The Birthday Dilemma: To Party, or Not To Party?

Campbell’s big birthday gift: a lion costume.

Campbell turned three last month, and we threw her a party. More accurately, she had THREE parties: an early extended-family celebration orchestrated by her grandparents when we were in Maine, a family day with presents and cake on her actual birthday, and a small party with friends. We come from a family, on both sides, that likes to celebrate.

Campbell and her cake at her family party.

And celebrations are right and good. But what I’m concerned with here is what I’ll call the “Friend Party:” the party that involves a theme, balloons on the mailbox, matching cups and plates and napkins, activities or entertainment for the children who attend, and goodie bags on the way out.

We’ve never made a big deal of our girls’ first birthdays, since they clearly won’t remember the event — and also because, at one year old, they don’t have any friends to speak of. (At that age, friendships are arranged along the lines of: I like your mom, so we’re going to prop our babies up and pretend that they’re friends so that we can hang out together.)  However, we’ve done some version of a Friend Party for each of our girls starting with their second birthdays. Not big-deal parties, mind you: we’ve never hired entertainment, I make the cake myself, and we try to stick to the rule of inviting as many friends as the child is turning in years (two for the second birthday, three for the third, etc.) — although that rule becomes almost impossible once school starts.

Campbell’s Friend Party was fairly low-key. We successfully limited the guest list to three children. It had a lion theme, but I got all the trimmings at the Dollar Store and made the cake myself. The kids decorated toilet-paper-roll binoculars, went on a little “safari” for plastic animals around our yard, played “Pin the Mane on the Lion,” ate cake, and splashed in the wading pool.

Campbell and cake #2, at her Friend Party.

It was a LOT of work. I was EXHAUSTED. We had a 2:1 child to adult ratio, and still the party seemed always to be on the verge of disaster: Brinkley (our adopted dog) running over and jumping in the wading pool, lemonade spills, goodie bags that fell apart, fights over who got which cupcake.

The goodie bags….

Did Campbell have a good time? I guess. When questioned as to whether she had fun, she said, “Yeah,” and went on about her business. I’m not sure that she actually shrugged when she said it, but that was the implication.

Will Campbell remember her third birthday party in 30 years? Almost certainly not, if Erick and I are any indication. After Campbell’s party, as we sat our wrecked bodies on the couch to debrief, Erick pointed out that both of our mothers had probably put a lot of time and effort into Friend Parties for US. From old photos, I know this to be true. Do Erick and I remember a single  childhood birthday party? Not a one.

I’m starting to think that Friend Parties don’t provide a very good return on investment.

I’m starting to think that Friend Parties are more for the parents than for our children: I felt like a GREAT mother while I was spending hours decorating the cake and the house. (And no parent wants “lack of adequate birthday celebrations” to be added to the list of reasons our children end up in therapy in 20 years).

In short, I’m starting to think that Friend Parties are not a very good idea, and I’m trying to find a way to stop throwing them — or at least, to stop throwing them for EVERY child, EVERY year.

In fact, it’s recently come to my attention, through conversations with family and friends, that many — if not MOST — parents do not throw each of their children a Friend Party for every birthday. I don’t know why I never got this memo, but I sincerely wish that somebody had told me this before Fiona turned two. What do I know? I grew up an only child; EVERY year was a Friend Party year.

The problem is, now I’m locked in to throwing Friend Parties for each of my children from the ages of two to five, because that’s what we did for Fiona. Isn’t it a rule of parenting that what you do for one child, you pretty much have to do for all the others? I don’t want Campbell and Georgia telling their therapists that we loved Fiona more, because she got the most Friend Parties.

So, here is my resolution, and you can hold me to it: I’m going to keep any Friend Parties as small and simple as possible, and after age five, my girls will be told that since they are more “grown up,” they can now have “Big Girl Birthday Parties” involving a special family celebration and perhaps a tea party or movie date with up to two friends.

Friend Parties are NOT at all a bad thing, and I’m sure many mothers throw them every year for every child without feeling the least bit frazzled. But for us, it’s time to downsize. When the amount of pleasure my children take in a party isn’t outweighing the amount of blood, sweat and tears I’ve put into planning the party, something’s got to give.

And really, aren’t birthday parties supposed to be about love? About celebrating the special life of a loved one? If I’m sending my girls — and myself — the message that love always has to come with balloons and streamers and matching paper products and goodie bags, I’m just setting them up for disillusionment. I’m setting them up to become like me: the me who was crushed our first Easter as a married couple because Erick didn’t get me a gift or a card. Who expects gifts and cards on Easter beyond childhood?!? you may ask. I did.

In the immortal words of Leonard Cohen: Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken “Hallelujah.” It’s a silly luxury to ruminate so much about birthday parties. But it just may be that birthday parties are as good a place as any to begin preparing my girls for the world, by teaching them to accept love in smaller ways.

6 thoughts on “The Birthday Dilemma: To Party, or Not To Party?

  1. Julie Yip-Williams

    Faith, I just started thinking about throwing a birthday party for my soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter and so your blog post comes at a particularly opportune time, especially since I was thinking that I SHOULD throw her an elaborate themed Friends Birthday Party (not because I really wanted to). You’ve given me many reasons not to, so thank you! But I still must ponder further…

    1. Faith

      Oh Julie, definitely ponder further! I’d hate to think that I was giving anyone advice on this one; it totally varies based on age, number of kids, and maternal fortitude! FOR ME, three major friend parties per year seems overwhelming — other moms probably do this without breaking a sweat. If there’s any advice to be taken from my post, it’s to just consider whether this is something that you want to do every single year, for every single child. Always good to have a plan, right? I know your daughter will have a special birthday, no matter what you decide to do 🙂

  2. Melissa

    So interesting. It’s funny because my family NEVER had friend parties. Maybe because there were 6 of us. And both my parents had big families (dad with 5 siblings and mom with 9 siblings). The “friends” were the family at our parties!! Every year there was a cake, but was only shared with family. Maybe a friend or two would be around, but that’s it! And my twin bro and I had our own weird thing happening in terms of birthdays. We were born on Christmas eve. And anyone born around this time knows that friend parties are impossible anyway. There were pluses and minuses to it. My extended family were around for our birthdays, which was a special treat. But we also weren’t the only ones getting gifts. Everyone else was too! By the time we were adults it was as if our birthdays never existed. People would say, “merry Christmas” and later on (perhaps a day or two later) say,”wait….wasn’t there something I was supposed to say to you? I can’t put my finger on it…”. I still remember my mom forgetting to say, “happy birthday” one year, but i forgive her of course. My mom was afterall the person who planned and put the Christmas party together. She was a busy woman who was always the life of the party and so giving toward others (R.I.P. mom).
    Now the “2 gifts” thing as a holiday baby….As a child it was all good. So many gifts! Then, “this gift is worth two,” to , “oh yeah, it’s your birthday?”
    So Faith, you’ve got quite a few kids! If I were you, I would try not to have friend parties every year. Perhaps for big birthdays like 10, 13, 16. I think there is still something quite special and intimate about sharing your birthdays with family only. I mean, families are born out of birthdays. Plus make sure u celebrate. You did after all give birth all those three special days. Hopefully when the kids are older they’ll realize that they should be thanking you, Erick and God for their birthday!

  3. Annie

    My mom (the oldest of 3) was always offered a choice: a Friend Party, or she and one friend could go together to a Broadway show. She picked the show most years. My mom offered me the same choice, and I picked the friend party all years but one. It was nice to have the option, though!

  4. Pingback: Fiona. « THE PICKLE PATCH

  5. Pingback: Georgia, Bustin’ Out All Over | THE PICKLE PATCH

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