Sunday, October 25, 2009
The day turned out to be clear and cool. Scattered showers that had been forecast knew better than to rain on our parade. The bright balloon announcing “Happy Birthday” fluttered in the breeze, as it’s string clung to our mailbox post. The treasure hunt clues were all printed out and stacked on the table. The Star Wars plates and matching cups lined up like soldiers on the plastic tablecloth. One little boy, who was turning into a bigger boy, had been up since dawn, whispering in his weary parents’ ears, “So, today’s the day! You wanna talk about my birthday party?!”
When you have four children, with a decade worth of spacing between them, it can be hard to get geared up for yet another birthday party. Heck, with six people in the house it seems like we have a birthday looming just about every other week. By the time Sam was born we’d done our fair share of the hoopla celebrations, full of balloons and party games and frosting in the carpet and fruit punch all over the kitchen floor. So we had to gear up and remind ourselves that this was a new one. A new person who had never had his own parties and whose birthday was just as important to him as it was to our firstborn when she was our only born.
In the first years of his life we got off easy. Three different years we had just moved to a new state and a little family recognition after dinner was enough to count as a party. On his fourth party we branched out and invited the family across the street to come eat cake with us. That seemed important enough, and because they had a little boy Sam’s age, it felt like he had ‘friends’ at his party. Our tradition of faking his party was quickly drawing to a close as he got old enough to remember the parties we threw when it was time for big brothers or sisters’ birthdays.
But we have found some other coping mechanisms when it comes to kids and birthday parties. One year I was groaning to my sister over the long distance phone line about how my two January kids were soon going to start planning their next parties and it was just wearing me out. She told me about a common practice in her Dallas neighborhood that really appealed to me. Their kids get two options. They can have a big cake, ice cream, and party games ordeal, for a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon. Or they can choose to have just one friend come over and enjoy a whole day/night of pampering and fun - a fancy dinner, maybe a movie out, a sleepover and big breakfast in the morning. Much less work for the parents and sometimes a lot more special for the kid.
The idea started because kids were stressing too much about how to pare down the list of potential party guests. Between school friends, sports friends, girl scout/boy scout friends, church friends, and neighbor friends, it was too hard to ‘just pick eight’. So the one friend party helped solve the problem. We stole my sister’s idea and watched our kids, especially the older ones, really enjoy their special night of pampering.
Then we came up with a third option. At the time, we lived in a city that had Amtrak tracks running right through it, headed to St. Louis in one direction, Kansas City in the other. Fares were cheap for weekend getaways to the big cities. We began to offer our kids the option of skipping the big party, skipping the one friend party, and instead going on an overnight trip, all alone with the parent of their choice.
Our kids loved the idea. An exciting ride on the train. A night exploring the big city. A hotel room bed to jump on. And NO siblings around! Just mom or dad all to themselves. Cost wise maybe it was a bit more expensive. But by using Jeff’s saved hotel points from work travel, it pretty much ended up being not that bad, financially. As we moved to other states, the options for overnight trips expanded. Isaac and Jeff had an amazing time on a jet ski, exploring a beautiful lake in southern Idaho, when we lived in Utah. The experiences from those trips are still discussed when birthday memories is our topic of conversation.
Sometimes I still feel like Sam gets short changed. The big kids just don’t get that pure adrenaline excitement that comes with an approaching birthday anymore. But Sam’s still very eligible. On his sixth birthday we had just moved to New York, just bought a house, and just torn it up to renovate it. Only the basics were unpacked. The parts of the house that were not taped off with construction sheeting were full of dust covered boxes. But it was his birthday and he was old enough to know it.
We invited a handful of kids from his new kindergarten class and hoped for the best. The moving boxes made nice seats for parents who stayed to watch and the treasure hunt was a breeze with so many nooks and crannies to hide clues and prizes. One of Sam’s best friends recently told me he remembers Sam’s first New York party. “Yeah, that’s the one where we had that great treasure hunt!” No memories of moving boxes or power tools laying around. I guess for little people, birthdays are sacred. And their celebration is completely necessary.
Even for old, worn out parents.