Don’t Fence Me In

“Everytime I see that daughter of yours, I’m reminded of the amazing playpen I used for my three kids.” 

My son has always had a really long concentration span. He started moving at about 14 months, and by that time he could sit and listen to a whole pile of books, or enjoy a shape sorter or a push button toy for 15 minutes at a time. He didn’t get easily distracted, and if you put him somewhere, he generally stayed there.

My daughter is now nearly 2, and if I tell you that a tornado would be a more friendly house guest, you might get some idea of the havoc she can cause. Shelves are for climbing, toys are for throwing, electronics are for biting. She can also sense a cupboard being opened from the other side of the house with the help of her spidey senses.

I’m not here to debate the merits of playpens. For some, they might be lifesavers. If you have more than one small child at home at a time. If you have work you need to be able to focus on at a moments notice. If your home is a rental and you’re unable to babyproof the really dangerous parts like stairs or wires. If you’re that selfish kind of parent who likes to pee alone. (How very dare you.)

Some people will say they teach firm boundaries. Other people find that their kids are even wilder once they are on the other side of them. All I know is, I don’t have one. And personally, I don’t want one. They seem a little too cage like for me, and it’s never been something I needed. While I know our parents generation will often sing their praises from the rooftops, I think I’m a little too ‘generation babywearing’ to see the benefits.

Anyway, my work is flexible and I only have M at home most days.  (Plus, she keeps finding things that I’ve lost, which would never happen if she were restricted to just one area.)

But seriously though, your comment bugged me.

My daughter has an unquenchable curiosity for absolutely everything. Whatever it is, she wants to touch it, hold it, yank it into pieces, devour it whole. While you used to call R a ‘good boy’ for ‘sitting so nicely’, M’s personality somehow means she needs walls, boundaries, reins. It’s as if her insatiable appetite for learning about the world needs to be tempered and calmed.

There’s safety, of course there is, but then there’s also just diminishing her personality.

I want to give her as much freedom as I possibly can. I want to be able to say ‘Yes’ as often as possible. What parent doesn’t? When we’re out the house, in the land of roads and cars and other people’s best china, I sometimes feel like the only word I say is no. I spend what feels like every minute lifting her onto my hip and away from cigarette butts or the long distance calls she seems desperate to make from other humans landlines.

When we walk back into our home, I breathe a sigh of relief that I can say yes, or turn a blind eye. That she can be free to explore and play without those words ringing in her ears. Stop. No. Wait.

So there are eggshells and sometimes lego men in my meatballs because she ‘helped’ me make them. The DVDs are never on the DVD rack anymore, let alone in their original alphabetized categories.. There are tiny bite marks in most of the candles in the one non-babyproofed bathroom cupboard. I regularly find jewellery in the toilet. And I’m pretty sure I’ve lost about 4 sets of keys and a whole lot of perfectly fresh fruit to the kitchen bin.

And you’re right, none of this would have happened if I had your “amazing playpen”.

But honestly? That makes me want it even less.

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Just don’t mention the edible glue.

I never had birthday cakes. As a kid I mean. I admit, it’s not the most often cited form of child abuse, so I can imagine you’re finding it hard to drum up appropriate sympathy. I doubt the NSPCC often whisper in hushed tones about birthday cake neglect as they try to rehouse badly cared for children. “Y’know, I heard he had to make do with cupcakes. And they weren’t even chocolate. I shudder to think.”

But it’s true nonetheless. I think the word ‘never’ might be a little harsh, as I have a couple of photos pre the age of 5 of me standing in front of store-bought rectangular monstrosities with calligraphy Happy Birthdays and chalky icing numbers that would never taste as good as they looked. After that age, I remember the odd year where I could sneak a supermarket-bought chocolate cake underneath the rest of the shopping in the trolley, once we’d checked for a V for Vegetarian of course. Our aim in life being to appear to the world as ultra-orthodox even though we were in reality nothing of the sort, these had to be eaten quickly and stealthily, and the trappings thrown in the outside bin so that no passing visitor (like my brother for example) would see that it wasn’t ‘strictly kosher.’ Eating cake in secret wasn’t something I would ever learn to enjoy, the self loathing pretty much overriding any of the butter-creamy goodness they ever had to offer.

So perhaps it’s more honest to say I never had the birthday cake ‘experience.’ No candles to blow out, no friends singing embarrassingly at me, no parents up to their elbows in fondant the night before the big day, cursing at Thomas’s funnel for refusing to stand upright. If I’m honest, it’s that last part that bothers me the most. I’m not the most creative person in the world, and a step by step recipe is going to be the least of my expectations if I’m going to make anything half recognisable, but making my son a birthday cake every year is one of the ways I say, “I know you.”

I know that before you were one, and you couldn’t even see our faces, reading the Gruffalo out loud was the only thing that could calm you down, so committing the entire book to memory was the least we could do for you. We spent the best part of that year regaling audiences across coffee shops and shopping malls and London transport whenever you were cranky. I’m pretty sure a couple people missed their stops to find out how that crafty mouse escaped consumption.

