The Cult of Parties: Staying Focussed When Planning Children’s Birthdays

26 Mar

When I turned six we went to Showbiz Pizza and there exists only a simple Polaroid picture of me wearing a crown.  For my fifth birthday I remember getting a tricycle that was tall and red.  For my fourth birthday my mother made me a strawberry pie and I got a peacock-blue paper parasol.

There were no big party stores selling aisle after aisle of themed paper products back in the early ’80s.  There were no goodie bags handed out as guests left the celebration.  And we all know there was no Pinterest and Instagram. (If you’re like me, then you are particularly irked that you had to plan an entire wedding without a virtual pinboard and had to haul around a scrap-book.)

These days parties are color-coordinated creations full of photo-ops and party favors.  Starting with the very first birthday, they include an elaborate spread where all the food, cakes, plates, and straws match each other.  Striped straws, to be exact, preferably in little glass milk-bottles filled with the perfectly colored beverage (sans food-coloring, naturally).  We create backdrops, not only for this optimal display of edibles, but also for pictures of all the gorgeous, exceptional children attending.  For more flare, we even use photo props as well, like a little gold-glittered bow-tie on a stick to hold in front of a toddler (he will lick it). We have hand-crafted party games complete with costumes and take-home gifts.  The cakes are covered in fondant and the pictures of the darling Little eating that cake?  (It’s called a “smash cake”, by the way). They were taken two weeks ago in an antique high-chair in the middle of a pasture, bathed in golden sunlight.

The preparation and planning (not to mention paper! everything is “printable”) for these soirees is paramount to what once was reserved for wedding receptions only, and they are pulled off by a woman who has at least one small child, if not more.  I believe a great proverb must exist that says: Where a confluence of food and decoration transpire at the same time, there is also great stress. These parties start two weeks in advance (at least), and the planning escalates as the time draws nearer.  The morning-of is even more hectic, all the way up until the doorbell rings with the first preschooler who deftly rips down the fluttery crepe-paper curtain before the parents can hand off a gift.

The mother photographs the event, but the entire time she can’t help but think how these pictures will look on her blog, or to her Pinterest followers.  After the hand-personalized galvanized-buckets of party-favors have been handed out to the departing guests, the caffeinated host starts to power down and wonder if she went a little overboard.  She finally finds the Guest of Honor who has disappeared outside to play with empty boxes and watch the helium-filled balloons float up past the roof.

I don’t remember everything about my birthday parties, but what has never left me is the feeling each one gave me: I am special.  From the time I woke up in the morning I was treated differently: my favorite breakfast, maybe a new outfit to wear, a trip to my favorite store, and I got to ride shotgun! Lots of family were invited, and my mother decorated the cake herself for me.  It was exciting to anticipate the traditions.   Each little moment was another reminder that the day was about me.  None of the parties had more than streamers, balloons, and candles on the cake, but the decoration didn’t exist in a vacuum.  Instead I was enveloped in love and a profound sense that I was valuable to my family.  All the effort my hard-working, stay-at-home, home-schooling mother put into birthdays went towards making each one of the four of us feel like the most beloved child in the world.

My mom did things differently than my husband’s mom, though, and every other mom figured out for themselves what the nature of birthdays would be like in the culture of their family.  The mass of internet information has homogenized our imaginations.  We collectively fawn over the same style of photography, color pallets, and the same chalkboards and Mason jars.  Some of us have no idea what we would generate on our own for our children.  What ideas do you have, all alone and before opening a single browser tab?  What do you imagine a perfect children’s birthday party to look like?  Many of us don’t know because we Googled it before we let our own traditions begin.   This allows strangers — the great, fashionable “they” of the blog world — to set a bar for us, and instead of choosing deliberately how we will let our children know their value, we arbitrarily acquiesce to pop-culture.

This is hopefully a stark comparison between two very different styles of celebrating, but I’m a grownup and I do realize there are many shades of variation between the two poles. Decorations are fun, and I love a festive scene.  Entertaining is gift some people have, and they can pull of some gatherings with little stress.  Personally, since my son’s birthday occurs while our house is dripping with Christmas stuff, I try to make him feel special by pushing aside Christmas for one night and letting him pick a theme.  My motto is to do only as much as I think is fun, and the minute I stop focussing on him, it’s gone too far.  If party planning gives you anxiety, and anxiety makes it hard to smile, or makes you lash out at your child, then just do what comes naturally as an expression of love.

I challenge you this year to step away from the monitor and hang out with your kid, then plan a day full of that Little One’s favorite things and I guarantee even if you don’t take a single photo for Instagram, you’ll enrich your home.

Next month I will celebrate the first anniversary of the day I was delivered from a long labor and brought a playful little boy to rest on my belly.  In the last 365 days my whole family has fallen in love with our Giggly Piglet — who gives bear hugs and raspberries — and his birthday is the day we let him know how happy we are that he is here and lighting up our home with his smile.


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