I go overboard on birthdays. Like, way overboard. The traditions I’ve incorporated into our celebrations over the years can sometimes seem almost impossible to pull off. For example there are the chocolate chip pancakes served for the birthday breakfast, followed by the opening of gifts. This happens no matter if its a school day or not. There is always a special treat prepared for the birthday child’s classmates in addition to the Mama made birthday cake served after dinner. If the birthday is on a school day I’ll always incorporate some sort of fun (and too often costly) activity into the afternoon. This would all be fine, but the expectations don’t stop there.
On the weekend of the birthday there may be a sleepover party or some additional celebration involving school friends. This will include a second cake or cupcakes as well as favors, entertainment and a meal for the guests. For those who have lost count that’s a minimum of four baked treats for the birthday child to enjoy.
I have done fairy parties complete with fairy costumes, crowns and wands, indoor campout sleepovers with tabletop smores, and art and craft parties on rainy days. I have hired a magician, dressed up like Elsa and spent inordinate sums of money on party room rentals at the Zoo, the local community pool, trampoline park and various gymnastics studios to name a few.
I love my kids. This should be obvious, and I guess I feel the need to prove it to them through this excess. I want them to feel as loved and treasured as they are on their special day, so I go overboard. This isn’t a justification. It’s a plea.
The negative effects of all this over indulgence are all too real. I notice it most starkly on the day of the celebration, but it lingers long after. My kids are spoiled. They have no concept of how lavish their parties have become. Their sense of gratitude is stunted even though I force distracted “thank you’s” from birthday boys and girls near crazed with excitement and high on sugar.
I long for the baby years. To witness once more their unmitigated delight as they open their little gifts. Or their wide eyed, open mouthed wonder when they are presented with their first birthday cake, candles ablaze.
I love my kids, so I am going to fix this. I am getting off this crazy train and I’m not looking back. It will be hard at first. Perhaps it will be doubly so since I am obviously not the only mother caught up in this cycle of expectation and ingratitude. Every week a new invite appears in my inbox. Another Mom is making her best effort, shelling out way too much dough. Because apparently this is what we do now.
I don’t need to go back to the drawing board. I’ve adopted some lovely rituals that I know the kids treasure dearly. I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at cake decorating because when I presented my oldest with his cake this year, in the cardboard cake box I had used to transport it, I heard the hurt in his voice when he asked “a store bought cake?” And truly, I love making those cakes. I love making the just perfect one for the person they are in this fleeting moment. Creating it is a way to quietly consider (usually at 2am on the birthday eve) the person they are becoming and the child they are leaving behind.
My younger kids wear their birthday crown and rainbow cape at the breakfast table. Sometimes the birthday chair is lit up with twinkle lights. The big kids still allow me to decorate their birthday chair with a Balloon bouquet. There is a special, if slightly tattered banner that hangs over the table and always a jar of blooms set out next to the gifts. I hope someday they fight over that banner and cape.
I actually love our pancake tradition, but perhaps on school days the birthday child could wait until after school to open her gifts. Or maybe she could be permitted to choose just one from the pile. Gift opening really isn’t something to be rushed anyway.
I would like their birthdays to feel like the ones I remember from my childhood. I remember warm family gatherings with grandparents, lots of photographs, and a few thoughtfully chosen presents. Since I am an August birthday I had a couple of special ones while we were on summer vacation. I remember one “cake” made of marshmallows and foreign candies, arranged in a baking dish with candles stuck in. In the pictures I am wearing my favorite cat nightgown and my cheeks are a little sunburned. I set my hair on fire that year.
Of course I did have my special tenth birthday “disco”! It was like a dream. All my friends and cousins were invited and there was even a DJ. Mum made a Michael Jackson cake and I wore a deep blue dress with a big pink bow. I felt like a star.
As far as I could tell everyone had a blast. There were no complaints about the flavor of the cake, or the choice of music and games. Nobody commented that the knick knacks in their favor bags were lame. In fact, I’m almost certain their were no favor bags. And nobody complained about that either. We kids were genuinely grateful for our afternoon at the “disco” and I had no expectation that it would happen again ever.
Very soon Little Bear will turn four. I have not booked the party room at the Zoo even though it was my first impulse. Nor have I committed myself to hosting a backyard extravaganza for thirty or so kids and their parents. It will be a bit of a challenge, but it is time to focus on our more meaningful traditions. Less outrageous, but just as rooted in the desire to make the birthday child feel as precious as we all deserve to feel on our birthday.