I have a vague, distant recollection of social gatherings from the olden days before we had our little one. I may be seeing those events through rose-tinted, booze-addled, sun-strokey glasses but I’m sure I remember they could be quite relaxing, enjoyable affairs.
Take BBQs, for example. I have occasional, sometimes vivid, flashbacks of sitting down on garden furniture, sipping downing Pimms, chatting with friends, enjoying a
shot or two liter of vodka whilst munching on well-cooked, nourishing, healthy meat products burnt animal entrails. The sun would slowly set, against a backdrop of lyrical house music and the uplifting sounds of laughter, intellectual conversation, birdsong, and the echolocation of circling bats.
Fast forward to summer 2016.
Now when we arrive at a BBQ with a toddler, the first instinct is to look for potential danger zones. First up is the BBQ itself – a.k.a. metallic pit of fire designed to attract toddler fingers.
Secondly, there's usually a side gate – a.k.a. toddler escape route. Even if the gate owner keeps it closed during the BBQ in order to prevent escape, there will always be at least one guest that pops back to their car and then leaves the gate wide open. This person might as well remove the gate from its hinges, lay down a trail of cookies, and set up a TV showing back-to-back Peppa Pig episodes in the street outside.
Thirdly, there's generally a recently-carpeted room in close proximity – a.k.a. muddy toddler shoe cleaning zone.
Fourthly, there will always be random, seemingly abandoned glasses/cans of alcohol left at toddler eye height – a.k.a. pissed up toddler pots. No one finishes alcohol at BBQs, they always leave 5 ounces of alcohol in the glass, place it down next to the toddler play area, and then stroll off, watching the ensuing mayhem from afar.
There are countless more dangers, but the word "fourthly" seemed odd enough without entering into the realms of "fifthly." And as for "sixthly" – it doesn’t bear thinking about. Suffice to say, the only way a BBQ could be more potentially dangerous for a toddler is if there were 4 starving bears in one corner, a pit of snakes in another, a drunken machete-juggler in the third, and a box of hand grenades in the last.
But we all know how this goes.
When you've arrived at the BBQ, and assessed the omnipresent dangers, you can then hunt down the party owner and begin a very, very brief conversation. Like so:
"Wow your garden is looking lovely."
"Thanks! We've been working hard on it...." (Suspiciously eyes toddler approaching rattan rhino sculpture.)
"Joshua! STOP! Sorry about that. I like what you’ve done with the shed."
"Yes, we painted the wall in...."
"Joshua! Careful with the statue! Joshua! Don’t climb on the rhino. JOSHUA! Leave the rhino alone. JESUS WEPT!! Do not ride the rhino!!"
Once you've dragged your toddler down from the rhino sculpture / wall / table / roof, you can then shake hands with a few of your friends. You might as well treat that handshake as both hello and goodbye, because it’s the closest you’ll get to spending quality time with them during the BBQ. By the time you find another second to speak with them, they’ll have probably already departed.
From time to time, your toddler will stroll through muddy borders of the yard and then make a dash towards the patio doors as if trying to escape from a horde of marauding zombies. You'll spot him out of the corner of your eye as he sprints towards the nearest carpeted area of the house, and take chase. If your toddler is anything like every other toddler on the planet, he’s a speedy little bugger.
As you chase after him through the kitchen, burger buns will fly through the sky, tables will be bumped, drinks will be knocked over, and grandparents will dive for cover as you push past them, the sound of hips dislocating in the background.
"Christ on a bike, Joshua! Not on the carpet!!" you'll shout at your toddler as you both pile into the living room, desecrating the cream carpet with muddy footprints, and wrestling him to the ground.
"He’s a lively one!" one of the host’s distant relatives will say, as they look up from the floor, wiping potato salad from their eyes.
"No shit!" You'll think to yourself, but instead say, "Yes, he’s quite adventurous!"
At some point, your toddler will start exploring the one slither of the garden that's very hard for a parent to reach in order to rescue said toddler. As you see your toddler scuttling along this inaccessible strip of land you'll try to grab at him like a caged tiger reaching through the bars with increasingly desperate lunges.
"Come out from there please!" you'll shout, more in hope than expectation. Then you'll begin to make pointless threats.
"If you don’t come out now, you won’t have any lunch."
"Ok well, come out right now or we’re going home!"
Then the bribes will begin.
"Come out from there and you can have a cookie."
Of course, your toddler will only come out when he gets bored there so all you can really hope is that he hasn’t grabbed the garden shears / broken bottles / dismantled trimmer that’s lurking down there.
You'll continue to attempt exerting some control over your toddler, so as to show to other parents that you aren’t completely useless.
"Sit down here and eat some pasta please, little man."
"Ok well, you can sit there instead as long as you eat."
"Ok well, you can walk with it if you want to."
"Um. I guess throwing it on the floor is okay as long as you eat 4 bites of pasta."
"Ok well, I guess it’s okay to rub it in your hair as long as you eat 2 more pieces."
"Ok well, I guess you did have a big breakfast so maybe you’re not hungry. Just eat one piece and you can have some candy."
As your toddler runs off into the distance, covered in un-eaten pasta, you'll yell, "Good boy! You did exactly as Daddy asked!" because you know you're supposed to offer children praise.
At some stage your toddler will touch the scalding hot BBQ lid, and other parents will stare at you as if you’ve just handed him a loaded gun. He’ll probably also be spotted drinking from a discarded can of Foster’s at some point. Keeping a close eye on a toddler and actually being able to prevent the many and varied potential disasters are very different things!
Of course, he’ll escape through the side gate at least once, stealthily using other guests to hide behind as he makes his dash for freedom. You’ll just see a blur of blonde hair in the distance scuttling under the legs of Aunt Maude, and he’ll be gone like a rabbit through a hole.
As you race after him, half-eaten hot dog on a plate in one hand, Diet Coke in the other, you’ll grab his hand at the end of the driveway and have a surprisingly competitive tug-of-war with his arm as he clings to the recycling bin for dear life. In the end you’ll stuff the hot dog in your mouth, abandon the plate, and scoop him up while he wriggles like a freshly caught salmon.
New guests just arriving will look at you, amused, and say, "Having fun?"
"Piss off." you think, and instead say, "Living the dream!"
After you’ve spent two hours running his burned hand under the tap / dragging him down from tables / carrying him like an oily squirrel / trying to get him to return the toy to the boy from whom he stole it / cleaning a carpet with a baby wipe / apologizing to everyone for stealing their food, it’s probably about time to head home. Back to the place where at least you know everything is child-proofed / chained down / already destroyed.
You'll make a couple of hurried goodbyes, say you’ll catch up more next time, hug the host, grab a handful of chips for the journey, get safely back to the car, and secretly hope that the weather will be so shit for the rest of the time, that no one will be holding any sort of social event ever again.