Is it just me or do the words ‘mum, can I have a sleepover?’ turn your blood cold? I’m not proud of this curmudgeonly sentiment, but the thought of an extra child – someone else’s to be precise – leaves me feeling as out of my depth as a first time mother.
It’s a nice idea in theory. The first time my eldest child had a friend over to stay I was firmly of the opinion ‘the more the merrier’. It hadn’t occurred to me that the law of diminishing returns applies to children.
As soon as the visiting child arrives, I panic at the thought of the extra responsibility, heightened by the daunting obligation of having to feed and water them regularly. I have a tacit agreement with my kids that they help themselves to drinks from the fridge and get fed when I get around to throwing something into a pan (or dial a takeout), but with other people’s kids I’m suddenly chillingly aware that everything will be reported back to the parents; from the bowl of coco pops for dinner (the kids) to the bottle consumed in front of the TV (me).
Of course, we’re all curious about how other families function and a sleepover provides a unique window into other people’s lives. My daughter once came home from a night at a friend’s house with a very long face. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, ‘Didn’t you have fun?’ ‘No’, she grumbled, ‘everyone went to bed at seven o’clock – even the parents – AND we weren’t allowed the light on to read!’ Oh dear.
And sleepovers are noisy. Ours is a raucous household anyway, but as soon as an extra child crosses the threshold, it starts vibrating from screaming, slamming doors and thundering feet up and down the stairs. My usual response to this din would be to charge up the stairs, two at a time, yelling at them to keep the noise down, but I’ve had to tone that down since on more than one occasion I’ve screamed at my kids (who largely ignore me) and been vaguely aware of the terrified visitor, backing into the corner, face blanched with fear, leaving me feeling like Joan Crawford.
Then of course there is that particular brand of visiting child who just makes you want to pull your hair out. Like a whirlwind they rush into the house – straight past you and into the fridge. ‘What’s there to eat?’ they’ll demand, as they take a swig out of the orange juice carton. Having pulled open every drawer that they pass, they’ll head upstairs to jump on your bed. Naturally, thrilled by such daring, my children will happily join in. If you haven’t experienced the whirlwind child, that’s because this is your child!
And did I mention the mess? At our last sleepover, the child arrived with his mother bearing a homemade cake, which they insisted must be tasted immediately (the only cakes permitted in my house are donuts since they don’t leave crumbs). With mounting dismay I watched as the children wandered around wielding large slices of unwelcome cake and treading crumbs into the floor, while I followed them around on my knees, dustpan and brush in hand, like a maniacal cleaning lady.
Getting my own children to sleep on any given night is an endurance test as it is. With extras in the house it’s virtually impossible, particularly after 30 minutes of ghost stories in the dark. And innevitably, there will be the child who announces at 11pm that they want to go home (which can be tricky after a couple of glasses from the aforementioned bottle).
The following morning, as the offending mother comes to collect her child, I’m transformed, rictus-grin, into mother of the year: ‘Oh it was nothing’ I insist. ‘I hardly noticed them – welcome anytime!’, sincerely hoping they won’t take me at my word.
Now, on the other hand, should my child come to me with those immortal words ‘mum, can I go on a sleepover’, well, that’s a very different story…