My eight-year-old daughter came home from school, thrusting a glittery birthday party invitation into my hand. Her eyes were wide with excitement. This was the first party of the school year, and her entire class was invited to attend.
“Can I go?” she begged. I admit that I hesitated for a moment. We were available that Saturday afternoon, with nothing on the calendar. I’m not a fan of school peers’ birthday parties. But then I remembered that I was turning our party invite declines into acceptances.
I texted the boy’s mom, thanking her for including my daughter and letting her know my child would be in attendance on party day.
I never would have said yes a year ago, but things have changed. And for good reason.
We rarely used to say yes to birthday party invitations. My kids used to be in large classes of 25 or more kids which meant a lot of parties. My motivation for not attending was simple, and yes, somewhat selfish. I didn’t want to spend every weekend running each of my four kids to various parties–celebrating kids they didn’t even consider their friends.
I used to view parties as dreaded events where I was forced to socialize with stranger-parents or, and sometimes worse, sit beside them while all of us zoned out on our phones while we painstakingly waited for gifts to be opened. Then, finally, we could get the hell out of there and live our best lives—doing anything else. Honestly, cleaning out the hall closet would have been more fun for me.
I loathed the sensory overload from two hours at the skating rink, bowling alley, trampoline park, or laser tag room. My kids would come home exhausted, cranky, and hungry, despite eating from a sugary spread, including individual pieces of frosted cake the size of a shoebox.
No matter how Pinterest-perfect or slapped-together the party would be, I said no. And honestly, my kids didn’t seem to mind—mostly because their best-friend-of-the-day wasn’t really their friend. The junk food buffet and rock wall climbing was momentarily appealing—but soon forgotten. I didn’t feel guilty for saying no.
We did make exceptions. We attended our nephews’ parties and birthday celebrations of my kids’ closest friends. In fact, we wouldn’t just show up. I’d cut cake, clean up fruit punch spills, and supervise games and crafts. I wanted to make use of the time and help our friends have a successful—and less stressful—party.
But this year is different. Because two of my kids are in a brand-new school with brand-new classmates. Each of them is in a small class, ranging from just seven to 12 children. There is a level of closeness among the kids since there are so few of them. One of the girls’ teachers told me her kids are like a family unit–many of the kids have been in school together since they were just toddlers.
Attending parties now is an opportunity for my kids—and me—to meet new people and make new friends. It’s about finding our place and fitting in. And in order to do those things, we have to put forth some effort … with a side of confetti.
Birthday parties provide the opportunity for us to mingle with the other families, shaking hands and learning names. The kids have fun seeing each other outside of school and engaging in Fortnite-, llama-, or slime-themed celebrations complete with soda, Nerf gun wars, and a lot of squealing.
Plus, with such small class sizes, if a few kids don’t show, the birthday kiddo could wind up with hurt feelings. We’ve seen this many times in the news, especially among children with special needs who, on the day of their big event, end up sitting at their decorated party table—solo. No child should be celebrating their birthday alone.
I remember my own 1980s childhood when my mom believed in making birthdays a huge deal. Since I had a January birthday and we lived in the Midwest, all my parties had to be indoors. One year, my mom put together a Hawaiian-themed celebration for me. All my female classmates attended. We made beaded necklaces, wore our swimsuits (and yes, mom cranked up the heat), “fished” for prizes in the baby pool on the kitchen floor, and ate too much of the homemade island decorated cake. It was magical.
My three siblings and I had a mom who went all-out for birthdays, creating the most unique themes. One year when I was in elementary school, I had a dress-like-your-grandma party—which was the highlight of the school year. Long before Pinterest, my mom knew that birthdays were meant to be ridiculously special.
I absolutely love birthdays, just like my family did, but I’ve had to come around to the idea that we should enthusiastically show up for other kids’ birthday celebrations—even if I can barely even remember the kid’s name and have only seen them in passing. This will change, I’m sure, as we continue to accept invitations and celebrate the birthday child.
Do I magically and suddenly love kids’ birthday parties? No. I still dread attending some of them, knowing I’ll be forced into making awkward small talk and sitting on the sidelines of a chaos-fest for two solid hours. But I’m learning to embrace the opportunity for my kids to be among their peers—even on a treasured Saturday afternoon.
We show up—for the kids and the relationships we are building. Because being the new kid is never easy—but eventually, the newbie becomes part of the family. And that’s worth everything.
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