The Quiet Misery of Children’s Birthday Parties

You get past the person at the front door. There’s throbbing music. You walk into […]

Sarah Condon / 2.15.19

You get past the person at the front door. There’s throbbing music. You walk into a sea of black lights and unfamiliar faces. While this may feel like a bad choice you made in your 20s, this is not in fact a dance club in the meatpacking district. This is a children’s birthday party. It is only 2pm. And you chose this.

I could write an entire book about how much I loathe attending children’s birthday parties. They encompass so many horrible things all in one place. And the misery starts before you even get there.

First, there is the gift-getting. You (stupidly) take your own children to purchase a gift for their friend, and you have to explain 7 times 7 that this is not a gift for you and yes that lego set is nice and you can put it on your own birthday list and yes I know your birthday is 5 months from now and yes I know that feels like A REALLY LONG TIME AWAY to you but no, we are not here to buy you something.

In most kid birthday places, there is a giant bin for depositing the presents. Then you walk in and hand said gift off like a drug addict in need of a terrible fix. No one cares if you brought a gift. No one will even notice if you didn’t. You don’t want to be there. You’re not even sure this is a good idea. And yet, these people are giving your child entertainment and cheese pizza and this is not God’s free Grace. And so you find the giant bin that is likely also a trash receptacle and deposit your offering to the gods of bounce: “Here is my child who I need to jump in an inflatable snake for an hour so she might nap. I will be paying you in a lusted after Harry Potter lego set.” Thankwelcome.

Then there’s the two hours of standing around and staring at your child. You have to make sure that the big brother some exhausted mom brought does not pummel your toddler. Or if you are the exhausted mom you have to keep yelling, “BEEEEEEE GENNNNNNNNTLE!” to your eldest son in nice mom voice at full volume. Everyone has to know you mean business but “gently.” You know, just like you are at home.

Also, you have to be on guard for whatever your child might need:

Yes you can take off your socks.

Yes I will hold your lovie.

Yes you can take off your shoes.

Yes I brought water.

No you cannot take off your dress.

I know you are hot.

But you cannot take off your dress.

And then there is the x-factor of actually talking to other parents. It is so bizarre how children’s birthday parties hit the exact same spot in my stomach as middle school dances. Questions like, “Who will I talk to?” or “Will I have friends there?” are far too loud in my head. I am a severe introvert. So I will stand in a room attempting to chitchat whilst also thinking about the dark room I will shut myself in after this whole thing we’ve called a “party” is over.

And given the lighting choices, these truly feel like places that should serve alcohol. But even if they do, it’s weird to drink because it is daytime and you have hours of parenting ahead of you. Future Sarah will hate past Sarah for that Chuck E Cheese Budweiser.

If the party is in one of those places where you earn tickets for prizes, this is always the moment when I realize that my anthropology actually isn’t low enough, especially as it pertains to myself. The last time my son was trying to exchange his 40,000 tickets for a water gun, I pushed him to the front like they were passing out eternal life. It is always heartening to know what kind of person you would have been on the Titanic.

Finally, the leaving of these children’s birthday parties is its own telenovela. If only tears could turn to asphalt. A few weeks ago I saw a mom hauling her bereft five-year-old little boy out to the car, purse in one hand, goodie bag (for the sake of all that is holy, why?) in the other all while firmly GENTLE-ing him into the car. I called out from across the lot, “It’s really hard.” And without missing a beat she called back, “HE CRIED ON THE WAY IN TOO.”

Girl, I will pray for you.

I know parents who have made big and bold decisions about these birthday parties. I know parents who refuse to have them for their kids. But I also know people who willingly live in the woods and homeschool. These sound like nice options for other people. I know parents who refuse to attend them with their kids. Since the dawn of the e-vite we can literally just ignore birthday party invitations without our children really ever knowing. So why am I still going?

For one, solidarity. If you have chosen to spend a car payment on a giant rat dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” then I will damn well show up and eat cold pizza to celebrate your child’s birthday with you. It’s practically sacramental.

But also, whenever a parenting expectation makes me weary, I remember an offhand comment my husband made to a church group some years back. It was a room full of young parents with little ones at home. We were all kvetching about how tired we were and how busy our lives felt. And he said, “Yes. This is all true. But also, this season of worn-out and overdone is also their childhood. And this is what we are doing right now.”

He says this a lot actually at home, “This is what we are doing right now.”

For some reason I thought that parenting would be an altogether different kind of doing. I thought it would help me escape so many things I do not like about myself: an inability to want to get dressed in the morning, social awkwardness, being a reluctant hugger. It turns out, it has only amplified all of these weaknesses. And when I am tossed into the threshing floor of a child’s birthday party it becomes easy to get overwhelmed. I’m ashamed that I was in pajamas up until 20 minutes ago. I have arm pit sweat about there being anyone there I know. And I still have to literally remind myself that hugging is important for our children’s mental health.

The Lord made me this way. Blame Him.

In some ways, “what we are doing right now” never really changes. Once you have kids, it is really not about you anymore, forever and amen. I have sat with enough parents of all ages to know that “what you are really doing right now” is parenting until you die. You worry about birthday parties when they are 6. You worry about their marriages when they are 36. But you show up and you love them. You take them to the parties. You compassionately put them in their car seats as they wail themselves into a sheet cake coma. You try to save enough money for college. You answer the phone when they call about a lost job. And you just keep hugging them.

Besides as much as I dislike children’s birthday parties, my kids think they are a blast. And so we do them. Because this is what we are doing right now.