This week, I popped to the shops with my three-and-a-half year old to find a birthday present for a tricky-to-buy-for friend. When I say “popped”, please don’t imagine a brief and cheery little outing, because that’s not at all what this was. Rather, picture the way a buoyant balloon is transformed into a wretched scrap when stabbed with a sharp object. That rapidly deteriorating state of being aptly describes my psyche after popping to the shops with my preschooler. I’ve broken the experience down for you into seven stages.
Stage 1. Energy to burn
I open the car door after our seven minute drive, and Elijah springs forth like a spirited racehorse; pawing the parking lot with scuffed sneakers, twisting and tugging away from me in an effort to go it alone. Why walk when you can run? “Meet you at the other end, Mummy!” he hollers as he charges down the mall, pedestrians hurriedly scooting out of his way. I catch him, entreat him to slow down, attempt to pin him to me.
Stage 2. Not touching the things
Our first stop is one of those exquisite gift shops made of feathers and light that I adore visiting without children. It’s the kind of shop that’s full of candles derived from exotic substances and trendy fruit no one eats, like Blood Orange and Tahitian Overwater Bungalow or Pomegranate and Leafy Sea Dragon Vapour. The high ratio of glass to non-breakable materials is terrifying. My son wants to walk, I insist on carrying him. His fingers seek out all the pretty, glittering things. My heart is in my mouth. Shop assistants smile benignly as if we’re all having a very pleasant time. Meanwhile, I feel as if I’m walking a tightrope with a slippery, flapping fish in my arms. There is a good chance that this store holds the perfect gift for a classy girl, but to be honest it feels far too risky to get within reach of any of the treasures.
Stage 3. Desperate for devices
Next up, and thankfully with less stuff to break, is Country Road. I waste no time plonking Elijah in a stylish bucket chair and handing him my phone while I rummage through the scarves and jewellery. As every parent knows, devices are a blessing and a curse. A couple of uninterrupted minutes is helpful, but fails to produce the perfect gift. I’m ready to move on, but my son is still very committed his game of EarthMovers. I peel him from the chair and placate him with promises of Subway cookies.
Stage 4. Carry me!
We’ve refuelled and refocused. I’m so ready to complete this simple mission and go home. Elijah is still full of beans; legs pumping down the sidewalk, trying to squirm out of my hand, rushing to press the buttons at the pedestrian crossings. And then he stops, so suddenly that a gentleman behind us narrowly avoids a collision. I tug his hand, but for a little guy he’s remarkably unmovable. It’s as if his feet have been set in concrete. Then the wailing starts, “I’m so, so tired! I can’t walk for one more day! Carry me! CARRY ME!”. I carry him to the bookshop, feeling acutely every one of his 15 kilograms.
Stage 5. Busting
Back in the day, I could easily lose an hour browsing in a bookshop, but today my three-and-half year old is keeping me firmly grounded in the here and now. It’s a little hard to be swept away by the power of words when you’re wondering just what your child’s intentions are with Tintin’s giant rocket display, and whether you can finish reading a blurb before he starts climbing the biographies. I’m actually close to making a selection when he pulls out his trump card, the one that’s impossible to ignore: “I’m busting!”
Stage 6. Public Parental Humiliation
So we go. Back along the street. More button pressing at the pedestrian crossing. Into the shopping centre (“Hang on! Hang on! We’re almost there!”). Down a long hallway. Posh shopping centres have posh toilets. There’s a parent room with one of those frosted glass doors that look like they’re going to be see-through, and that slowly glide open when you push the right button. They always make me slightly nervous – what ever happened to good old reliable latches on toilet doors? Elijah tells me that he loves this toilet. There’s a little play centre next to the door, which keeps him occupied when it’s my turn to go. Suddenly I hear Elijah say, “Sorry! Sorry!” and realise that the door is sliding open before I’m done. Next I’m shrieking at my son and trying to get myself in order. There are people outside the door; I’m pummeling the button and the door is lazily sliding across, so painfully, desperately slowly that I have time to apologise and explain to a lady and her child outside the door that we’re not actually finished, my son just opened the door on me.
Stage 7. On the floor
I drag my son to the gorgeous homewares store, Wheel and Barrow. I know that this is my very last shot at getting a present. We’re both at our wit’s end. Elijah is writhing on the floor between black marble cheese platters and cocktail glasses, claiming to be a dangerous lizard. I pick something for my friend – who knows what. I hope she likes it. It was paid for with a lake of tears.