This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my friends' son's third birthday party. It was a delightful occasion. And for me, a learning occasion. I hereby pass my learnings on to you.
1) Don't get there late
For a toddler birthday party, there is no such thing as "fashionably late". There's just "late", which is the same as "too late", which is roughly the same as "arriving when the party is already being packed up". I don't generally spend Sunday mornings anywhere besides my apartment, but because I know that toddlers' patience can be wafer-thin, I planned to get to the 10.30am Sunday function by no later than 11.
But I was delayed both by because of my dilemma over what I could possibly buy for the birthday boy (see point two below) and my belated realisation that there probably wouldn't be coffee on offer, and that I would definitely need some of it before contending with a dozen excitable children. The first reason was a mistake, but the second displayed excellent sense.
Consequently, I got there by 11.30, and even though the advertised time was 10.30 to 12.30, it was clear by 11.50 that the event was all over bar the shouting - which at some of these events literally involves shouting.
I arrived halfway through a game of pass the parcel, which was being blatantly manipulated by the mother so that every child got a gift - thoroughly undermining the integrity of the parcel-passing process, I felt, but no doubt best for the sanity of all concerned.
These events are always short to begin with - they're the first parties I've ever been invited to with a non-negotiable finishing time. And really, if you can't spare at least 90 minutes of the 120 which is the maximum these things ever involve, you probably shouldn't bother going.
So, I have vowed to do better next time, and to buy one of those old alarm clocks with the two mechanical bells which I can put just out of arm's reach.
2) Buying presents for three-year-olds is hard
There is almost nothing as pure as the expression of joy on a child's face when you give them a gift that they absolutely love. Which is a lucky thing, because otherwise, our entire retail sector would probably collapse.
The problem is that toddlers nowadays tend to have - well, not literally every object available on the market, but definitely more than 50 per cent of them, so if we're rounding up, I can say that they have literally everything without being guilty of too much exaggeration.
What's more, in the era of the iPad, you can't just grab a DVD the way you I used to. (Books fall in to the "they already have everything" trap - I've tried.) And I don't really see the point in giving a child a 47th toy car, or a 132nd stuffed toy. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have gone to my usual go-to quirky-present vendor, the Oxfam Shop. But instead, I was desperate, and opted for something I swore I'd never buy: a gift voucher.
I know, I know. Terrible. Thoughtless. But every parent I know uses an iPad as a portable instant baby pacifier - sure, there's a degree of guilt there, but who can resist when the effects are so profound and instantaneous? - so I figured that some extra iTunes credit would help with shovelling still more Pixar movies and episodes of Charlie and Lola or Dora The Explorer or Peppa Pig onto their tablet for a rainy day. And at least I can be sure that he'll like whatever he gets with it
3) Parenthood involves a ridiculous amount of stuff
I don't know how parents do it. The sheer amount of gear they have to tote around the place is just overwhelming. Nappy stuff, hygiene gear, a range of toys and books to try and anticipate the child's whims, playmats, prams, strollers, cots, food and drink, and then other random stuff. Add to that the mountain of stuff you need to cater for a picnic and a small mountain of presents, and you have an exercise in logistics that would stretch the capacity of some smaller armies.
And yet parents somehow do this all day long - unpacking, setting up, wrangling and then packing up and moving on to the next appointment, often with just one arm because the other is holding the child.
It was impressive enough when my friends only had one child. Now that many of them have had a second, some of whom are newborn while the other is a fast-moving toddler who thinks nothing of making a break for the nearest busy street, I'm even more in awe of what they manage to accomplish.
Whereas I was patting myself on the back on Sunday morning because I remembered to bring sunglasses.
4) Attending toddler birthday parties is, in many respects, an act of loyalty
If you're a friend who only visits occasionally, the child probably doesn't care whether you're there, even if they remember who you are. Not when there are relatives and other children and delicious snacks and, most importantly, and let's not kid ourselves that they aren't the most important aspect of proceedings - presents.
The parents are grateful when childless people like me attend these events, with whatever small proportion of their brains isn't busy being frazzled. But they're also a little surprised, because they recognise that you could be sleeping in, or having brunch, or going sailing, or really anything else with your Sunday morning. They may also pity you a little, because of the possibility that you haven't got anything much else to do.
I do enjoy toddler birthday parties, even though it's almost impossible to have a proper conversation with one's friends. But when the children get older, attending their birthday parties will become far more attractive as a social occasion. When kids form gangs that are capable of whizzing around the place, playing elaborate games with no need for parental attention, that's when we'll all be able to linger on the sofa, open a bottle of wine and settle in for a good long chat. I'm looking forward to it.
5) Parents and single people lead very, very different lives
As the parents finally packed away all of their accoutrements into their Sensible Cars and strapped their kids into their protective seats, getting ready to head to another child's virtually identical birthday party, I found myself relishing my relaxed schedule. Would I see a movie? Would I do some shopping? Who knew?
In the end, I ended up going for a wander around Fox Studios and discovered that it wasn't as nice as I remembered, and that there wasn't a movie I especially felt like seeing. Instead, I spent fully half an hour contemplating the purchase of a giant beanbag that I definitely don't have room for. As I stretched out on its ridiculously large surface, its folds enveloping me in such comfort that I briefly considered getting rid of my dining table just so I could fit it in, I realised that I do enjoy my freedom. Because I bet a lot of party-stressed parents wouldn't have minded swapping places and devoting thirty minutes to nothing more taxing than lazing around on an enormous lump of foam.