L turns five this year. She’s been counting down to that special day since–oh, the day after she turned four. We’ve had many, many one-sided conversations about her fifth birthday. She’s monologued about zoo birthday parties (they have a birthday room, and we inevitably pass it every time we visit, which is fairly often), indoor trampoline birthday parties, bounce house birthday parties, Chick-Fil-A birthday parties, magic show birthday parties, swimming pool birthday parties, and more.
Each time, I inwardly cringed as I remembered all the birthday parties to which we’ve escorted her this past year. There was the indoor bounce house party where I couldn’t hear myself think, the trampoline party where I didn’t know anyone but the birthday child’s parents, the gymnastics party where she was terrified of hurting herself. Each one of these events, while well-intentioned and a gift from a loving parent, involved pizza and cupcakes, was over before I had time to blink, and boasted a multi-hundred dollar price tag for the parent hosts. After each one, I spent the drive home talking my child out of her disappointment at not connecting much with her friend the birthday child because there were so many other kids present, and at how quickly it was over. My girl does best one-on-one, you see, or in small groups.
Cost: high. Child enjoyment: eh. Adult enjoyment: nil.
Please understand, I’m not judging other parents’ decisions about how to celebrate their children’s birthdays. We all have to find what works for our own family unit, for our children. What I had to do was ask myself what that looks like for us. And I had to find the gumption to set aside what all those other parents are choosing to do.
My sister has four boys, which makes for a lot of birthdaying. She decided several years ago that they can have “friend parties” at the five- ten- and fifteen-year marks, and all other years will be family-only celebrations at home. Brilliant. She figured out what she wants her family culture to be, what works for her as a mom, and her boys accept that it’s the way things are.
Last year, I allowed L a small birthday tea party. She invited six guests. They sat at our dining room table, drank lemonade out of my china cups and ate homemade treats, and had a great time trashing the playroom. It was a small enough group that L felt like she connected with each girl, but she was still disappointed when it was over. As for me, I wanted to crawl under the covers and collapse instead of handwashing all the china. She can have another tea party when she gets engaged someday, I thought.
I had to face myself and the mirror and say, It’s okay. You are the parent here. You get to decide what birthdays will look like in this family. It doesn’t matter what everyone else does. This is not about keeping up with the Joneses. This is about the family culture you want to create and what you want to instill in your children.
What kind of family culture do I want to create? One that focuses on the small moments, on the beauty of home and simple living, on days that are made with love and center on relationships. One where birthdays begin with a special breakfast and involve paper crowns with plastic jewels glued on, the handsewn birthday banner my friend Sarah made, the birthday person’s favorite meal for dinner, and a homemade cake served on the special birthday cake plate E and I received as a wedding gift.
What do I want to instill in my children? I want them to know they are cherished, that the day they were born warrants delicious homemade food, things they love to do, and pampering and laughter and stories around our family table. I want them to know that simple things are synonymous with love.
Of course, a part of me worries that this will not be enough, that someday L will cast it up to me that I failed to give her a $300 indoor bounce house birthday party. But I know I have to let that go. I have to be me, mothering with my particular gifts and strengths and convictions.
Once I got a handle on all my thoughts and feelings, I took a deep breath and sat L down for a heart-to-heart.
I told her she can have candles on her stack of birthday breakfast blueberry pancakes. She can choose what she wants to do all day, as long as those activities can be done at home. She can choose what we have for dinner (ironically, she wants pizza), and I will make her whatever kind of cake she wants. I told her we will take the day slowly, savoring each moment, and enjoy quality time together. She can wear her crown all day if she wants. She can stay in her pajamas. She can watch Pollyanna until she goes cross-eyed. But we’re going to forego the bounce houses and the trampoline gyms and the go-karts, because that’s not how we do birthdays.
She was perfectly satisfied with this plan. She smiled and hugged me, saying “Thanks, Mama,” then ran off to play.
I was relieved.
If you are the parent who dreads birthdays, for whatever reason, I encourage you to ask yourself what kind of family culture you long for, what practices would make your family’s birthdays something to look forward to instead of something that makes you feel like breathing into a paper bag. If you’re the opposite of me and that means foregoing a homemade meal and cake in favor of pizza and the bounce house place down the street, more power to you for knowing yourself. Set aside the expectations of your extended family, of your neighbors, your friends on the PTA, your colleagues. Feel the freedom you already have to decide how to celebrate your family’s special days your own way–your best way.