While doing the 'walk of shame' out of a quaint tea-rooms on Sunday, carrying a screaming, purple-faced, scissor-kicking toddler under my arm (my sandwich abandoned on the table, my husband abandoned under the table, scrabbling around retrieving coloured pencils) I found myself asking this:
Why do we persist with these "fun" family lunches?
In my experience, going out for lunch with a toddler is like playing a game of Russian roulette – and instils similar levels of anxiety.
It's either your lucky day or it's all going to blow up in your face – and you have absolutely no idea which way it's going to swing until one of the staff has already gone to the trouble of dragging a high chair across the room and presenting you with a kids' menu and a tub of pencil crayons, by which point you feel too awkward to back out.
And even a 'lucky' day is only really lucky in retrospect. Because even if your child is perfectly well behaved for the duration of the meal, you don't know you're safe until you've paid that bill and cleared the building – so you still have to sit through the whole event on high alert. That's the point when you say, "Oh well, that wasn't too bad after all, was it? We actually had quite a nice time then, didn't we?" as you unclench your buttocks, breathe out for the first time in 40 minutes then look down to see your child is holding a salt cellar in one hand and the tip in the other.
Then there are the occasions when you dare to let your guard down – when you think, "Do you know what? Sod it! I'm going to stop stressing and enjoy myself today".
Those occasions – otherwise known as pub lunches with friends – are when the rules about who is 'on duty' can get a little blurred and I find usually play out a bit like this:
Me (at table with friend, topping up our wine glasses): "Dave, where's Elliot?"
Dave (at bar with friend, drinking a pint): "I don't know. I thought he was with you."
Elliot (under another table with a dog, drinking a sachet of vinegar): "Here doggie, drink, drink!"
Like operating heavy machinery, childcare doesn't mix well with alcohol consumption.
But even when you're as sober as a judge and on your guard, a public meltdown can come like a bolt out of the blue with such force that nothing can stop it – not even a fully charged iPad.
Things start off well - they turn up in bright spirits with the best of intentions, looking forward to another opportunity to eat chips with an ungodly amount of ketchup (your weapon of mass distraction).
Then you do something unthinkably cruel - like not allowing them to play with a steak knife or float their rubber duck in the man-at-the-next-table's soup – and before you know it all hell has broken loose.
This is what happened to us on Sunday. Or at least that's what we told ourselves. But on closer examination of the evidence, we had made a number of glaring errors.
Here are our top 5 key learnings:
1. Don't wake the sleeping giant
We've all done it – they fall asleep in the car three minutes before you get there and because you can't be arsed to sit in a car park in silence for an hour, you tell yourself they've woken up (really they just coughed mid-nap), drag them out of the car, bleary-eyed, and plonk them in the middle of a busy café. This is child cruelty – as is arriving an hour past their usual lunchtime. We combined both of these acts of cruelty on Sunday. Never. Again.
2. Clear the decks
Possession is nine tenths of the law in Toddlersville so allow your child to grab that steak knife for a mere nanosecond and as far as he's concerned it's now his. Wrestling it off him can be as dangerous as wrestling a crocodile – all those serrated teeth. Instead CLEAR THE TABLE OF EVERYTHING before you sit down, including those godamn pencil crayons.
3. Bring the entire contents of your house
When I was heavily pregnant we went out for dinner with my mother-in-law, Sue. At the next table a toddler was watching videos on his Dad's iPhone.
"That's awful, isn't it? Kids today can't even sit through a meal without staring at a screen," said Sue. "I know!" I said and I meant it. Then Elliot was born.
To hell with that – bring every electrical appliance from your house, including your 40in plasma, if you have one. Better still, find a pub with a massive telly on. Distraction, distraction, distraction!
4. Remember ALL parents go through this
One of the hardest things about dealing with Elliot's epic tantrum on Sunday was doing it in front of the chilled-out family next to us, whose little girl just sat there smiling, silently eating her food properly with a fork.
As I carried my flailing child past them, I stopped and said, "Would you like to swap children by any chance?" For a terrible moment they just stared at us. Then they laughed and the dad said: "Ha, believe me – we have got off very lightly today. You should have seen this one last week." Take heed: You're not alone.
5. Seek anonymity
Many parents believe non-parents should just suck it up when there's a noisy toddler in the restaurant. But as someone who finds controlling a toddler about as easy as juggling jelly, I'd prefer to avoid the added stress of eyes burning the back of my neck.
My advice: Think of the last place on earth you would want to eat if you didn't have kids (the kind where the menus have puzzles on the back and you get a balloon when you arrive), and eat there. Better still – eat at home.
Does this ring true? What's your worst eating out with kids experience?
More:Is It Just Me?
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