Thursday, January 25, 2018

Birthday Parties

Throwing birthday parties is not my forte. Don’t get me wrong – I love birthdays and celebrating them. I enjoy a candle-bedecked cake as much as the next person, and for years I made the kids whatever shape they wanted, although the unicorn nearly did me in. But in this Pinterest-savvy world, I am like the anti-Pinterest. I don’t do well with themed decorations and clever party games and perfectly assembled goodie bags for every guest.

Some parents don’t think twice about hosting a houseful of kids hyped up on sugar and toting noise-makers, but the thought of such a scene puts me on the edge of an anxiety attack. Maybe if we could spread the birthday planning out a bit, it would be OK. But all three of our kids have birthdays within a month, which ups the party planning anxiety.

When my oldest two children were in kindergarten, we threw them a birthday party. The invitee list included the kids’ entire school class – all 12 of them – plus a few other friends. We planned an outside party, because at the mere thought of 15 children under the age of 7 running around my house I felt a colossal headache coming on.

An outside party in January can be tough to pull off, but we went for it anyway. We told the kids to bring sleds. I filled plastic spray bottles with colored water for making snow art. My husband built a fire in the backyard fire pit. He mixed cocoa for the kids and added a little shot of courage to the parents’ mugs. We all stood outside and watched the kids tumble around in the snow.

All was well – until it was time to go inside for cupcakes and presents. That headache I’d felt waiting to attack arrived quickly. Fifteen small kids – and many of their parents – in one living room is noisy. Add the excitement of wrapped presents and the promise of cake, and the noise becomes pure chaos. But the noise was just the tip of the birthday iceberg.

At one point, I glanced over to the window seat table and saw one little girl with a bowl full of nuts sitting next to another little girl who has a severe nut allergy. We quickly separated the two and breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes later, I looked out that picture window to see one of the more intrepid 5-year-olds down by the (now extinguished) fire pit, hacking away at a log with the hatchet we’d inadvertently left unattended.

It’s a wonder no one went into anaphylactic shock or lost a finger at that birthday party.

That was not the first birthday party we’d hosted, but it was the last one with more than six kids in our house at one time. After that, we did a couple of years of small celebrations, with the kids picking a few friends to join them on a special outing of their choosing. One year, in an effort to go big, but not in my own house, I coughed up a couple hundred bucks and had a party at a big gym. The next year we had a family birthday weekend in Boston instead. I figured that cost about the same as renting a party place. Plus, birthday dinner at Quincy Market was a fun novelty.

The last couple of years, we’ve stuck to birthday treats shared with classmates at school and low-key family dinners. The kids don’t seem to mind – or even notice. Maybe it’s because they’re a bit older now – two reached, by their own definition, pre-teen status this week, whatever that means – and they realize the value of quality celebrating over quantity. Or maybe it’s because with so many local family members, the birthday dinner becomes a big, intergenerational bash – just as much party, not as much stress.

This week we gathered all the people who love my kids best into our home. There were a few presents, and only one adorable 5-year-old. We ordered take-out pizza. The cakes were of standard size and shape. There was no theme, no goodie bags, and certainly no hatchets involved.

It was just the right kind of birthday party.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

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