February half term is a sort of cruel joke. It creeps up on you when you least expect it, because it feels as if the new year has only just begun. Everyone's still broke after Christmas, so there's no money to go away anywhere interesting, and the weather is terrible.
The sky is so grey you feel as if you've stumbled into an episode of Dr Who where the sun has been wiped out by an alien spaceship. It's usually raining. So here you are, the kids randomly off school, with five days of gloom ahead of you.
If you can't take time off work, you book the children into some kind of holiday activity that costs so much you spend the rest of the year trying to pay it off. Or you plead with grandparents to take them.
But most years, you argue bitterly with your partner about whose turn it is to spend a week cooped up with fractious children, and then wrack your brains for something - anything - you can think up that might entertain them.
All outdoor activities are miserable in sleet and howling winds. The local park is completely uninviting. Even the ducks look depressed.
"Why are we going to the park?" says your eldest, scowling.
"Because it's good for you!" you say, like a demented fitness instructor.
If you decide to take out a bank loan and visit an attraction, it won't necessarily be a fun-packed day out.
"There's only one thing worse than queuing," says a friend darkly, "and that's queuing in the rain."
So you try to think of interesting stuff to do indoors. But it's not easy if the kids are different ages. It's tempting to let them play computer games and watch end-to-end DVDs, but you have visions of electronic overload, their brains turning to mush like the zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
"How about a jigsaw?" you say brightly.
"Why?" says your eight-year-old.
Indoors, of course, doesn't necessarily mean inside your own house. You can make a pact with a friend - you and yours trash her house on Tuesday, and she'll return the favour on Wednesday - or you can visit selected retail outlets. For some reason I have never quite understood, carpet warehouses always appeal to those under five (is it the massive rolls of nylon pile?) while IKEA has all those lovely little beige pencils.
Despite the weather forecast, you might decide to rent a holiday cottage for a week. This is a strange idea. Goodness knows why we do it.
When our children were four, two and six months, we rented a tiny house on the Norfolk coast. Perfect for little ones, we'd been told. The windows on the first floor opened straight out at waist height on to a concrete patio - we could have lost all three children in seconds - and neither poky little bedroom was big enough for the travel cot. I do remember an interesting day out in a boat in the pouring rain, though. We went to find a colony of seals. I'm not sure who was wettest - us or them.
An economy alternative to renting a cottage is inviting yourself to a friend's house to stay. This sometimes works if the children are all the same age and go to bed at roughly the same time. But if routines are different, and no one's been able to get out much because of the violent February gales, you can end up with a sort of kaleidoscopic version of hell by the end of the day. It's a nightmare edition of bedtime in your own house multiplied by x with personality clashes thrown in.
Whether it's a holiday cottage or a friend's house, you've got the journey home to look forward to.
The house, when you get back, is as cold as the grave and there's no food in the fridge. You've got a bag full of muddy washing, memories of grey skies, and work starts in the morning. So the February half term holiday usually ends with parents, reeling with exhaustion, having an almighty row.
Is there a way out of this mess? February half term is probably lovely if you've got enough money to go skiing or you can fly off somewhere to sun and blue skies.
Otherwise, there's no hope.
There's one consolation. At least we're not ducks. They have to stay in the park the whole time.
10 ways to beat half term inertia
- Turn yourself into Nigella and cook fairy cakes with the children.
- Borrow someone's dog and take it out for walks.
- Help the children to write letters to important British people (the Queen, Katie Price) and see if they write back.
- Make an enormous knickerbocker glory.
- Buy a metal detector and look for buried treasure.
- Get everyone to help clear out a family hell-hole, like the understairs cupboard. It's amazing what you'll find
- Get everyone doing press-ups.
- Make fudge.
- Put on some loud music.
- Be sociable - share the pain.
Does this ring bells with you or too grumpy?
What are you going to be doing this February half term?