Over my eleven years as a stay-at-home parent, I’ve thrown my share of over-the-top, Pinterest-perfect birthday parties for my three kids. Themed menus, original games and curated goodie bags have built a reserve of fun memories for my kids, and a reputation for myself as a master party planner. When it comes to celebrations, I’ve always been the hostess with the mostest.
But this year, after going back to work nearly full-time, I found myself a few days out from my oldest son’s eleventh birthday with nary a plan—or a Pinterest board—in sight. Being a working parent is a tough gig, and the load of it all had caused my former party planning gusto to fall by the wayside. As a matter of fact, I decided I wasn’t even going to throw my son a party at all, figuring this could be one of those off years when we just go out for nice dinner and call it a day. But a few days before his birthday, we suddenly found ourselves out of school (and work) for an extra week due to a teacher strike in Arizona, where we live.
It dawned on me that this temporary reprieve provided a unique opportunity. Not only did I have a couple of days to toss something together for my son’s birthday, but all the other kids from his school were also commitment-free. “Now do you think I could have a party?” asked my son. There was no way I’d be able to pull off my usual shindig of epic proportions, but swallowing my pride (and my reputation as an event planner), I said yes.
Quickly, I texted my son’s friends’ moms. Could their boys join us for a last-minute party on a weekday afternoon? Amazingly, the stars aligned: Almost every one of them accepted. Now I just needed a (simple) plan.
Though this party wouldn’t be a major spectacular, it also wouldn’t be a kid’s birthday celebration without cake. My son and I ran to the grocery store and picked up a pre-made chocolate-drizzled ice cream-covered confection he’s begged me to get for ages—for a grand total of twenty bucks. In my eyes, it didn’t quite measure up to the painstakingly created treat I would normally make, but my son was no less enthused about it.
With cake checked off the list, my thoughts turned to birthday party activities. What could we throw together on the fly that everyone would enjoy? I asked my son about everyone’s favorite game to play at school. “Kickball,” he said. “That’s all we play at recess.” Well, that couldn’t be easier, I thought. But it’s a little meh for a party. But time was of the essence, so kickball it was, with a $5 ball snagged at a local discount retailer.
Now for the decorations. With two days to plan and no party theme except “general birthday,” I wasn’t about to go hog wild constructing a Millennium Falcon in my living room or a rainforest jungle in my backyard. Rather, I scrounged around in my hall closet and found some streamers and balloons leftover from a previous event. These quickly covered the available surfaces of the house, and boom! Instant party atmosphere, as far as my son was concerned. (And cost-free, as far as I was concerned.) Since I’d told all the guests that presents were optional because of the short notice, I felt no obligation to fashion incredible goodie bags. This time, the party itself was the gift to one and all.
When the day arrived, I crossed my fingers that this simple, no-prep get-together would be enough. Would my son feel let down and bored? Would his friends’ moms judge me for my lack of effort, wondering what happened to the woman they used to know as the neighbourhood celebration maven?
As it happened, any such concerns proved unfounded. For two and a half hours, eight eleven-year-old boys caroused through my house having the time of their lives. They waged war with the arsenal of Nerf guns my son already owns, played kickball in the street and raved about the deliciousness of the ice cream cake. Around the middle of the party, I suddenly found myself with nothing to do. I literally sat down and read a book.
As the party wrapped up, none of the kids wanted to leave. My son declared it one of his best birthday parties ever—and I realized I had to agree. Though I have a deep love for creating fabulous events full of memorable details, if I’m honest, planning these extravagant bashes often seriously stresses me out. In the midst of trying to fashion an environment of fun, I sometimes inadvertently create the opposite: a miserable morass of tension. I reach the point of the stereotypical mom screaming at everyone in the house to clean up like I asked you to, goshdarnit, company is coming! For once it was just so nice not to stress.
In time, I also became aware of how healthy it felt to let myself off the hook from unrealistic standards of perfection I usually buy into. Pinterest, mommy blogs and my own social circle have convinced me that a “good mom” is a super creative mom—especially when it comes to celebrating her children. But allowing my son to set the tone and make his own choices like a simple cake, a Nerf war and kickball in the street led me to explore the unflattering possibility that perhaps in the past I have foisted my own desire to appear creative on an event that’s not really about me at all. And if I consistently make over-the-top parties the norm, I’m teaching my kids to expect this level of grandeur of me—and maybe of the world at large. I hope to show them instead that it can be just as good (or better) to make their own fun as to have it served to them on a platter.
My son never said a word about being disappointed with the simplicity of his $25 birthday party. The lack of goodie bags, themed games, mountains of snacks and pre-planned activities didn’t seem to matter a bit to him or his preteen friends. But wait—should that surprise me? For my birthday, when I was a kid in the ‘80s, my parents would take me to dinner at a pizza buffet and let me invite a cousin for a sleepover—end of story—and I loved every minute. If I could be happy with such modest festivities, then time with eight friends, a game of kickball, and an ice cream cake could certainly suffice for my son. While I’m not ready to completely relinquish my epic party planning, I’m now happy to opt for a simple birthday celebration any time.
This article was originally published online in July 2018.