I would do anything for love, but I won’t go to soft play.
I don’t think I’m a snob. I won’t elaborate on that as it’s hard to do without sounding like a snob. But I will say this: life is short, and I’ve always felt I should spend those short years in as nice a place as possible.
It turns out life is not so short when you find yourself at a soft play venue. It passes at a snail’s pace as you watch frighteningly large toddlers hurtling past you, face-planting onto foam bricks, made worse by the cheerful mums whooping as their children kick me in the shins and rifle through my changing bag.
My first experience of soft play was about 6 years ago when I went to a 5th birthday party at a pub with a whole room designated to soft play. Now, I like pubs. But this one smelt all wrong. Feet and nappies, I think. Like the ball pits of my childhood, which my mum gave me a complex about by warning me that kids usually pooed in them.
I did have a few drinks, which might explain my abiding memory which I’ve been assured is false: my 1 year old nephew, face pressed up against a net, crying out for someone to save him. I couldn’t find an entrance I would fit through, and I feel like he was having his own version of my 27 Hours nightmare. Also, all 16 of us at the birthday party went down with Norovirus the next day. So it smells like shit for a reason, then. Coincidence? Or disgusting germ-sharing pit of doom disguised as a good place for kids to get their first harmless oedema?
I was so far off having my own children at that point, I sort of blocked soft play. Then I got pregnant, and I can honestly say that one of my first thoughts was, but I don’t want to go to soft play, or sit in dingy church halls on the pretext of a playgroup!
My baby was born and I succumbed to peer pressure (when I say ‘peers’, I mean NCT) – “she needs to meet other babies!” “You might stunt her development!” etc – and started going to the town library once a week for ‘Rhyme Time’. It soon escalated – within a few weeks I was going to a church hall every day of the week, living on a diet of Custard Creams.
I felt I had to go, otherwise my daughter might miss some major developmental stage and grow up to be incredibly shy or a biter or the kid at school who eats soap. It’s all part of that image of motherhood we get from I-don’t-know-where, that makes us feel guilty about everything all the live long day. But when your baby can barely focus, do you really have to socialise in a scout hut? Why were these baby groups always so cold and uncomfortable?
As Emie lay sleeping in my increasingly achy arms as I sat on yet another miniature plastic chair, or tucked under my top as I awkwardly tried to breastfeed her through the Hokey Cokey, I wondered– who is this benefitting? She clearly doesn’t care where we are so long as there’s a tit and something making weird noises at her. And yet if we don’t go to these groups, am I bad mother? Am I really neglecting my daughter?
I started to wonder, what had happened to all the nice places I used to go to pre-motherhood? In West Sussex where I live, we don’t have anything near as lovely as Maggie and Rose, which I know from London friends is the answer – entertaining and special for your child, equally pleasurable for you. Surely this has to be the holy grail?
When Emie started responding to the endless nursery rhymes with a smile, it all made sense. When she started moving her chubby little hands in time, winding them in a clumsy circle whenever someone sang Wind The Bobbin Up, and then started trotting around without me, engaging with toys and other kids, I could shut all the other stuff out and enjoy her experience. But if I were to have a second baby, I wouldn’t bother with any baby groups until my child was old enough to enjoy them. Or at least sit upright unaided.
And, in case you’re wondering, I haven’t made it to soft play… but you never know.