Birthday Hoopla

We went to the perfect birthday party this weekend. No goodie-bags, no expensive fuss, none of the current commercialized competimommy hoopla that seems to make contemporary birthday parties a giant headache for everyone involved. There was just nice food and good company, with simple celebratory homemade decorations. A half-dozen babies were there, far outnumbered by adults, and everything was calm enough that the kids were well-behaved. My friend’s apartment is small enough that all the guests stayed congenially close together. The birthday-girl took her time opening presents, casually, whenever there was a pause in the other openended, unchoreographed playing. This is the kind of party that I hope to have for Sophie next month when she turns two.

This month’s edition of Parents Magazine has a cover article on “Birthdays that Wow,” but, you now, showing off in a way that wows my friends is not my goal. Making everyone feel welcome and comfortable while celebrating a child’s development: that’s my goal. Weird that that feels radically against the grain.

We have been to too many headache-inducing birthday parties lately. I actually don’t understand pinatas: why would we encourage children to wait around for their turn to whack at some creature, then greedily scramble for candy? I don’t understand Easter-Egg hunts, either, come to think of it, so this concern with the overly-structured chaos of rushes-for-candy isn’t limited to birthday parties alone. I don’t understand goodie-bags: it’s generally useless plastic stuff for children who can’t just enjoy a party for itself, and for hosts who already have enough else to worry about. I don’t understand the whole emphasis on themes. When a friend asked me what theme we were having for Sophie’s first birthday party, all I could think of was, “We survived the first year,” and “She didn’t die of SIDS.” But now, I have been to enough other parties that I’m thinking I should choose a theme for Soph’s second birthday. Still, I have yet to meet a toddler who cares about the decoration of the invitation. Does this make me a grouch?

My own childhood memories don’t include all this birthday-party hoopla. My childhood birthday parties never had themes. A few of my friend’s parties had destinations (we went roller-skating once, memorably), but even that was rare and didn’t start until late elementary school. There were never goodie-bags for the guests. Isn’t getting cake and company enough?

At last weekend’s party, the birthday-girl most enjoyed having the “Happy Birthday” song sung to her. She just beamed and wiggled her toes, so the guests sang it many times. That was wow enough. It turns out that Sophie really likes singing “Happy Birthday.” Sophie kept singing “Happy Birthday,” over and over, even in the car on the way home. It was all very cute and admirably non-materialistic.

Embarrasingly, Sophie was actually the worst-behaved guest at the whole party. She tends to throw an overly-dramatic tantrum whenever someone takes what she thinks of as Her Toy. But the tantrums are brief and distractable, and she also exhibits a generosity that we can try to steer her towards. Sophie earnestly works to make sure that everyone gets to hold their own balloon or taste the tasty pizza. We had selected some of Sophie’s favorite books as a present for the birthday girl, and after Sophie got over her panic that we might be giving away her precious copy of Goodnight Gorilla and Red Hat Blue Hat, then the two of them loved reading these books to each other. Maybe that’s what made the birthday party so enjoyable: Sophie and the birthday-girl share similar tastes. I and the birthday-girl’s-mom share similar tastes.

It’s been surprisingly hard to find that kind of mom-friend. Maybe I’m just not good enough at switching from playground small-talk to true friendship. Or maybe I and the birthday-girl’s-mom are just too unusual. Both of us are worried for the upcoming loneliness of my summer away.

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