As a parent there are certain things that society prepares you to deal with.
Sleepless nights. Learning to walk. Going to school.
But there are other things which don’t get spoken about so much. Situations where you just have to extemporise.
Like the first time you see green poo.
Prime in this latter category is learning to deal with the fact that your child is likely to have a better social life than you.
Ok, maybe that’s just me. After all there are inmates of Guatanamo Bay who have a better social life than me. But I hope you see where I’m going.
Of all the things which have surprised my about parenthood, nothing has been more unexpected than the industry of birthday parties.
And I use the word industry carefully.
Because it is a relentless, calculated money-making carousel of bouncy castles, chicken nuggets, tears, jealousy and making awkward small talk with other parents.
In the first half of this year alone my little boy was invited to more than 30 birthday parties.
That’s more than one a week.
That’s more parties than I’ve been to in my entire life.
He hasn’t even started school yet.
That’s pretty much all of our leisure time from January to June built around attending birthday parties.
There have been parties where I’m not sure if my son had ever so much as spoken to the celebrant.
On more than one occasion I’ve not known who the birthday boy or girl was until they blew the candles out on the cake.
I’ve found myself singing Happy Birthday in the general direction of a bunch of kids and hoping the right one is in there somewhere.
It reminded me of a time when I went to a funeral and got mistaken for the dead man’s son.
A long line of people formed in front of me, shaking my hand in turn and wishing me ‘good luck’.
I was touched by the generosity and civility of these strangers. Until a member of the dead man’s family intervened and pointed out I was just a friend. A well meaning but simple friend.
And at the birthday parties I end up talking to a lot of strangers as well.
I’ve always had a rather small circle of friends, people who I feel comfortable around.
But as a daddy I find myself in the environment where I have to talk to large circle of new people.
This is difficult for me because I’m pretty hopeless at smalltalk.
Usually I just end up saying, ‘Your little one’s getting big’ and then staring at my feet.
Sometimes I say this when I don’t even know who their little one is. Someday I’ll say it to the parent of a dwarf and get myself in trouble.
The problem is I don’t have a lot in common with many of these people. Other than the fact that I had sexual intercourse within the same academic year as they did.
And that doesn’t seem like a clever thing to say as an icebreaker.
I’ve another problem with the parties.
I’ve allowed myself to fall into the role of ‘fun daddy’.
Believe me, that’s not a place where you ever want to be.
It all started at one of the earliest parties. My little boy is shy and sensitive and sometimes needs a little bit of encouragement to join in with the other kids.
Thus I found myself out in the middle of the play area.
At first I was just kicking a ball about. Then wheeling him in a toy car. Then playing chase.
But soon I turned round and found there were 17 other kids all wanting to join in the game.
By the end of the party I was a heaving, sweating mess as various kids hung from my legs and chased me around the room, beating me with light sabres.
And it sort of grew from there. Every week there would be a selection of the same kids who would howl with glee and menace when they saw me arrive.
I would attempt to ignore them and take a seat as far away from the action as I could. But it always ended the same way, with me being pulled into the maelstrom.
More than once I found myself, like a drowning man under a pile of children in the bouncy castle, raising my head to catch a glimpse of all the mummies calmly sipping coffee, before I was dragged under again.
And those kids can be rough. On one occasion a little girl greeted me at the door of a party by saying ‘Can I kick you in the face like I did last week?’
There are certain rules which apply to the parties.
First among these is hire a location. Do not attempt to have it at home. The mess caused to your house by 35 pre-school kids would be akin to the damage caused by a crowd of metal fans who turned up to a gig expecting to see Guns N’ Roses, only to be told Axl was ill and they was being replaced by Daniel O’Donnell.
The entertainment varies. Some go for the bouncy castle and giant slide.
I’ve also seen electric cars, climbing walls, magic shows, dancing exhibitions and fancy dress.
It’s pretty much all been done.
By the time I got round to organising my son’s party there was simply nothing new left. Unless I organised a Satanic themed party.
Which didn’t seem like a good idea.
Then there’s the cake. The all-important cake.
As each party passed the cakes seemed to become more and more elaborate, featuring complicated cartoon characters and wonderful icing.
By the time of our party the bar had been raised very high.
My son decided he wanted a train cake. I knew it was important to him so I gave it my best go. I worked out a design in my head and spent two days baking, cutting and decorating. The final cake turned out closer to what I had imagined than I had dared hope. He was delighted with it.
Then I spent a sleepless night worrying about how I was going to transport such a delicate cake to the venue.
When I did get it there a few parents admired it briefly before the kids tore it to pieces. It had taken me two days to make but was gone in less than 20 minutes.
I also decided I wanted to do something different for my son and all his friends to enjoy. I settled upon making balloon animals. I would teach myself to make a few simple shapes.
I ordered the long coloured balloons and a pump and spent a few days mastering a sword, a dog and a giraffe. It was gloriously simple and addictive. Soon my carpets were covered with balloon animals and I had to order more stock for the party.
There I was a victim of my own success. I had imagined maybe making a dozen or so of these things and then relaxing, glowing in my hard-earned success as a daddy of the year candidate.
But soon after I started, the queue for balloon animals had stretched all around the room. There were kids I had never seen before. I began to suspect that some children had crashed the party just to get one of my coveted balloon animals.
Time and time again I found myself patiently saying the same thing to yet another child.
‘Ok sweetie, I can do a sword, a dog or a giraffe. What would you like?’
‘I want a tiger.’
And so it went on. The whole party passed in a blur of twisted, squeaking balloons. I didn’t even get a slice of my own train cake.
As I was tidying up the mess afterwards I heard one of my son’s friends talking to his mummy. A sweet little four-year-old boy. He was pointing me out to her.
‘Mummy, can you ask him if he’d like to come out and play with me?’