Gone, it sometimes seems, is the type of birthday party I grew up with—inviting a handful of my best friends over to bring presents and eat cake and ice cream. Then, fueled by a birthday sugar high, I’d race around my home, showing my friends my bedroom and introducing them to my Cabbage Patch Kid, Guinevere.
Occasionally, a friend hosted their birthday at the local pizza parlor, where we’d all wait our turns for the Pac Man and Asteroids arcade games. In late elementary school, a few friends held their parties at the roller skating rink where I recall steadying myself against the wall while lavender strobe lights pulsed overhead and “Betty Davis Eyes” streamed from speakers.
But somewhere down the road, birthday parties grew more complicated.
Our son Max’s first birthday party was a small, family
occasion. Mostly, it was a celebration that we had survived our son’s first
tumultuous year—four whole seasons of sleep deprivation, diaper disasters and
trying to trim tiny fingernails without drawing blood.
We watched Max’s eyes widen as he experienced his first
taste of frosting. Afterwards, his cousins toddled around him as he tore up the
tissue paper sheathing his presents, leaving hundreds of tiny pieces of tissue
paper confetti sprinkled across our living room.
We held his next few birthday parties outside our home. My
husband and I are both cleaning-challenged, and our primary reason for not
having the parties at home was that home was usually too disastrous to invite a
gaggle of toddlers and their parents into. So the idea of cleaning our home only
to have to clear the post-party wreckage was unappealing.
For the most part, things were simpler in the '80s and our birthday parties reflected this simplicity.
With a February
birthday in Maine, we didn’t have the option for a simple backyard barbecue. Plus, toddlers are not known for gleefully sharing their toys, and we were hoping to
avoid birthday bloodshed. A neutral, indoor territory with plenty of toys
belonging to none of the attendees made the most sense to us, so we held Max’s second and third birthday parties at an
indoor play place.
The parties went well, or as well as toddlers shindigs can
go. There was plenty of room for our closest friends, family and their offspring
to frolic around and play before sitting down to dive into some cupcakes. And
of course, no cleanup was necessary afterwards. Young Max seemed a little stunned
to see his family and preschool friends all co-mingling in one place, but
overall he enjoyed himself.
We held his fourth birthday party at a candlepin bowling
alley. I held my breath at first, wondering if a half-dozen preschoolers armed
with small but heavy balls would turn into a "Lord of the Flies" scenario, but
miraculously, it didn’t. The parents and kids enjoyed themselves, and I laughed
when I caught a few of the dads sneaking in a heated bowling match while the
kids were busy with pizza and cake in an adjoining room.
Many of our friends with young children also throw these
“destination” birthday parties. They’re usually lots of fun for the kids and
less work for the hosting parents. There is, however, a price. Between the cost
of renting the venue and providing food and goodie bags, it adds up.
In comparison, for the most part, things were simpler in the '80s and
our birthday parties reflected this simplicity. These were the pre-Internet days, before Pinterest could taunt us with
pictures of crazed crafternoons spent birthing perfectly themed parties. Accouterments
for my childhood parties included a disposable tablecloth, a rousing round of
Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and if my parents were feeling particularly feisty,
those trick birthday candles that keep reigniting themselves.
Besides the expense of venue birthday parties, I don’t want
to fall into the trap of trying to outdo ourselves every year. I don’t believe
our kids’ fifth or sixth birthday party should be the pinnacle of their
existence. So until our kids start asserting their own strong opinions, which
I’m pretty sure will be any moment now, we’re going to keep it simple and
low-key. We’re going back to the '80s style birthday parties. Does anyone have
a Cindy Lauper cassette we could borrow?