My daughter's excitement about birthdays, parties, and who is having them, at 5, seems near peak. She brings home rumors of who is having what party and where. I get the sense that kids talk in grandiose ways about their imagined parties, over and over again. Chuck E. Cheese's is like a dream palace. I think I can still remember those times, when a birthday — yours, or a party to attend — was a fantastically special adventure. The one time when you got to call a few shots.
Except, now I can't tolerate kids' birthdays. I dread them. I dread bringing my child to them. I resent the last-minute gift seeking that occurs the morning or evening before the party, wherein my child freaks out about having to give something she really wants away; I feel anxious trying to interpret the party invitation rules, stated or not, on gifts and sibling and parent presence; and I dread the entry into either strange or all-too-familiar groups of parents, where we tend to have the same conversations, mildly and distractedly.
Then there is the basically strange social phenomenon of watching your kids party. It is often something I'd simply rather not watch, from the endearing surprises to the conspicuous consumption to Lord of the Flies-type herd behavior. As a parent, you're still on, in charge of safety and your child's behavior in a new environment. Worse, you're on display. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Am I alone? Maybe it's just fatigue and the realization that birthdays never go away. We're on a circuit that seems impossible to step off. Sometimes we work all the way to Friday only to look at the calendar and realize we have two parties in one day, or two parties in conflict that we didn't notice — and this is for one child! My younger daughter has only been invited to one party, and I had to cancel because my older daughter had a party at the same time.
I suppose the overriding issue here is that I resent the fact that my child has a social calendar. I feel a jolt of pleasure when we land at the kids' party that offers adult beverages, and it dawns on me that we (adults) never party. Parents of young children rarely host and attend parties for themselves. Instead we end up at the zoo and the playground and the hobby farm, the roller rinks, the cupcakery, and the gymnastics or nature center and hope we can power through till bedtime.
When it's your kid's turn, the stress rises with age as you perform the awkward dance between enjoying your kid's innocent fantasies and sticking to your eroding standards for quality fun. Last year, it took me weeks to come up with a party for my own child that was small, active, non-weather-dependent, nearly free, and met her all-girlie pink-princess desires about halfway — and, most importantly, was not at our house. We went ice-skating in tiaras. I've begun to understand why my sister does a favorite dinner and cake for her children. The celebration stays in the family.
I used to enjoy the parties. They were once a simple way to socialize with other adults without your kids getting in the way too much. They were a way to get out of the house, without having to find some other space. In fact, they seemed ideal — a house or space just for kids! But then you go to a few more. You go to that one where your kid is crying the whole time or being mean to everyone. You go to one where everyone contracts a raging stomach virus. You get stuck in repetitive conversations, you forget people's names right away, and you attend still more in which your kid makes embarrassing demands for favors, citing other people's parties or, worse, simply doesn't manage to enjoy herself at all on a sunny afternoon in the park when everyone else is enjoying themselves with lemonade and cold pizza. In fact, some parties seem to bring out the worst in every child, and I wonder, what are we doing? Just, why?
In reality, most parties end up being among our friends, with children we love and know well. They are relaxed affairs where children play and eat cake and throw water balloons. I can handle these. I enjoy the flushed faces, the mob of kids moving at full speed, and the achievement, within a group of parents, of a small realm of glory, the truly special day. We go home tired and happy and don't have to feed our children dinner.
I remember my earliest birthday party. I was 3, maybe 4. I demanded a Snoopy cake with vanilla frosting and jelly beans, and later that evening, after everyone had gone home, I threw it up on the bathroom floor. I loved that party.