Well, you might want to read on. Tonight it’s all about preparing for the party. Forewarned is forearmed and all that…

One of the benefits of your babe-in-arms being just that, rather than a babe-in-yet-another-situation-in-which-he-could-die, is that for a while “proper” birthday parties for children stay off the radar. First birthdays especially are best spent in a pub where you can suitably congratulate the parents on surviving the first year. Second birthdays can be reasonably contained at home with a couple of pals and the rest of your family as up until this point they haven’t got a fudging clue what a birthday is. BUT by the time the small people reach the age of three they are far too savvy about the nature of birthdays, parties and presents to be palmed off with a cake from Co-op and a few flaccid balloons. This is when the real partying kicks in, although sadly not in the way you were once used to.

Planning parties in particular is a pain in the proverbial but something that is rarely talked about is that attending birthday parties can also be surprisingly stressful. The Eldest is now three and a half, and in the last few months we have accumulated considerable experience of “party attendance” and its associated challenges…

The Preparation. Birthday parties these days often come accompanied by a theme. “Oh, shit”, your first response? Yes, so was mine but don’t panic as there is a distinctly finite list of possibilities. As individual as we like to imagine our small people are, the fact is that most of the little darlings will want a party that involves dressing up as a superhero, pirate, princess, or any character from Frozen (except that Prince Hans. Any child who wants to be him needs to be watched. Closely). The cost of arriving appropriately attired can therefore initially seem excessive, until you realise that he/ she will be getting more use out of that flammable Spiderman onesie than you are necessarily comfortable with. Once it is a few parties deep, and takes on the distinct aroma of bouncy-castle sweat and party-food, you’ll be wondering whether it might be time to put it in the wash. Stop. Right. There. Not on your Nelly, lady. Remember who you’re dealing with here.

Your three-year-old does not care that they smell and look like the discarded, shiny paper bag that was once wrapped around a Greg’s greasy cheese and onion pasty. Your mum-mind must surely know by now that the second the washing machine door locks will be the exact same second that your son/daughter’s need to dress up will attain hitherto uncharted altitude. Step away from the washing machine. Comfort yourself with the scientific fact (don’t hold me to that) that at three they are developmentally programmed to want to “fit in” therefore to dispatch him/her to the party smelling of sausage roll is actually an act of shit-hot parenting – they will all smell like that.

In some ways The Eldest is entirely typical – most of her fancy-dress costumes have indeed seen better days, or possibly the inside of a deep fat fryer judging by the stains BUT in an annoying impressive display of loyalty to Elsa, Ana, Cinderella and Snow White, every party is a Princess Party. To be fair, while I am eternally disappointed by her refusal to dress as anything other than a sappy-Cinderella-type it has never bothered her that she is the only child wearing an Elsa dress amongst a sea of Supermen. While I cringe at the sight of her skipping through a melee of pirates in her sparkly, singing Ana dress, it never stops her climbing trees and ultimately she is at her most confident with a long skirt to swish, swirl and trip over.

Essentially, therefore, dress your child in whatever they will agree to wear. Life is too short to fight that particular crap battle and sometimes leaving the house with the small person actually in clothes is an achievement. And also consider that this torture can actually double up as a handy bullshit-ometer because if any of the other mums do care that your child is dressed as Sleeping Beauty instead of Superman, you will know exactly who to avoid in the future.

Present buying. Once upon a time I’d have had birthday presents bought and wrapped in advance. Not any more. These days I can barely form a sentence in advance of it tripping out of my mouth therefore more often than not (every time) I find myself in a toy shop panic-buying a present merely hours before the party starts. Now, as reported by many parents and other victims of torture, chronic sleep deprivation reduces an individual’s ability to make good decisions. Shopping for a child’s birthday present in such hurried style therefore only exacerbates the agony. So a reasonable question to ask might be why did I decide on a recent occasion that it would be a good idea to take The Eldest with me? Just, why?

Well, in “good mum” style I had been telling The Eldest all morning that we were going to buy the birthday boy a present and that was all. Nothing for her, only for him. Why? Why? Why I ever said that I have no earthly clue. It left me nowhere to retreat to. Idiot. I am sure you can guess where this is going because “Oh ok mummy, nothing for me, that’s fine,” is a sentence not ever uttered by your average three year old. A fact that I seemed to have overlooked.

Upon entering the shop, she immediately made a beeline for a 6-inch-tall glittery purple, pink and white Unicorn. “This isn’t for Conor,” she ventured with a concerning level of confidence. “This is a treat. For me.” My heart dropping down my trouser legs and disappearing out of the door, I took a deep breath and replied, “No, sweetheart, not today. We’re here to buy a present for Conor, remember.” Oh. Shit. The brow creased, the corners of the mouth turned down. Oh. SHIT. In front of me opened the tiny-toothed gates of a cavernous, black hole of death, and if it weren’t for the noise coming out of it, I’d have wished for it to suck me in, chew me up, and dispose of me in another galaxy far far far away. In a remarkable impression of a WWII air-raid-siren The Noise wound its way up while I grimaced smiled and said “I’m sorry sweetheart” in a desperate lighthearted tone hoping that this might fool her into thinking it wasn’t that big a deal. Ha. Bollocks to that.

She trailed me around the shop wailing that she wanted a toy while I tried to string a coherent thought together about what the birthday boy might like. In the manner of a moth trapped in a small space, her full-throttle assault pummelled my ear-drums and I struggled to see the toys, nevermind select one. I kept giving her the occasional squeeze and pat on the head, to remind her that I still loved her despite her effing awful screaming. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? All this Googling of what to do when the small people lose their shit has told me that even when they are behaving like a Gremlin high on crystal meth, small people still need to feel loved. Apparently this helps them move through the out of control emotions they are experiencing out into the light of remorse (imagine me saying that last part in the breathy, gentle manner of a yogi exhorting the power of peace, man) or some such shit. Not that its complete nonsense of course. I mean, when I’m doing the ugly-cry, someone sticking me in the corner with the umbrellas is definitely not going to make me think “Oh, I feel better”. So shit-hot-adequate-parent that I am, I did exactly as I was told. Except every time I gave her a cuddle I can only think that she interpreted it as a chink in my resolve as she then would ask again for the unicorn. Again I would have to say no, and again the world was put at very real risk of being sucked into oblivion down the yawning chasm of her throat…

To cut a short story long (this carried on for some time), we made it out of the shop only slightly broken and carrying a wrapped present. They wrapped it for me! This reassures me as perhaps it means that I am not the only parent who buys a present for a child on the way to their party. It’s not just me. Although perhaps they just felt really sorry for me. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the shop was PACKED – I think everyone there was on their way to a birthday party, and was panic-buying a present too. I’m really not alone!

Lesson learned? Don’t take a small person into a toy shop only to tell her none of the toys are for her. No, I can’t believe it has taken me three and a half years to figure this one out either.

Coming tomorrow… actually attending the party. Hold onto your helium filled balloons, folks…