At the risk of sounding like a birthday Grinch, I’ll admit: I don’t enjoy hosting my kids’ birthday parties, especially large ones. Does that make me a terrible parent?
As a mom, I do some things very well, but organizing elaborate social gatherings is not one of them. I admire those of you who are party-planning pros, since my skills and confidence in this area are minimal. The weeks leading up to the so-called “fun” event to celebrate my child’s glorious arrival into the world are filled with tension, overanalysis, self-doubt, and a long list of tasks and errands intended to make everything “perfect.”
When you pause to think about it, it’s a little ironic. My child’s actual birth was (to put it delicately) an arduous experience for me. But does enduring those many hours of labor give me a free pass on the same date in every year that follows? No — just the opposite.
In my case, planning a large-scale party causes stress from a variety of angles, such as:
- Venue. I can’t afford an offsite birthday party involving trampolines, bowling, virtual reality, or laser tag. As a result, our kids’ parties were always held at home, which involved a lot of work to make everything presentable, reconfigure the furniture, and clean up afterward. As much as I wish I could be a laid-back host, I can’t stop fretting about things that could be spilled, stained, damaged, or broken.
- Food. I fear I will make a disastrous blunder, like running out of beverages or burning the meal. I want to be sensitive to my guests’ dietary requirements and allergies, but it does add to the cost and complexity of the menu. As for dessert, a custom-ordered cake is too expensive, and I don’t have the time or skill to create an edible masterpiece.
- Guest list. It takes thoughtful preparation to entertain and accommodate guests of all ages, from rambunctious young cousins to elderly grandparents. Depending on your child’s age, two separate events may be required: a “family” party for relatives plus a “friend” party with a few school pals. (If you’ve ever been the brave kindergarten parent who invited the entire class, I’m here to salute you — and pass you the Advil.)
- Timing. Parents of December babies, this one’s for you. The holiday season is busy enough, and jamming another gathering into the schedule may be impossible. Choosing an optimal date for a summer birthday party can also present a challenge when people are on vacation.
- Mixed messages. Some kids are naturally shy and uncomfortable being the center of attention, even on their birthdays. I’ve always felt awkward about the “gift circle,” where the birthday child unwraps each present in front of their spectating peers. If you’re trying to instill the values of unselfishness and generosity in your child, an overly indulgent birthday that’s “all about them” might be confusing and counterproductive.
- Resources. A production of this size requires extra time, money, and energy — none of which I have in reserve. On most days, I feel like I’m barely keeping up with life as it is. Single-handedly organizing a social event could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Our family budget is also stretched to its limit, so there’s no room for a big transaction from Party City for decorations and a Minion-shaped piñata.
- Guilt. When it comes to hosting (or not hosting) birthday parties, the guilt is real. We feel compelled to live up to the expectations from family, friends, and social media. We’ve been conditioned to believe it’s something that a “good parent” should do, and that it should be a lavish affair with an on-trend theme and homemade organic cake pops. Thanks for nothing, Pinterest.
After several years of parties that left me frazzled and deflated, I realized that my kids weren’t enjoying this annual tradition, either. During the festivities, they frequently displayed the classic symptoms of overstimulation — fussing, whining and clinging to me — causing an unwanted scene and making my hosting duties even more difficult.
It was my younger son who finally articulated what we were all feeling: “Mom, I don’t like birthday parties. It’s just… too much.”
That’s when it dawned on me: we don’t have to do a giant party. We have a choice.
For a time, the pandemic made large gatherings impossible (forbidden, even!) and for some of us it was a merciful reprieve. Maybe the break has caused you to re-evaluate if full-blown birthday parties are right for your family. If you’re looking for alternatives, here are some ideas:
Simplify things by having a small party with just a few VIP guests, such as grandparents or godparents.
Simplify the menu.
If feeding the group is a main source of angst, choose a different strategy. Host a brunch with muffins and coffee instead of a full-blown dinner. Recruit the master bakers in your circle to help out with dessert. Order pizza or takeout, if your budget allows. Whatever you decide, communicate the details to guests ahead of time, so they know what to expect. You can also simplify the loot bags, by choosing this cute custom, and inexpensive option.
Book some quality time.
Instead of an old-fashioned party, give the gift of a unique and personal experience. After my son voiced his concerns about birthday parties, we completely revamped our approach. One year, we took him skating and out for lunch; the next year, to the pet store to buy a goldfish. Another year, his grandma spent the day with him at a Legoland Discovery Centre, and the year after that, his cousins met up with us at Ripley’s Aquarium. These one-time experiences were decidedly more memorable and meaningful to him than any party.
Choose one friend.
Mark the occasion by inviting your child’s best buddy to a playdate, movie, or trip to the children’s museum. A two-person mini-party may be just the ticket for your child to relax and fully enjoy the experience.
Celebrate their “half-birthday”.
If your child’s birthday occurs at a busy time of year, calculate their half-birthday (6 months from their actual birthdate) to assess if it would provide better timing, availability, or weather.
If you have more than one child, cut your hosting in half by combining their birthday celebrations. Or, join forces with extended family members born at a similar time of the year. You can cover multiple birthdays with one event and save money by doing a potluck or splitting the food bill.
Some people enjoy the grand scale of large-group birthday parties — I know a family who fondly refer to their gatherings as “cake and chaos.” On the other hand, if a big party feels stressful or excessive to you, you’re not alone. The song says “Happy Birthday,” not “Ulcer-Inducing Birthday” — so trust your instincts on what is right for you, and your child. By thinking outside the box, you might be able to have your cake and eat it, too.