings another set of preconceptions to bare, thankfully considering the frequency of breast-feeding mothers around me, these aren’t that wide spread. But they will probably pop up from time to time.
If I’m not inadvertently being socially graceless to the surrounding mums than I am playing with my son with assorted toys we didn’t have to buy in front of an audience we didn’t invite. It all takes a while to get used to. You sometimes feel that your validity seeps away a little when you’re mimicking a cartoon character to a nearly 2-year-old who requires constant reaffirmation of the why, who and what’s. Maybe it would be easier if we had friends or family nearer that could provide distraction or perspective on the polarised nature of child absorption.
An interesting experience has been the over-riding impulse to protect the little future monarch from any kind of assailant, whether that’s an emotionally crippled two-year old or an over zealous little shit with flappy, slappy hands. My first impulse was to push the offending child over and out of the little future astronaut’s personal space.
I didn’t. Instead i was mature and understanding and merely intervened, talking about being nice and playing gentle and learning to share. But my first thought had been one of violence, the need to defend, protect and shield the wee guy from harm. (Author’s note -no little shits,no matter how violent or obnoxious or unpleasant have been pushed over by me yet).
The high light of every group for the little future doctor of philosophy is always the sing songs. A circle of mums and their offspring clutching donated maracas or tambourines sing and act out the accompanying gestures. There is literally hundreds of them.Row, row, row your boat, sleeping bunnies, old Macdonald, wind the bobbin up, incey wincey spider, wheels on the bus, peter rabbit, the grand old Duke of York and ring-a-ring of roses etc etc. There’s more but my brain is refusing to remember them like some trauma victim being overcome with amnesia. Every single song has its own choreographed routine. Every single mother knew them. The little future president of the IMF and I didn’t know any of them. Judging by the faces around me, I don’t think i could have made my parenting deficiencies anymore obvious. Any sense of being an adult and not just a dad is eroded with musical accompaniment every time i use my hands to make bunny ears in a crude approximation of a fly plagued Peter rabbit.
He loves his groups and that is really all that matters,the groups are generally nice and comfortable to be in, if occasionally awkward. The organisers range from smiley serial killers, to the fast show zany office guy characters; again generally very nice, even if there 50p coffee is just tepid fecal liquid.
The nicest thing is learning that the little future poet Laureate has a really lovely social personality, he’s never aggressive or demanding, sullen or unresponsive. He works the room, flirting with all the mums, smiling with all of his green eyes and sharing unprompted with the other children.He was even understanding when I acquired a groupie in the shape of a constant bogey dribbling little boy with a round head and pinched smile. He wasn’t jealous or possessive just seemed happy to share.
Invariably he’ll be asleep by the time we get home and for some reason it seems to always rain on the homeward bound journey. My admission has to be that I look forward to our groups now because I see the little future Richard Dawkins developing and really surprisingly maybe I am too.