Parenting, for me, is all about routine.
When you find something that works you stick with it. Yes, there are lots of new and exciting challenges, but a few faithful old familiar signposts keeps the rickety old vehicle ticking along.
And pretty soon a routine becomes something more, something automatic, almost sacred in its permanence.
So it is with our Friday afternoons. Ask my son what we do on Friday afternoon and he will unhesitatingly tell you ‘It’s McDonald’s and magazine day’.
I can’t actually remember a time anymore when I didn’t get him a McDonald’s and a magazine on a Friday. And I don’t want to.
I’ve come to believe that the whole stability of the world’s capitalist economic system may depend on my following this routine. Any divergence from it might lead to the value of stock markets collapsing, hyperinflation, rioting in the streets and widespread looting.
I just can’t risk it.
And so I find myself leading my son by the hand into the garishly coloured interior of our local McDonald’s restaurant.
My four-year-old knows independently how to order his Happy Meal on the touchscreen kiosk. He’s even able to use my debit card to make a contactless payment.
It occurs to me that this renders my role somewhere close to redundant. But I don’t let on.
We take a seat. There’s a huge photo on the wall facing us of a dark haired woman smiling as she’s about to stuff a burger into her mouth. It’s about as far away from reality as it’s possible to get. I’ve never, ever seen an adult smile in McDonald’s.
The Happy Meal arrives in its little red box. Chips, chicken nuggets and a plastic toy.
This week it’s Peter Rabbit, complete with his own carrot cannon.
I warn my son that if he fires the carrots in the restaurant he will likely lose them.
Not ten seconds later he fires the carrots off the end of the table. They skid along the floor and under a table where a scary looking man with tattoos is sitting alone.
He looks at me with tears heavy in his eyes (I mean my son, not the man with tattoos), so I have to go on my hands and knees under the table to find the toy while mumbling apologies.
And there’s something just a bit icky about being on your hands and knees on the floor of a McDonald’s. There’s something about the environment which just feels grubby.
Which is surprising because there always seems to be a team cleaning the floor.
You can accuse McDonald’s of many things but being under-staffed is not one of them. Like an army of ants the staff move around the restaurant. It’s not always clear what they are doing, but they’re definitely doing something.
I watch a young staff member with a mop as he determinedly cleans a small square of the floor. He looks around nervously to see if anyone is watching, and then cleans it again.
If you were to invent the environment least attractive for the consumption of food it would probably be something close to this. But my son, like just about every other young person, loves it so we keep going back.
Before I leave I take him to the bathroom to clean his hands. I notice there’s a sachet of ketchup in the water of the toilet bowl.
I flush the toilet but when the water settles the ketchup is still floating there.
We walk the short distance to Marks and Spencer to fulfil the second half of the routine. Buying a magazine.
There’s a huge market in over-priced kids’ magazines. I suppose I could pretend that buying them is justified as an educational reading aid. But the truth is the mag is always unread, my son just wants the plastic toy.
If I had to pick one aspect of being a parent I was not expecting it would be the abundance of plastic tat. Utterly useless cheaply made crap which is played with once and then thrown to the bottom of the toy box.
There’s probably a plastic island floating in the Arctic Ocean, populated by polar bears and seals which has been formed by discarded magazine toys.
Today my son chooses a Peppa Pig mag. He’s happy with his choice and ready to leave.
But I just can’t help myself. I look at the toy, a plastic Peppa and George and a little swing. It just seems a little lame.
I find a Chuggington magazine which has three little trains as the gift.
‘Are you sure it’s Peppa you want buddy? Look at Chugginton, three trains!’
My son thinks about it.
Then he decides he does want Chuggington. And Peppa Pig as well.
‘No, no buddy,’ I protest, ‘only one.’
He starts to bawl. Deep heavy sobs, snot dripping and tear stains on his cheek. I call it the MOAT (mother of all tantrums).
I try being firm, telling him that if he doesn’t behave he won’t get any magazine. All this does is make matters worse, the tantrum is now nuclear.
I congratulate myself quietly on my great parenting skills.
I settle on buying the Chuggington mag by using the logic that the sob he emits when I put it in the basket is slightly less than it is for Peppa.
He’s exhausted now and I gather him in my arms as we wait in the queue to pay. He keeps mumbling ‘mummy’ into my ear.
Sympathetic women around me smile and make encouraging remarks as the snot and tears creates a spreading dark stain on the shoulder of my jacket.
And that’s our Friday afternoon routine. As I write this my son is at my feet playing with the little trains. If the game lasts for more than 15 minutes I’ll consider it a fiver well spent.
There’s another routine closing in around us. He’ll fight against it to the end and I’ll welcome it like my oldest and best friend.
The routine of sleep.
PS Re-reading this post it occurs to me it is slightly gloomier than had perhaps been my intention.
Just after I published it I played Chuggington with my son. The Chuggington theme song quickly evolved into ‘Huggington’ which became a cuddling game.
Note to myself: Never forget the sheer joy of it.
It’s almost 7pm now. That’s our bedtime. Night night x