My daughter celebrated her third birthday this weekend, and in spite of all efforts to be the relaxed, effortless birthday mom, I’m pretty sure I lost a few marbles.
The truth is, it’s so hard to keep your cool. Birthday parties have become yet another way for moms to try and quantify their success as parents. Lavish locations, excessive gifts, and party favors that could give the My Super Sweet 16 people a run for their money. The pressure is palpable because the view is so myopic. You only have two hours to show your family and friends: (a) how well-behaved your children are, (b) how creatively and skillfully you can plan and execute an event, and even (c) how pleasant your marriage is. Honestly, I don’t remember being this strung-out at my own wedding!
So for all the moms out there who spend hours and hours of their hard-earned “me time” assembling loot bags, hand-making invitations, or decorating Barbie cakes, this is for you. Because there’s nothing funnier than a stressed-out mother’s account of her own child’s birthday party (even to the stressed-out mom herself!)
My SUV is packed with food platters and cases of soda. My back seat is littered with to-do lists, bags of ice, and one giant Hello Kitty balloon. We’re on our way to the local arts and crafts studio to celebrate Annie’s big day. On the way, I have a fleeting fantasy that we’re coming on the wrong day, or that they’ve forgotten our party altogether. A knot laces itself in my stomach. Only when we round the corner and I see the dry-erase easel on the curb announcing “Happy Birthday Annie” do I exhale. As we walk in, a dog on a leash passes by and gives me a long look. I think he can smell my fear.
Any effort I made in the areas of hair, make-up, or palatable body odor have been obliterated by the act of unpacking the car. I am now sweaty, dusty, and frizzy, and I definitely don’t look the part of the Perky Mom. I make tracks to the bathroom to reapply lip gloss and try to salvage myself before the first guests arrive.
It’s showtime! The guests arrive, and their roving eyes take in the surroundings. My mind is flooded with questions. Did I pick the right place? Are the kids going to have fun? Will the party measure up to past parties we’ve hosted? Did I bring enough food? Should I have baked the birthday cake from scratch, or picked one without refined sugar? And, most importantly, am I doing a good job of hiding my anxiety about all of the above?!
Annie tugs at my sleeve to ask me why Hello Kitty’s head is squishy. I look up and realize that the giant Hello Kitty Balloon that I picked up from the party store moments before party—the one I paid $9.00 for—is already deflating. I begin crafting an answer, but she has already bounded past me to see what her brother and his big-kid friends are doing.
Just as the party gets rolling, my husband reluctantly informs me that the video camera battery is dead. I unleash an irrational fury on him—irrational since I was the one who packed the camera bag. How could you not have checked it? Why do I have to do everything? I mean, we’re making memories here, darnit! He tolerates my lashing and walks away with a shrug, leaving me to seethe like a wild animal.
The party is in full swing. Is everyone having fun? I scan the room—Annie is covered in pink paint, applying sparkles to a tiny airplane. Spencer is running around with his big-kid friends and being nice to his sister. The location I picked seems to be a hit with the parents. I glow with pride ... as if I did anything but pay a deposit and show up! No matter, I get valuable points for being a Hip Mom. So far, so good ...
From across the room, I see Annie swipe her nose with her shirtsleeve. It was only four days ago that she had strep throat. She missed the entire week of school before her birthday party. I’m sure there’s a mom or two in here checking her nose for green boogers, questioning her contagiousness. I stealthily scoot past some kids painting birdhouses and give it a blow and wipe her sleeve of evidence.
My dad walks by with a camera and offers to take a picture of my husband and me. Telling him my cheeks already ache from smiling seems out of the question, so I hug my man (who I have since apologized to for my earlier psychotic outbreak), stick out my neck to avoid double-chin, and—click! I thank him, hoping he was gracious enough not to include my thighs in the shot.
I pause for a moment to take in the gifts table. It’s a sea of pink bags, sparkly tissue, Dora wrapping paper, Sanrio shopping bags. I am mildly disgusted by the excess, and regret not writing “no presents, please” on the invitation like I had wanted. I wish I had x-ray vision: does that box contain a thousand pieces that are going to be flung into every corner of my house? Does that one have some evil polymer that I’m going to have to scrub out of my rug? What kind of terrible mom wishes her daughter’s presents away?
One of Annie’s friends falls and scratches his nose. He cries for a bit and Annie observes, visibly concerned. A few minutes later, she approaches him to offer, “Your nose is okay now?” and then gives him a tiny hug. I don’t think anyone else saw it, but I beamed with pride, and for a moment I was in the moment. If I had been running around stressing about paint stains, or party favors I would have missed it. A nice reminder of how beautiful things can be if you are truly present—even in the middle of birthday chaos.
Time to sing “Happy Birthday”! Friends graciously offer to take pictures and video so we can assemble around Annie while she blows out her candles. I squat down near the birthday girl as the hot pink Hello Kitty cupcakes are presented. Annie is wide-eyed and grinning. Things are going smoothly until her brother (inadvertently?) blows out two of her candles with his party blower. My body tenses and I start strategizing “Operation: Rekindle” in my head. Thankfully, she is oblivious. She scoops tiny fingerfuls of frosting into her mouth until it’s gone, then abandons the cupcake and runs off to play.
The party is winding down. And now, the final test of my party prowess: the Loot Bag. I’ve agonized about these things for weeks (I swear, I was paralyzed in the clearance section at Target for almost forty-five minutes trying to make the “right” choice), and now it’s time for their debut. Will they meet with the exacting standards of the pre-school set? Did I walk the line: thoughtful and theme-related, without being too excessive or too junky? As I dole them out, I decide to let go of all this nonsensical self-deprecation and surrender, even smile a little (a real one, not the plastered-on kind). Because the true measure of the party’s success rests not on the approval of my guests (or their children), but solely on the face of the birthday girl, which features a weary smile crusted in hot pink frosting. I can feel my body letting go, and for a moment, I’m relaxed.
That is, until it’s time to pay the bill.