kid birthdays: rationalize this

I showed L. Beckett the invitation to his sixth birthday party, the electronic last-minute card I put together, and upon seeing the glorious outline of a T-Rex (patterned with Hello Kitty), fat possum tears dribbled into his mouth. “No, Mama. No.” These were the only words he could manage, his nose now leaking past his lips, onto his chin. He shook his head and pinched his eyes shut. He was having none of it. No pink, and certainly no Hello Kitty.

Image from Amy Atlas

Phil argued that it was a non-starter. That is, I shouldn’t have shown it to the boy, that they’re kids, they’ll be happy with what they get. And if not, maybe they shouldn’t get anything. Tough titties, tot. As for me, Phil said, I should stop giving a shit. Mind you, “How can I help?” is how the conversation began. “You know, just pick up some stuff for the goodie bags,” I said. “Hello Kitty for the girl bags, dinosaur stuff for the boys.”

“Not happening,” he said. “They all get the same. Some M&M’s, something else, and a coloring book, all the same. Kids don’t care. There’s a mad dash when they’re leaving; they just want something to hold, no one cares what it is. These kids don’t even play with one another. I’ve seen it. I’ve been to enough of these. No one cares who shows up, who doesn’t, or what it looked like. Stephanie, you’re the ONLY one who cares.”

He was right. To a point. I’ve been to the same parties, where no one cares, the generic party, where the kid is happy because she got the rock-hard sugar flower off the cake. I was that kid. My mother never created a “sweets bar” or coordinated the thank you notes with the napkins, and I loved every last party, even the one at the amusement park, where the cola spilled on my hamburger and my father told me to go ahead and eat it anyway.”It tastes the same,” he said. “And all ends up in the same place.” “The crapper,” he might’ve said.

Parents are happy to mingle or drop-off their child, thankful for the break, no matter what or where the party is (except in Boca Raton, when one child in Abigail’s class threw a party at Chuck E Cheese… and Abigail and one other child were the only two to show up, because the parents refused to bring their kids there). It’s not about the parents, supposedly. Which, ask anyone who has ever attended a catered birthday party for a one year old, is bullshit. Because on some level, we feel we’re being judged, not so much as parents but as entertainers, as talents, as homemakers, judged on our creativity and thoughtfulness. When my daughter returns from a spa birthday party with a parting gift, a bathrobe and frilly slippers, that cost more than the gift she gave to the birthday girl, I do marvel. Not at the money spent but at the time taken, the details checked, at the creativity and packaging of the moments.

Dino Dig BirthdayGoodie Bags from a Dino Dig Party
Images from Amy Atlas

Birthday parties should be about joy. They are meant to celebrate, to make the honored guest(s) feel even more special; they’re part of our childhood. Sometimes the parties are outfitted with bounce houses at homes, other times it’s pizza at a bowling alley. I can’t say that it makes a difference, that anyone feels more, either way. I drive myself crazy with the smaller details because when the day comes, when I let go of “perfect” in favor of “done,” I feel joy, having given a gift to my children, born from my creativity and heart.

To Phil, he’s happy to “slap it together, who cares?” and that’s fine; it’s his way. And for me, my way, my gift, is orchestrating a coordinated day with icing smiles, where the handmade water bottle wrappers match the cakes and birthday outfits. Stepford? A little, yeah. But it’s truly my way—at least one way—of expressing love. It might be different if the appearance was all that mattered, if I was trying to spread a thick layer of frosting over the mess of a mom I can be. But I happen to showcase my mess on a daily basis, so I needn’t illuminate it further with a coordinated paper lantern.

Now, I will overextend myself (once again not writing for my writing class tonight) by attempting a boy girl color palette that will coordinate with a Baryonyx and a pink pouty kitty–that first top image from this party does a pretty good job coordinating pink into the dino palette actually. It does bring me joy… if only there weren’t so many other things that also brought me joy. I suppose it’s a good problem to have, no? Cakes to be ordered, cake bunting to be sewn, and parting gifts to scavenge.



  1. I have some real pet peeves about kids having big birthday parties every single year. It is my own issue, so I don’t begrudge those who choose to do that, but I do feel resentful of having to spend my Saturday afternoon at birthday parties. I know it sounds so scrooge-ish, but I do. Where I am, at least, parents always STAY at the parties, so I can’t just do the drop-off and go do my own thing (I did drop my 8 year off at a party at a non-crowded public park and ran some errands this summer and when I got back the dad made a funny crack about me running off and them watching my kid during that time. I don’t think he really meant it as a big insult, but he obviously took note that I didn’t sit through the whole 2 hour party in the HOT SUN. Here I was thinking that my kid was finally old enough to handle himself, there were parents/grandparents around that I trusted, and it was a safe environment and I was STILL expected to just sit through somebody else’s kid’s party). And, even if I could drop them off, the party might be 30 minutes from my house and therefore I can’t just drop off.

    When I was a kid (80’s) nobody had birthday parties every year. I’ll bet I didn’t have any friends that had more than 1-2 in their whole childhood. I had 1 big one and I remember it well because it was SPECIAL, not something that happened every year. Now it seems to be considered a default that every kid have one every year. I just think it is a bit nuts — but I’m just not that kind of mom who gets into party planning. If you are, then you can let it be an entertainment opportunity that you enjoy. I prefer a family dinner with balloons, cake and a few gifts.

    Sorry to rant. I think if those party particulars make you happy and don’t stress you out too much, then go for it. But, I don’t think the details matter to the kids very much at all. In fact, in my experience, I don’t really see the birthday boy/girl necessarily being that ‘honored’ or ‘special’ (it just seems like a group playtime) except for gift opening time and that always seems so rushed because we’ve been there for and hour and half and parents are ready to get on with their day and get out of there.

    Good luck with the party – it looks like you will host an awesome event!


  2. How did this resolve? Going forward withe the pink dinosaur mash up?? I think maybe your son is wanting some individuality….is it possible to say, this year L gets to choose the theme or venue, and next year is A’s turn? Or maybe, we’ll have your birthday party on the Friday before, and yours on the Friday after, separate the parties?

    When my kids were little, (birthdays are a 2 yrs and a week apart) I would schedule one party at the house, and the other got to have an away venue, then the next year we’d switch. It worked much smoother than trying the combined party idea.

    Biggest hit party theme ever, was at the house, a backwards birthday party. The invitations we made on the computer, and they had to hold them up to a mirror to read the reverse image message…and they were told to arrive with whatever interpretation of ‘backwards’ they came up with. Little girls had pony tails hanging down over their noses, shirts on backwards, and gifts wrapped inside out. We gave them all name tags with their names spelled backwards, and of course, we had cake FIRST!

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