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When Did Birthday Parties Get So Complicated?

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.

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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.

And that was just fine with me.

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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?

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