I’ve been thinking about those ‘firsts’ we experience in parenthood. There are the ‘never to be forgotten firsts’: the dating scan; the delivery; holding the baby for the first time; the first nappy change! The ‘I’m so excited I could burst firsts’: the first smile; the first chuckle; the first word, or sound resembling a word; the first time the baby moves from A to B independently. Then there are the ‘wish they could be avoided firsts’: injections, illness and ... invitations to messy play!
Ok, so an invitation to messy play might be, for some, more suited to the ‘I’m so excited I could burst’ category, but for me the result was fear, anxiety and mild panic resulting in high blood pressure, nausea and light-headedness.
The invitation came in the form of a text from a friend who was planning to take her son on his second birthday (two weeks from the day of the invitation) – would we like to join them? I considered how to respond:
‘No!’ Honest, but rude.
‘No, thank you!’ Honest and less rude, but I need an explanation.
‘No, thank you. Sophie might need a nap or a drink at that time and I don’t want my precious baby sliding about in cold baked beans and other babies’ dribble.’ Honest, but not a truth I wanted to acknowledge to someone prepared to allow their child to do exactly that.
No doubt there are parents who, finding themselves in this situation, would come up with a plausible excuse or just explain that messy play isn’t really for them and their little one. But I couldn’t do this. Why?
The truth is my reasons for not wanting to go were really about me, not Sophie, and this was a first which troubled me.
I spent twenty-four hours reflecting. Yes, Sophie might need a nap, but she could have one after she’d splashed in a sloppy pool of red jelly, or sleep in the buggy on the walk there. Maybe I didn’t like the idea of jumping into a slushy mess of slimy baked beans, but looking at the photos of babies who had given it a go, it wasn’t so horrendous...
And that’s when I jumped in. I sent a text confirming we could make it and booked Sophie’s place.
It is no exaggeration to say I thought about messy play every day for two weeks and worried about it for the full 40 minutes it took us to walk to the venue. What if she’s asleep when we arrive and I have to wake her from a precious nap? What if when I wake her from her nap she is cranky and confused? What if she hates it and screams? What if an over-excited toddler slips on dyed spaghetti and squashes her?
A first I had dreaded.
But when I stepped through the doors, I wasn’t confronted with a room over-run with hoards of wildly animated children caked in slime, as I’d imagined, but a quiet space with a circle of play trays yet to be enjoyed. We were first to arrive.
I claimed a space in the corner of the hall, stripped Sophie down to her vest and headed straight for a tray of cereal, plonking her down in the middle. She seemed a little bemused, but was comfortable enough to munch on one or two and crush a handful into cereal dust. A little underwhelmed, we moved to the straw – I was consciously picking the driest of options - again, she didn’t complain, but when she started sucking her thumb, I realised this little girl needed something more...
With no more hesitation or avoidance, I took her to the silly soap – not a dry option, but a clean one. This was the first tray she’d had to share and the moment this first became one I’ll treasure. There was no more holding back, for either of us. Her face was a picture as she slid around the tray, flapping her arms excitedly, squealing and giggling at her new playmate. It was a reaction I hadn’t anticipated and it was incredible!
And silly soap was just the beginning! Coloured spaghetti draped all over her; the cold baked beans I’d dreaded all over her legs; slushy jelly on her head, in her ears, in her mouth. And me? Coloured spaghetti in my hair and bean juice on my specs... Well, there’s a first time for everything!
It had been a rewarding, surprising, even enlightening experience. I had learnt that in my little girl’s world, the messier, the better, and that in mine, Sophie’s happiness is central to my own. But it was more than that.
As we walked home, Sophie slept, the sun shone and I reflected. I had taken a leap out of my comfort zone for Sophie and we had both benefitted. What other opportunities and firsts would Sophie and I take together?
Messy play! A first I won’t forget. Will we be doing it again? Yes!