I have very fond memories of my childhood birthday parties. My parents weren’t religious, so birthdays were our primary holidays and they were a big deal. By contrast, my husband grew up in a family where birthdays were marked with a single gift and special meal, rather than the extended celebrations and “princess treatment” that were the norm in my house.
When I had my own kids, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted their birthdays to be as special as mine were when I was little. Even so, we kept things simple for my son’s first and second birthdays. Although I felt guilty about not throwing him a big themed party like many of his friends had, I knew that lots of people would just overwhelm him. Plus, he did not have any concept of birthdays, or even parties in general, so I figured he wouldn’t know what he was missing.
All that changed in the last six months. As his friends began having third birthday parties – complete with themed crafts, beautiful cakes, and piles of presents – my son began to ask when it would be time for his birthday party. January birthdays are tough because any celebration must be indoors and folks are somewhat partied-out from the holidays. I’d hoped to postpone my son’s birthday celebration to a more convenient time (for me), but that felt selfish given how eager he was for a party. Like many three year olds, my son is obsessed with firefighters, so we reserved the local fire station for the Saturday after his birthday and the countdown began.
Then I made a big mistake. I went on Pinterest to search for inspiration for a fire-themed birthday party. My stomach sank at the sight of cakes shaped like fire engines, homemade ring-around-the-hydrant games, and custom dalmatian piñatas. I knew I didn’t have the time to cut veggies to look like flames, the skills to bake a fancy cake, or the budget to buy lots of cool decorations (clearly, fire station is a popular toddler theme!). As we attended more and more Pinterest-quality parties, I began to panic. What would my friends think if I didn’t have a craft? And what should I provide for lunch that was both healthy and kid-friendly? What if I ran out of food?
To ease my anxiety, I shopped. I bought tons of food, decorations, party favors, and the like. Just when I was beginning to feel prepared to throw the firefighter party of the year, official warnings came out calling for a huge snowstorm scheduled to hit D.C. just before and during my son’s party day. Residents were told to stay home if at all possible. I had no choice but to cancel the party. [At least I did not need to join the mad dash to stock up on food and drinks in advance of the epic storm, as our party supplies left us with enough provisions to last our family two weeks!]
In a way, I felt relived. The whole thing had become more stressful than fun. I hoped my son and my friends would forget about the whole thing, so that we could celebrate his birthday in the spring after all as I’d originally intended. But as soon as the snow started melting, my son asked about his birthday party. I gently explained that the snowstorm had prevented his friends from coming to the fire station to celebrate with him. “They aren’t going to sing me ‘Happy Birthday’?” my son asked, unable to mask his disappointment.
In that moment, I realized that all I wanted was to make my son happy, and all he wanted was his friends to sing to him as he had done at their parties. Somehow, in my effort to throw him the perfect party, it had become about me, rather than about him. So I promised my son we would have his party the following weekend, and set about making it reflect his priorities.
We still had the Pinterest-worthy ball-toss game that my husband made, and a fun craft, but mostly I focused on making sure we had lots of helium balloons, bubbles, and cupcakes (a 3-year-olds priorities). Throughout the party, and for days afterwards, my sweet boy would come up to me and say, “Thank you for my birthday party, Mommy, I loved it!” And that was all that mattered.