Party monsters

Anatomy of a kid’s birthday: expensive, excessive, insane

It was a high-pitced, strangled sound, not unlike what a squirrel might make if you hold its tiny head under a tiny pillow. But it wasn’t a sound from a forest hospice; it came from my throat, and toward a woman in a grocery-store bakery smock: “I said chocolate icing with vanilla cake! I know chocolate icing when I see it and THE PARTY IS IN ONE HOUR!”

In situations of trauma, the self fragments protectively, and this factoid came to me as I floated outside my body, looking down at a suffocating-squirrel mother with her puzzled three-year-old chewing a twist tie. Hovering, Better Me thought, The world has gone mad. It’s an f’n birthday party.

Or is it? The site, co-run by William Doherty – the same heroic Minnesota social-science professor who coined the term “overscheduled kids” – claims that birthday-party stress is real. Parents are anxious, kids are melting down and a burgeoning industry is pushing $1,200 inflatable obstacle courses and $10 for each pre-ordered loot bag. Bring in “live” pirates for your boy, and treat your girly girl to a spa party with a mini-manicure, starting at age three. One mom on sheepishly admitted to renting a tiger cub for her son’s first birthday and a limo for his third.

Limos aren’t part of my world, financially, socially or, frankly, aesthetically, so it’s easy for me to opt out of this brand of excess with a scoff. For my kids’ first birthdays, my partner and I followed the sensible rule of no more guests than the age of the child. We had a cake, sang a song and gave a present. I was proud of my restraint. I was also deluded.

Now, our weekends are spent amongst screaming kids, thousands of them, teeming from the closets and curtains. Moms and dads attempt conversations that are sliced down mid-sentence by the birthday boy/girl’s post-presents hissy fit. Noble hosts fool themselves that it’s possible to have a good grown-up time, but the promised glass of wine is always half-drunk, clouded with wadded clown napkins, a regurgitated cake chunk sunk to the bottom like sand.

And yet, when my son’s third birthday came around, it seemed imperative that we do something. He had begun to ask: Do I have a birthday? We were vague, but when he produced his passport, we could no longer get around it.

We tried to stick to our rule by inviting two very close friends. But what’s a party without the cousins? And what exactly will happen at this party anyway? Will the wild things just rumpus about, trapped in our tiny house a week before Christmas, poking each other with candy canes? And so it was that I found myself buying T-shirts and fabric paints and helium balloons, while working full-time. I capped the week off by unleashing on the grocery-cake clerk like a bride at a caterer. An epiphany: Kiddie birthdays are the new weddings.

As with weddings, the rage for perfection is so intense because it’s a one-day extravaganza with no do-overs: Emmett won’t turn one again, so it better be good, bridesmaids! Er, babies. For a new mom, the desire is to prove that the baby is the new priority. And so, gone are the hours filled with preparing an excellent PowerPoint presentation; behold the balloon-animal-making, nut-free-cake-baking mom in the ‘hood.

The day (my special day – er, baby’s special day) of the party becomes a stage for parents – by which I mean mothers – to show off their new identities. Look who I am now. Like my career, mothering is another domain I’ve mastered. But friends, gather round and take note of my gigantic pink clown wig: I’m still all about the fun!

Perhaps a parent who spends US$38,000 on her child’s birthday, as reported in Time magazine, has some status issues, but for most of us, the impulse arises out of a sweet place: You’re trying to give your kids an experience that you missed out on, or trying to recreate an experience that you loved. Thus, the daughters of the feminist revolution are hell-bent on making their own mark: “I may have had carob cake, but my kid’s getting a Dora-themed ice-cream country.” Nostalgia, as it’s been said, is a longing for something that never existed.

The problem is, birthdays are supposed to be about the kids. Did my son really care what kind of icing was on his cake? He ate three bites and ran off to play with a toilet-paper tube. I took Advil.