My daughter just celebrated her 6th birthday. We rented a little art studio where she and 15 of her friends painted and sculpted. Even though the set up and clean up was taken care of, I still spent the first half of the day frantically running errands. By the time we got there, we were all a little out of sorts. I poured a much-needed glass of wine. But before I found the bottom of my glass, our time was up and I could’ve taken a Disney vacation for what those two hours just cost me.
Ava had fun, but she’s 6—she has fun every day. Which got me wondering if all this birthday party stuff hasn’t gotten a little out of hand.
I think I was 10 years old before I ever had a birthday party with my friends—shortly after I was permitted to wear Jelly Shoes but well before I was allowed to get my ears pierced. Of course we always celebrated my birthday, but we did so as a family. We’d get dressed up and I would choose where we would eat for dinner. Dad would get me a Shirley Temple and order extra cherries since it was my special day. Mom always made my favorite cake: devil’s food chocolate with gooey coconut and pecan frosting, topped with that year’s doll-of-the-moment. I have a summer birthday so we were usually traveling somewhere remote, like the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, or various state parks. Once we celebrated in Hawaii. Mom and Dad rented a Suzuki Samurai convertible and drove around the island—my smile was so big that the breeze wound my long hair into my braces.
I loved my summer birthdays because they were all about me. Birthday parties, on the other hand, seemed to be about everyone else.
I can remember one of my friends snickering when my Mom proudly presented my cake that she had topped with a Jem Doll. Clearly no one had informed me that dolls, like stuffed animals, were things we all had, but could no longer admit to liking. My guests turned their noses up at my beloved coconut frosting. The games Mom devised were fun, like egg relays and three-legged races, but inevitably someone got their feelings hurt because they didn’t win—often that someone was me. And yes, the presents were great except when everyone hurried me because they were bored and wanted their party favors.
A few days later, on Ava’s actual birthday, my husband and I fussed over her much like my parents used to fuss over me. We sang “Happy Birthday” when she woke, teased her about growing so big overnight, and put a special note in her lunchbox. Later, I brought cupcakes to her school and joined her for lunch. Her teacher placed an itchy crown on her head and she wore it all day without complaint. That night we ate at her favorite Mexican restaurant with a couple of her friends and the staff put a sombrero on her head and serenaded her. She glowed. She felt important. It wasn’t anything extravagant, but it was all about her.
As a parent, I find myself constantly tripping on that fine line between giving my child what she thinks she wants and giving her what I think is best. Maybe that’s the nature of the birthday beast, but I have a feeling a compromise must exist somewhere. If you’ve found it, I’m listening.