It may have been when my four-year-old daughter, standing in front of a mountain of largesse taller than she was, opened her second gift. The My First Make-Up Kit included colorful plastic cases, body glitter, and edible lipstick. Or maybe it was later when one of the young party guests tugged at my shorts and asked, “Is there a magic show…or sumfin fun?” His mother quickly offered that our party was her son’s first of a triple-header that day. “And the last one,” she continued, in an effort to clear up things for her little boy, “has the magician.”
More likely it was the look of panic on Sam’s face as she attempted to be a proper hostess and rally friends for party games no one really wanted to play. Or Daddy’s delight, as he clearly counted himself lucky to be relieved of party duty altogether to keep tabs on baby sister Robin, who had not yet discerned that playground wood-chips, unlike candy lipsticks, were not snacks. Whatever it was, it led to a groundbreaking decision that day about birthday parties.
Growing up in a family with six kids, birthdays were no-frills. My mom made a cake, we got to choose what we had for dinner, everyone sang Happy Birthday, and we opened a few presents. We had a tradition that when our age matched the date of our birth, we got a party. So when I turned five on the fifth of January, most of the neighborhood streamed into our house to celebrate.
When I had kids, I thought I would carry on this tradition, or something like it. Sam’s first birthday party was a backyard cookout. The guests were family, her Godparents, and her babysitter who happened to have a toddler a little older than our birthday girl. The next year, I was immensely pregnant with baby number two (the wood-chip eater). The year after that, the thought of planning and paying for a party my kids weren’t going to remember past naptime made me feel like I had morning sickness all over again.
But preschool, I soon discovered, held an entirely new bag of birthday tricks. As a whole, the preschool parents were a generous group, taking care to invite the entire class to birthday parties. And many of these featured petting zoos, nail-painting princesses, and the rather pedestrian, albeit much-loved, bounce house. When Sam asked me what we were doing for her birthday party next year, I quickly determined that in order to keep pace with this trend for each of our children, I would need to get another job. Or switch preschools. Or both.
That said, through the years, my children have loved attending other kids’ parties. While the idea of a pile of presents intended for my child made me uncomfortable, shopping with my kids for their friends was great fun. We established what I thought was a rather generous birthday party gift budget. The outlay increased if the birthday kid was a good friend, and bumped up a bit more if the birthday party involved a big-ticket activity, like ice-skating or a trip to All Fired Up. I figured the parents deserved a return on their investment.
My youngest is moving on from elementary school now, and so the door closes on the era of the monster birthday party. We’ve stuck to our policy of birthdays with a buddy or two – sometimes three – and a special outing or gathering that, for whatever reason, I could never bring myself to call a party. I have one friend who throws a modest party every other year for her kids. In hindsight, I might have been able to swing that, alternating between kids to maintain my sanity.
Over the years, we’ve had Easter egg hunts, book trade parties, and graduation gatherings with plenty of friends in attendance. But it all comes down to not wanting my kids to feel entitled to a massive party every year just for being born. After all, I did all the work that day.
Does that make me a bad mother or my children any worse off? Not really. But for our family at least, it has made for lots of happy birthdays.