With paternity leave now a distant memory it's time to wrap up this series, but not before my promised roundup of the social whirlwind that is the Manchester baby activity scene.
An important skill when on leave is coming up with good reasons to leave the house every day, without which you would both surely go mad. As with many aspects of leave I had Mrs Tomsk's wealth of experience to draw on here, including a number of classes she had tried out which then passed on to me.
The first of these was Baby Moves at the National Football Museum, a very laid back session for babies no older than one. It was friendly and tranquil with plinky plonky music and lots of gentle games that made it feel like a meditation class (at least for me). It was also one of the clearest ways to see her develop as she got more mobile and better able to explore the room on her own, and interact more with the bits and bobs they put out to play with, some of which nodded to the venue such as goalkeeping gloves. By the end of my leave we were practically doing goalkeeping training via rolling balls down little sloping cushions into her lap. The only drawback to the experience was the indescribably slow lift which tended to delay the start of the event by 10 minutes as the prams queued up.
A Baby Moves session was usually combined with some pottering around town trying to find baby-friendly places to have lunch. Generally speaking this was anywhere with decent baby-changing facilities. The football museum's own cafe was not to be sniffed at with its awesome sausage rolls, and the other museums and galleries were well set up as a rule too. Otherwise big shops such as M&S were the go-to option, where E liked to nap while grannies cooed over her.
Another early experience was "Cinebabies", aka "Newbies", where special baby-friendly showings of films are put on during the day at the Trafford Centre and Didsbury cinemas. The lighting is kept up and the volume turned down a little, and at Didsbury you can even take your pram straight into the theatre. Timing E's nap right ensured a peaceful final reel. It's a surprisingly secretive offering which requires digging deep in websites and Facebook pages to find, but well worth it to see such classics as The Imitation Game and The Shaun the Sheep Movie.
I only tried one traditional playgroup, at the local library, which was supposedly intended for dropping in as the fancy takes you although I appeared to be the only one who actually did drop in after the start time. I exchanged a few words with the mums there but they were standoffish in their already arranged little circles. This was the one time when I felt very conspicuously the only daddy present and although the leader of the group was quite welcoming I never felt inclined to go back again.
I much preferred groups with structured activities, many of which are provided by the city museum system and listed on the invaluable Culturekidsmanchester page. The best of the bunch was Baby Explorers at the Manchester Museum which had a fun storytelling session in one of the galleries with loads of props handed round followed by a little playtime on the theme of the story. Incidentally: great cafe. Baby Art Club at the art gallery was also good fun with the guide describing the scene in one of the paintings and then a whole sensory playground set up on the same theme, where E memorably once decided to eat a big handful of soil. These sessions were always really popular, not least because free of charge, and you had to get in fast to book them. This was particularly true of Music Makers at the Bridgewater Hall which would sell out in nanoseconds as if it were Glastonbury, so much so that I never actually managed to get to take E there while I was on leave. I finally got tickets just as I was going back to work, and took a day off specially to get there. To be honest it turned out to be a little underwhelming compared to the offerings at the other venues, although E did greatly enjoy getting seriously hands-on with a cello.
Fortunately for her musical development there was another option in Jo Jingles, held at the Didsbury Park Sure Start centre among many other places around the country. We had great fun singing and playing music with the other babies and it had a really friendly atmosphere. Also surprisingly good exercise for me as it did involve quite a lot of picking up E and dancing her around to the music. As a commercial operation it was pricier than the other sessions but well worth it and besides the swimming was the activity I missed most when I went back to work. Its greatest legacies are the spin-off Jo Jingles CD and half-remembered special Easter song "Mrs Bunny" which has forever after had a magical calming effect on the Elspedoodle.
Sure Start centres were also a good place to meet up with the mums from NCT, who Mrs Tomsk had formed a social group with and I was welcomed into the fold on taking over. Old Moat in particular had a sensory room which E and friends really loved. I'm ashamed to say I didn't have much of a clue what Sure Start centres were before E came in to the world but they are undoubtedly a Good Thing (indeed I'd say the Blair/Brown era's most underrated achievement). Besides Old Moat, the soft play centre Head over Heels was the NCT meet up place of choice which again the babies increasingly enjoyed as they got more mobile. Incidentally: great cafe. Unfortunately everyone had to go back to work eventually, me last of all as E was the youngest in the group.
Overall I don't think I had a hugely different experience as a dad at the various activities we went to, except that E and I were sought after for publicity photographs (I assume to highlight diversity although obviously also because E was such a cute baby). It was a little daunting walking in to a new room for the first time, but I imagine it's much the same feeling for mums if they don't know anyone there, as would have been the case for the ticketed events at the museums and often at classes like Jo Jingles where people joined and left all the time. A baby of course is a great help as an instant and endless topic of discussion, particularly after E got into the habit of swapping her socks with other babies. She and I had a lot of fun together and I like to think I've set her on the road to a lifetime interest in music, art, exploration and goalkeeping.