The all-consuming birthday party

I’m not at all proud of this, but my entire week has been consumed with planning and executing a child’s birthday party. No kidding. After several meltdowns (on my part), I tried bribing Elise with snorkeling trips to the Florida Keys to never put me through this experience again.

A couple weeks ago, it dawned on me that Elise’s birthday was coming up and she passionately wanted to have a party. She’s an only child and homeschooled, so opportunities to be around other kids are a very big deal to her. We had not chosen a date. We had not chosen a theme. (Apparently, all children’s parties have to have a theme now.) My mind was on negotiating contracts and meeting payroll tax deadlines, not party favors. But if we waited any longer, people would have already made plans for all of the possible weekend dates. Plus we had to compete with the Super Bowl.

I was so not invested in the party planning process at that point that I did not bother to buy invitations. Knowing that Elise loves everything involving mythological creatures, I stole a picture from the How To Train Your Dragons series and made a flier with the earliest available Saturday afternoon, our address, and “food and drinks will be provided.” I printed off a ton of copies on card stock I found buried in our office, put them in a cardboard box, and handed it to Elise to distribute to “anyone you think you might want to have over.” Mom of the Year, I know.

Now, Elise is not an introvert like I am. I forget this sometimes. Whereas I was just checking a task off my to-do list, she took that box of fliers to heart. She passed them out to her homeschool friends at play dates. She passed them out to the kids in her karate class. She passed them out to our neighbors. She passed them out to our former neighbors. She passed them out to the folks at the farm where she takes riding lessons. I quipped that next year, she was probably going to rent a plane to drag a banner down the shore with PARTY and my cell number. But privately, I was thinking, “This isn’t a bad thing. Maybe some of them will show up and she won’t have a lonely party.” I had heard stories about parents inviting their child’s entire third grade class and only having two people show up. They were left with ten pounds of leftover potato salad and a bored clown.

And then the RSVPs started pouring in. I wasn’t really into the party idea before, but now I needed to find a way to entertain potentially dozens of people, many of whom were under the age of ten. Oh. My. God.

One of my friends likes to joke that when you go to someone’s house at Thanksgiving you should compliment their floorboards because that is what they spent all day cleaning. That’s not much of a joke to me. Like that episode of Blackish where they talk about how the wife grew up in a “naked house” and the husband grew up wearing his t-shirt in the pool, I grew up in a house where you legitimately polished every surface, floorboards included, before large gatherings. And we had a lot of large gatherings growing up, as my parents have a lot of siblings and I have a ton of cousins. I inherited exactly that variety of neurosis, such that in media res I forget how much fun chaos can be.

On top of all of this was the stress of having already attended a lot of downright miserable birthday parties. Parties where the kids immediately split off into cliques and left other children out. Parties where the parents did not talk to each other, but spent two hours (the unspoken socially acceptable time frame to remain at a birthday party before leaving) silently scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. Parties where the birthday girl literally sits on a throne and orders the other children around (good luck to her future husband). Thanks to Elise, we were entertaining a mix of kids that grew up on a golf course and kids whose parents were feeling the Bern. What could possibly go wrong?

I ordered a bunch of party favors and decorations online. In case you were wondering, there are not a lot of bricks-and-mortar establishments with dragon-themed stuff. I paid extra to have them delivered on time. Then I started getting last-minute RSVPs that pushed me over the number of kid settings I had purchased. I couldn’t give the kids different things, because in my now vast playground experience, that only makes kids bicker.

We ended up doing a taco bar for the birthday party, which turned out to be a brilliant way to entertain a massive number of people. The ingredients easily scale up, and only psychopaths don’t like tacos. And we had kegs of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. I chucked most of the theme party favors I bought on Amazon and went to craft stores. I bought a crate of Silly String, glow-in-the-dark necklaces, sticky flying ninjas that could be slingshot across the room, and these bracelets that have giant fidget spinners with flashing lights on them. And a ton of candy. My “theme” was shot, but whatever.

For days, we tried to brainstorm activities for the kids to do where they could all play together. We don’t have any play stuff outside thanks to an unusually aggressive HOA (or the Yard Fascists, as I like to call them, but I seem to be the only person who thinks that’s funny). But we pretty much came up with nothing. The kids were just going to have to figure out what to do on their own.

It turned out that all that worrying was absolutely pointless. Once all the kids arrived, the house turned into a Category 5 hurricane of young children. Without introductions, they formed this collaborative team of superheroes summoned via their fidget spinner bracelets to save the world. They built a fort in the hedge along our property line and started chasing imaginary villains with cap guns and toy handcuffs. I honestly had no idea how many dime store cap guns our daughter had amassed over the years until an entire party of kids had one. Not going to lie, I made a worried glance around the room to see if any parents were going to throw a tantrum over fake weapons or toxic masculinity because cap guns. Instead, everyone smiled and cheered them on.

Likewise, an incredibly diverse group of parents had no trouble getting along. No one spent the party on their phone or picked fights about politics. I have to say, as much as HGTV loves open floor plans, I think having discrete rooms is the best structure for entertaining a bunch of people. In large groups, everyone waits for a leader to emerge. In small groups, even the most improbable match-ups start having conversations. People I didn’t even expect to get along talked for hours and even exchanged business cards. Some I barely knew going into the party started asking about future dates to get together. A guest left the party with a couple of my books she wanted to borrow. One of our neighbors was overcome with joy when a small child chased him down as he was leaving to give him a hug. Even this morning, he said he was impressed by what great kids Elise has as friends.

With tacos, birthday cake, and saving the world, we ended up having a delirious four-hour long birthday party. And the kids sprayed the yard with enough Silly String to give the Yard Fascists a heart condition. It was glorious. Even at the end of those four hours, the kids had to be yanked out the door. They wanted to stay and play. If that isn’t a sign of a successful birthday party, I don’t know what is.

I think the one thing I took away from all this is that the best parties are unstructured. Instead of trying to manage the social interactions of children, just let them be kids. They have a native ability to have fun.

After the party, we took Rodney’s mom up to Jacksonville to see the Chamblin Bookmine. Then we went out to another Middle Eastern restaurant for a late dinner (by then, it was almost ten o’clock). That was an interesting experience. They had belly dancing, which only made the day even more special to the birthday girl. The belly dancer was very nice and lingered by our table as an entranced Elise tried to learn some of her moves.

Never a dull moment around here. Happy Super Bowl Sunday!

9 thoughts on “The all-consuming birthday party

    1. It definitely will be a lovely memory for her down the road. I know she was excited about it. I’m beginning to think I need to do more entertaining on this scale just to get to the point where I am not overwhelmed by it. Like the immersion therapy they do when you are deathly afraid of spiders or elevators or whatever.

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  1. I feel you’re pain about this party. We haven’t done parties in years – not since a bunch of 5th grade boys broke a $600 plate glass window at a birthday sleepover party. After that, no more parties. I will take the kids anywhere, make them any cake or meal but the minute I minute I hear “party” I start talking about the $600 plate glass window the neighbor and I had to jerry rig one cold winter night.

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