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The Surprising Thing I Learned as a Birthday-Crazed Parent

As humans we all have our area of crazy, that one special nook in our lives where we just can't contain ourselves: book collections, penguin fetishes, a growing mound of cardigans in our closet. As parents, our crazy is made manifold by the presence of our children. What was once a quiet little niche of crazy suddenly becomes a full-blown mental state. In nine months, your love of Christmas kitsch becomes an Instagrammable, Pinteresting obsession with the Elf on the Shelf. Your organic food habit becomes nights and weekends spent making your children wholesome, peanut-free, gluten-free, sugar-free meals.

For me, it was birthdays. I love birthdays. I view them as my own personal New Year, a time to celebrate making it through another year and barreling into the next one.

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For my 26th birthday—after a particularly tough year of deaths, car accidents and hard truths—I threw a giant party at my house and invited 60 of my closest friends. I borrowed a second TV so we could have two game systems going and spent a lot of money on cases of wine.

Thus, it follows, that when my first child turned 1, I threw an epic party. It was carnival-themed birthday party, with corn dogs, popcorn, root beer floats, balloon arches and carnival games. Her second birthday was "Curious George"-themed, I spent all night relabeling small water bottles so they would color-coordinate with the balloons. Year three was princess-themed (her choice) with pink tulle everywhere, dress ups and a costume ball. When my son turned 1, we had an outdoor feast with ribs and a bounce house, small pools and a water table and water balloons. Over-the-top? Yes. I know. But I don't go over-the-top in any other area of parenting, so I allow myself this indulgence.

I also allow this indulgence because I love these little milestones. For me, they are a way of marking all my child and I have been through and learned together that year. Birthdays are a celebration of the future and the surprises and wonders and headaches we will face in the next year.

Watching my daughter smile proudly ... with nothing matching but everything perfect, I realized this lesson of letting go is one I will be learning over and over for the rest of our lives.

And of course, these big parties are partly about me. They are what I want and thrown the way I want to celebrate. Well, that's what they were, until this year. Because my kids are relatively young, I've been able to get away with this crazy. They barely understand what a party is and have little choice.

But this year, my daughter turned 4 and she had her own ideas. She begged to pick out the balloons and the cupcakes and hang the decorations herself. The theme was Princess, Lego Tea Party. OK. I can work with that. I decided on a rainbow theme, with Lego people on the cupcakes and princess hats at the tea party. But of course, I failed to consult her, and she wanted pink accessories, even though the cupcakes she picked were rainbow colors. She wanted tiger print balloons and pink polka dot gift bags.

OK, its fine, let it go, you are being a crazy person, I repeated over and over, when I found myself obsessing over how to unite the disparate accessories to make the theme cohesive. I thought I was doing well, until the day before the party, when I found myself wheedling my 4-year-old to pick color-coordinating candy for the gift bags.

"Mom," she said firmly, "you are making dis berry difficult for me."

I apologized, said nothing else, and put the candy she wanted in our cart. I don't deserve a mom medal. Just the opposite. I deserve to be smacked in the head.

The day of her party, we hung a blue birthday banner, served rainbow cupcakes with Lego people on them to a ragtag band of kids wearing princess garb or not (one kid dressed like an alligator) at a table festooned in pink. The balloons were tiger-print and polka dot.

"This is the best party ever!" Said one 5-year-old. My daughter smiled. She was so proud of all she had done. This was the party she had chosen and set up and concocted out of her own imagination. I was proud of her too.

I don't know when it is that kids become their own selves entirely. Perhaps life is just a constant pull away from our parents and we are never truly free until they leave. Or maybe we are always ourselves, wholly and completely. Maybe parenting is the process of learning to let go.

I know it is crazy to hold onto the ideal of a coordinating party. I know it's completely nuts. I know I should just let go and not have had any qualms about letting my child own her own party. But if it weren't her party, I'd be crazy over something else. Maybe shoes. Maybe outfits. Maybe organic food.

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Watching my daughter smile proudly and hand her friends balloons and candy, with nothing matching but everything perfect, I realized this lesson of letting go is one I will be learning over and over for the rest of our lives. Maybe by the time I learn precisely everything I need to let go of my crazy, she will have a child of her own, who is pushing her away while she holds on, maybe just a bit too tightly.

Image via Twenty20/rld033785

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