Before you were two, and you began to enjoy the world, you learned to reach out and have your own effect on your surroundings, lifting flaps and beaming at the results of your own hands. We read Dear Zoo over and over again, buying every version we could find. The devil makes work for idle hands must be based on a toddler, as keeping a book in your reach was the best way to keep our house intact.

This year, almost three, and you are making your own sentences, demanding to ‘read’ books to us, and with the patience given at birth (not mine, his) we listen to your babble with the odd word thrown in for good measure.  Each step I follow in making your cake this year is my way of showing how proud I am of your achievements.

I met a five year old recently who had been given a guitar cake for her birthday. “Amazing!” I exclaimed in my special over excited voice I reserve for children and the mentally challenged. When she shrugged I decided to probe further. “So how long have you been playing guitar?”

“I don’t.” She replied forlornly. “I play piano and recorder.”

Hello nspcc? It’s me again, I don’t think you’re understanding the gravity of the situation. She plays recorder, and the cake was in the shape of a GUITAR. That’s not even close frankly. It’s not even a wind instrument… .

It was like looking in a mirror. Over the top or not, slightly crazy or otherwise, this nugget of ‘I don’t know you’ from my own childhood has stayed with me. And so, I’m a little bit obsessed with birthday cakes. Weirdly enough, the birthday itself I can take or leave, buying random gifts last minute on Amazon, and choosing cards based on the ‘least awful one in the bargain bin’ criteria. (All I’m saying is, if I have to buy a five pound card, you aren’t getting a present. Or a card for that matter.) I’m not even a fan of the happy birthday song, as frankly I think if we all put our heads together we could do a lot better both musically and lyrically, but damn-it if I’m not going to get you double figure ‘likes’ on your cake photo on Facebook.

So it’s definitely not birthdays in general I feel passionately about. Although I’m glad I have one.  I once knew a man who had no idea when his birthday fell, or even how old he was. This to me was extremely newsworthy.

But.. but… how do you fill in forms? How do you sign up to things online? What’s life like without that oddly satisfying feeling of seeing your birthday written down on a pint of milk or a movie poster, like a private joke between you and the universe?

He seemed unperturbed, but I wasn’t interested in letting this go.

How did you ever get employed anywhere?!

“Ah, Mr Smith, lovely to meet you. Please do sit down and let me take a few pieces of basic information before we start the interview.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Full name?”
“Mr Horatio Brandon Smith.”
“Gender..? Male… Good, UK citizen?”
“Oh yes, for over three decades now.”
“Excellent. Date of Birth?”
“Ah… well actually… I’m not sure.”
“Sorry, I said date of birth. -pause- your birthday.”
“Yes, I don’t actually have that information to hand.”
“How about year of birth at least? … -awkward pause-  How OLD are you?”
“Cant help you there. Somewhere between 50 and 60 I would guess?”

It blew my mind. I mean, when does he have cake with his name on? Just randomly when he feels like it? Has he chosen a day in replacement? If so, how did he choose it? Statistically most people are born in August. Would he go with probability, or purposely choose a less likely month for fairness sake? I still have so many unanswered questions! Unfortunately, we never traded contact info, and it’s hard enough to track people down, let alone without a date of birth to go by….

This generation, birthdays have become a much bigger deal, with endless yummy mummies making their fortune with at-home bakeries sure to make even the pickiest birthday brat girl beam. And if like me, you’re a little bit hysterical and have based your worth as a parent on making the cake from start to finish by yourself, it’s much easier to be creative. Spending a mortgage payment at a shop called Sugar Shack, which is basically baking erotica, and armed with a step by step recipe pilfered from the Internet, I am now in possession of all the cheats necessary to make me a temporary Nigella. Edible markers, edible glitter, edible paint… Another plus of Sugar Shack is the ease you can convince your other half it’s a necessary investment just by reading out the names in your shopping basket. (Just don’t mention the edible glue.)

I’m not naive about the likely reception to my efforts. At the grand unveiling, I fully expect more praise from old high school friends I haven’t seen in a decade than I do from the eponymous hero of the cake itself. I imagine R looking briefly at the masterpiece, sussing it’s food and shouting ‘eat it!” before descending into a full blown tantrum. But that’s part of the magic for me. If a parent had made me a cake with half the effort that this one is going to take, I would probably be a blubbering mess of gratitude. I actually think it would be too much love to take. And while I do love cake, I’m aware that’s not a normal reaction.

Don’t get me wrong, as they grow old enough to understand both the concept of effort and the hassle of food colouring, I fully expect a heartfelt thank you for my yearly forays into domestic goddess mode. But I like the idea that birthday cakes will be the norm. Along with dinner on the table, bed times, cuddles, help with homework, and any number of other things I never had.

Probably the way my grandchildren will feel about expensive birthday cards.

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