With the advent of school and nursery my sons, aged three and five, have entered a whole new social chapter in their lives. Where once they did everything together and would pine for one another on the rare occasions they were separated, now they're in different classes with their own distinct set of friends and entirely different social schedules.
Which is how I found myself contemplating turning down my youngest's first party invitation of the school year. He was speechless with joy when he came out of nursery clutching his invite as if it was Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket. Refusing to be parted from the invitation, he went to great lengths to explain that he was one of the only boys in the class to be invited to Ella's party. (They're already big hits with the ladies, these boys of mine.)
But that same day his big brother came dashing out of school in the grip of a similar glee. He, too, was one of only a handful of boys to be invited to his friend Allie's party. On the same day as Ella's. At the same time. Twenty miles apart. At first I reasoned that we'd just have to sacrifice a relaxing family Saturday for a hectic social whirlwind - my husband could take our younger son to Ella's party and I would take our eldest son to Allie's. Sorted.
Until I rang Ella's mum to accept her kind invitation, and happened to mention that my husband would be accompanying our son to the party due to my need to take my other son elsewhere. Without hesitating she offered to collect our son and take him to the party along with her daughter, effectively granting my husband a reprieve from soft play hell and making all our lives much easier. It was only when I put down the phone, having made all the arrangements, that I realised I had just organised for a total stranger to look after my child for several hours without me.
What was I thinking? Even in emergencies I've been more cautious and careful about who I ask to look after my son, and at the tender age of three he has never been to a birthday party without me before. I felt like a prize fool as I recounted my dilemma to my husband later, admitting that I didn't even know the name of the woman who would be driving off into the distance with my son.
In the end we decided to stick with the arrangement. My son was delighted to hear that he'd be hanging out with the birthday girl on the day of her party and even told me of his plans to ask her if they could hold hands on the drive to the venue. I didn't have the heart to disappoint him, and I felt I couldn't change the arrangements without risking offending my son's friend's mum.
And so, with a lump in my throat and my heart in my mouth, I waved my son off to his first parent-free party experience on Saturday. Fortunately I recognised the mum when she arrived to collect him, and my fears were mostly allayed by the delight with which he leapt into her care with barely a backwards glance.
That didn't stop me coming out in a cold sweat some four hours later when he still hadn't returned home. For a good 45 minutes I went into manic house-cleaning mode and tried to put all thoughts of toddler abduction from my mind. I decided to allow myself a much-needed glass of wine and a panic attack at precisely 5pm but with a few minutes to spare a familiar car appeared in my driveway and I was reunited with my son, complete with a party bag and the unmistakable swagger of a child who considers himself macho and mature. He returned with a cool aura that implied he could party perfectly well without me thankyouverymuch, only slightly compromised by facepaints and ketchup smudged all over his chubby cheeks.
I know of other mums who would never have allowed their child to attend a birthday party without parental supervision at that age. In fact, I know one mum who still doesn't allow her 10-year-old daughter to stay at parties without her, and has no plans to let her experience the childhood rite of passage that is a sleepover in the near future.
So is my friend over-protective or just doing her job as a responsible parent?
I know the chances of the birthday girl's mum disappearing into the distance with my son were slim, but stranger things have happened, and I'd never forgive myself if something happened to him while in the care of someone I barely know.
But similarly he wouldn't have forgiven me for turning down his precious party invite - and the chance to hang out with the birthday girl.
So tell me, what would you have done?
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