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Birthday Party Blues

  • Suzanne Pearson
  • Published Dec 19, 2001
Birthday Party Blues
Over the years on my birthday, I have occasionally received from my mother a sentimental greeting card saying something to the effect of, “The day you were born was the happiest day of my life.”

Of course, this is because I was born in the early 70’s when “natural childbirth” was only something you read about in National Geographic. My mother spent the better part of the day of my birth under enough heavy medication to placate a rhinoceros. She could’ve been run over by a lawn mower and it still would’ve been the happiest day of her life.

My husband has also been known to say that our sons’ births represent the happiest days of his life but I’m fairly certain that the reason for this is that the hospital had approximately 56 cable TV channels. (Note: Many of these channels, as it turns out, cost money to watch, and the charges are added to your hospital bill. Furthermore, the insurance companies for some reason don’t like to pay for these charges. But I digress.)

Prescription narcotics and premium TV privileges aside, we parents DO come to idealize and cherish our children’s dates of birth, and when those dates roll around each year, we naturally want to celebrate them.

AND THUS IT WAS SO … On the 365th day, man created children’s birthday parties.

Now, if we were rational, sane adults we would realize that the word “celebrate” does not, in reality, mean “put oneself through two or more hours of chaotic, nerve-frying torture”. But we are NOT sane, rational adults. We are PARENTS.

I can’t help but wonder who the first person was to think of having a birthday party for their young child …

“Abraham, Isaac’s birthday is coming up. What shall we do to celebrate the happiest day of our lives?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question, Sarah. Hey, I have an idea! Let’s invite as many small children as we can over to the house and pump their bodies full of large amounts of sugar!!”

“Abraham, that is a fantastic idea! I’ll go buy some pointy hats and noise makers.”

And here we are, many, many generations later, and we still haven’t learned. My husband, Barry and I, to date, have hosted and survived eight birthday parties for our sons. Before you congratulate us on our strength and stamina, I must tell you that the only reason we are alive today is that the Lord mercifully made our children’s birthdays six months apart, thus giving us the maximum “birthday party recovery” buffer between the two events. If we had to do it any more often, we would definitely have been committed by now. (We have some friends with TWO children born within a week of Christmas -- every year our church holds a prayer vigil on their behalf.)

For us, the insanity started with our oldest son Caleb’s first birthday. Being the conscientious parent that I am, I turned to my trusty parenting book, “Idiot’s Guide to Not Completely Messing Up Your Kid”. The book explained that one-year-olds are not really capable of withstanding the pomp and circumstance of a birthday party. A small family gathering with a low noise-level is recommended. Barry and I pondered this psychological truth and then promptly invited 50 of our closest friends and relatives to our “small family gathering”.

Caleb, of course, had just a marvelous time. Despite the fact that we had planned around his nap schedule, he slept for the first 45 minutes of the party. Then when he finally woke up we stuck him in a high chair and sang and took a large number of flash photographs of him. We now treasure those photos, especially the look on his face in each one which seems to say, “Who in the world ARE these people?” The highlight of the party, however, was when we plopped him down in his brand-new little rocking chair -- a gift from his great-grandparents. He sat for approximately 2.3 seconds before losing his balance, tipping over sideways, and bonking his head on the brick fireplace. Happy Birthday, Buddy!

His little brother Jonah’s first birthday wasn’t much better. Being much wiser now, we only invited about 25 people. I asked my friend and neighbor, Wendy, to bake Jonah’s birthday cake. She produced a beautiful 3-tiered masterpiece where the top tier is the perfect size to be removed and given to the birthday child. Friends gathered around adoring my precious son as he tentatively scooped a bit of the cake up in his fingers. Videotapes rolled as he gleefully popped the first yummy bite into his mouth. And then all 25 guests, including Wendy the cake-maker, watched in horror as seconds later Jonah contorted his face like a gargoyle and then threw up. The awkward silence that followed was broken only by three-year old Caleb who said, “Mommy, I don’t think I want any cake.”

Nowadays, my children are old enough to express opinions about the birthday party planning. Last year, Caleb decided that he wanted a “Star Wars” theme for his fifth birthday. Because my mission in life is to make my son happy, I drove to 68 different stores in search of Star Wars party supplies. Let’s just say the force was NOT with me. I saw all manner of cool boy-party ideas like baseball, racecars, etc. -- all of which I suggested to my son. Caleb gripped his plastic light saber tightly and held his ground. Finally, I did what any decent American parent would do -- I ordered the stuff off the Internet.

When the package arrived, I was actually pretty pumped up about it. I called Caleb down excitedly to show him the assortment of brightly colored Star Wars party items. Luke Skywalker himself would have been proud. Caleb, on the other hand, sighed deeply and said, “I changed my mind. I want a baseball party.” This time I grimaced like a gargoyle and threw up.

Another year the boys spotted a piñata at the party store and wanted to give that a try. We started out in the traditional way of having the kids take turns hitting the piñata while blindfolded. After about 3 minutes of that, I was down one potted plant and Barry had bruises rising up on his knees and thighs. We decided that, as a general rule, CHILDREN HOLDING BASEBALL BATS SHOULD NEVER BE BLINDFOLDED. So we let them hit the piñata with clear sight. And they hit it. And hit it. And whacked it. And whacked it some more. Seven-year old Gabe beat the living daylights out of this piñata, yet not one single piece of candy was able to escape. The thing was like a paper-mache fortress! Eventually, the kids started wandering off one by one leaving Barry hacking away at said piñata with a Craftsman handsaw.

Perhaps the most essential element of a child’s birthday party, one that simply cannot be eliminated, is the CRYING. I have a hunch that whoever wrote the song, “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To” had recently hosted a child’s birthday party. Barry and I often entertain ourselves at children’s parties by taking bets on how many times the birthday child will cry. The average seems to be somewhere around the neighborhood of 5-6 times, depending on blood sugar level and barometric pressure.

And the reasons for the tears are just phenomenal. I have collected a sampling from my sons of the explanations for their tears at their own birthday parties. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

1. “J.B. said that Darth Maul could beat up Darth Vader.”
2. “When you sang ‘Happy Birthday’, you sang it TOO FAST.”
3. “Jessica said I’m never gonna be older than her cause she has birthdays too.”
4. “I wanted the blue whistle and the green yo-yo in my treat bag but I got a green whistle and a blue yo-yo.”
5. “I just fell out of a rocking chair and bonked my head on the brick fireplace.”

Regardless of the day’s events, the aftermath is always the same. Scraps of wrapping paper and popped balloons litter the floor. A half-dozen chocolate-icing handprints pepper the kitchen wall. A pile of newly opened toys lay abandoned in a heap while the birthday child and his siblings fight over a chewed-up Nerf football they’ve had for three years. And the parents are sitting in a corner in the fetal position, rocking back and forth and murmuring, “It was the happiest day of our lives.”

The morals of my story are as follows:

1. When it comes to your child’s birth, it is perfectly acceptable to proceed with or without medication. For the birthday parties, however, I recommend having both Tylenol and Motrin on hand.

2. A good rule of thumb: Serve the cake and ice cream approximately 15 to 20 minutes before sending the children home with their parents.

3. Avoid rocking chairs and brick fireplaces at all costs.

Suzanne Pearson just recently survived Jonah’s third birthday and is currently in therapy awaiting Caleb’s sixth birthday next March.