One night after my kids were all tucked in bed, my 6-year-old came back downstairs and thrust a stack of paper at my husband and me.
"What's this?" I asked, fanning the mini novel with my thumb. Judging from the length I was guessing a grocery list for the Chinese army, or an alphabetical list of all the people living in our state.
"I wrote down all the places it would be okay for you to have my birthday party," she said. Glancing through, I didn't notice "backyard/basement for rain contingency", which is pretty much what I had in mind. It had worked perfectly for the first six years and I assumed we'd just keep it as the status quo until she graduated.
"Oh, and don't forget the goodie bags!" She called over her shoulder as she started back upstairs, no doubt to dream about her upcoming over-the-top evening of enchantment.
First on the list was a kiddie spa place where little girls (and boys too, I suppose) could get made-over to look like Honey Boo Boo but glitterier. It had a VIP option where a limo comes to pick up the kids, perhaps to drop them off on street corners on the way home to make some money back. My first thought was that there's no way in hell I'm shelling out $35/head for my daughter and her friends to get hooker makeovers when I'm over here trimming my split ends with fingernail clippers. No way. Next.
I spent the next few days doing some research — making my way through her list as well as recalling some of the parties my kids had already attended. I concluded the only limit to throwing the party of your kids' dreams is how far you want to dip into their college savings accounts. Rock climbing, pottery, dollhouse workshops. Warehouses filled wall-to-wall with trampolines and bounce houses. Rock star music sessions, American Girl doll stores, petting zoos.
Also, here's a fun fact — did you know you can actually rent a real life unicorn to show up at your child's birthday party? Let that sink in for just a second. A REAL LIFE UNICORN. My seven-year-old head would have exploded.
I wondered how kids' birthday parties had spiraled so out of control. Call me old fashioned, but when exactly did parents decide that a box cake and backyard swing set weren't cutting it? I can promise you it didn't start with the kids. In all my years of attending birthday parties as a child, I never once heard any kid complain that there weren't enough real life unicorns prancing around. The expectation was that everyone had a birthday party in their backyard, period. Well, everyone except the two rich kids, who had their parties at The Wheel Thing roller skating rink and the highlight was when everyone got unlimited fountain soda. Oh and P.S. the whole class was invited because the party didn't cost five million dollars.
But at this point we're well past The Wheel Thing — once the bar is set at limos and unicorn rides it's hard to go backwards. But where do kids go from there? I can't imagine the rest of your life being anything but a huge disappointment if you kick it off with champagne wishes and caviar dreams at such an early age.
As much as I want to tell you we ignored the trend and had a backyard soiree, in the end we caved.
"It's for a birthday party for my daughter," I told the banker as he drew up the papers for a second mortgage. "One of those stores where kids build their own stuffed animal." I saw his eyes roll above his computer screen.
We brought store-bought cupcakes; lugging a homemade cake from home seemed too risky. My husband and I ate a couple as we watched the employee force the girls to sing a song while they paraded everyone around the store. We couldn't help but feel like a couple of sell outs.
"At least she's having a good time," I said, licking icing off my thumb. "And the good thing is there's no clean up."
"For this price we could have paid a team of fairies to clean up our house," he said. "But good cupcakes, though."
Though we compromised, I did have to draw the line somewhere.
As we were wrapping up and the parents began to arrive, I felt a tug on my shirt. "Excuse me, Ellie's Mom? Where are the goodie bags?" I looked down and saw one of her little friends looking at me expectantly. I didn't have the heart to disappoint her.
"Oh they're outside in the parking lot honey," I said, motioning toward the door. "Right next to the real life unicorn."
Hannah Mayer is a nationally award-winning blogger, humor columnist and exponentially blessed wife and mother of three. She would trade everything for twelve uninterrupted hours in a room with Jon Hamm and two Ambien. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter or at her blog, sKIDmarks.