It never dawned on me that four years after my precious twins were born I would be responsible for planning and implementing - and funding - an afternoon of entertainment for my children's friends. I knew they would have birthdays, but the only image that ever popped up in my daydreams was that of a single child blowing out candles at his kitchen table while friends and family watched. That was it. Come in, watch the birthday boy blow out his candles, eat some cake and ice cream, and go home. Now that I have been in the birthday business for almost five years, my perspective on this momentous day has changed quite a bit. I love my children very much and look forward each year to celebrating their arrival in the world, though I find myself getting more sentimental each year as they pass from babies to toddlers to preschoolers to elementary school children. No, I don't mind birthdays. It's the parties that have been causing me headaches. What seems like a simple event to plan - cake, ice cream, games, presents, party favors - is actually not that simple. It's a series of questions wrapped in dilemmas shrouded in considerations.
The first item to address as your child's birthday approaches is where to have it. Your house? Someone else's house? An off-site location? The simple answer is to have the party at your house, kind of like my parents did for me. We would clean, move some furniture into corners or other rooms, and prepare for a two-hour onslaught of little humans running, screaming, and rummaging through the house. As a kid, it was great fun, but I now know how much anxiety that creates in a grown-up.
If you have the party at your house, you better have enough room. Parties these days don't just involve the kids. Oh no, the parents come too, and trust me, you want them there. Do you want to be the person repeatedly telling that darling little cherub to stop jumping on your new furniture or sticking his snot-encrusted fingers in the cheese dip? Actually, never mind that question. Even with his parents there, you might still be the one to reprimand him. But in most cases, the parents do the discipline, you do the party. So, if you have a lot of room, or if you can keep the numbers relatively small, or if you like re-enacting a third-world country bus ride in your living room, by all means have the party at your own place.
Once you decide where you will have the party, you need to decide what you will do to entertain the little creatures between their arrival and the cake. If you shell out the bucks to have your party hosted somewhere other than your house, then the activities may be decided for you. Bowling, bounce houses, <<insert name>> restaurant with a playground... each of those has built-in entertainment which will keep your guests happy until it's time to carb load them and send the rascals home. All you have to do is sign the check. No games, no broken home decor, no red punch spilled all over your carpet. But choosing this method has its costs. Oh yes, this is not your party. It's their party. Consider this scenario from a couple of years ago ...
My children were invited by a school friend to her birthday party at one of these bounce warehouses. It's a massive room filled with way more bouncy contraptions than you could ever fit in your own yard at once. The kids were in heaven as they climbed, slid, and bounced until their little brains were the consistency of soggy Cheerios. The parents stood around and talked, occasionally telling one of them to stop doing this or that. After about an hour and a half of bouncing, everyone was herded into a "party" room with tables already set up with cupcakes and drinks. We sang the birthday song, and everyone proceeded to eat their treat and guzzle their Capri Sun. After about 10 minutes, we received the universal sign for "go home now," the bag of party favors. Just so you know, once you get your bag, you're done partying. I sensed something was missing, and I was right. As we left the building and said our thank-you's to the birthday girl and her parents, I noticed one of the workers quickly ushering something out of the building and into a car. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was the presents! They were being escorted to the car more quickly and covertly than Brittany Spears from a fitness center. I felt betrayed. How will the boys ever get to experience their friends trying to fake delight when opening a shiny new puzzle of the mid-Atlantic states when the unopened gifts are all shoved into a trunk like contraband? Like I said, they make you think the party is for your child, but they call the shots. It's like The Matrix, except Agent Smith is a 16-year old kid wearing skinny jeans and a t-shirt from 6th grade summer camp.
Note to not-yet parents: Do everything in your power to ensure your children are born during a warm month, and hopefully toward the beginning of the school year. Why? Well, warm weather opens up countless opportunities not available to those of us born during the winter months. Swimming, parks, dude ranches, sky diving, your back yard. It's like the difference between Phineas and Ferb and Beavis and Butthead. One is full of endless summer opportunities; the other spends countless hours in front of the TV in some dude's living room. If you can't time things just perfectly and a have a summer birthday, then at least shoot for the beginning of the school year. That way you get to set the standard when it comes to inviting people.
You see, whoever has the earliest birthday sets precedent for who gets invited. In a public school, the typical rule is that if you pass out the invitations at school you have to invite everyone. Many parents don't read the fine print and assume they have to invite the whole class. Even the kid who eats glue. But if you have an early birthday, you can invite only the kids you want to invite. Just make sure you mail the invitations.
If you happen to have a later birthday, then you will feel pressured to do what other parents have done already. If they invited everyone and you went, you almost have to invite them to your kid's party. If every parent has invited the whole class all year long, do you want to be the Scrooge who makes your kid hand-pick three or four friends? How do the other kids feel? Then again, how do you feel about the possibility of having 50 people in your living room, half of whom are running around screaming? You could always fork over a few hundred dollars to let someone else host the party, but you will get essentially no say when it comes to the details. You're no different than a guest, in that respect.
You see, birthdays can be perplexing, or perhaps we've made them perplexing. I know I have this thought every time my boys' birthday comes around. I want it to be fun and memorable and special. I also want them to know they are special and loved, and I hope I'm not relying on a party to instill this message in their hearts. As Gretchen Rubin says, "What you do everyday matters more than what you do once in awhile." So go ahead and plan whatever birthday party you want, big or small, then spend the other 364 days doing the little things that make your child know beyond all doubt he or she is loved and cherished in a way not even the most humongous birthday celebraveganza blow out could ever match.