on birthdays

I’m a big fan of birthdays. I’m not a big fan of birthday parties. With kindergarten and pre-school come birthday invitations. We’ve had five in the last month. Here’s what each entails:

Check the calendar, see if we’re free. Figure out whether both kids are invited or just one. Figure out which parent will take the invited kid and whether or not parents are supposed to stay or drop off. Buy a present. Try to get the kid to make a card for the birthday kid and help wrap the present. Go to the party. Stay at the party or drop off but rush back before you know it. Collect sugar-high kid and accompanying loot bag. If both kids attended the party, listen to fighting since they were given sex-segregated loot bags and now have to compare them, complain about what they got, grab each other’s stuff, get in trouble, give it back and sulk for a while. If one kid attended the party, listen to the other one complain about not getting a loot bag, attempt to make the first child share the stuff, resist temptation to grab the bag and simply confiscate the whole thing since that would be a cop-out and wouldn’t teach them how to overcome unfair situations. Never book any family things on weekend days because there’s a birthday party almost every weekend and one doesn’t want one’s child to be the only one who didn’t attend when they’re all talking about it on Monday at school.

Birthdays. The anniversary of the birth. Pretty special day! Worthy of celebration! But the whole thing seems very far removed from simply getting together to celebrate a lovely child’s full rotation around the sun.

I know that parents put a lot of work into these things. I don’t want to be ungrateful. The kids do have fun and they look forward to the parties and they talk about them afterward. But I’m finding that these parties are just taking up way too much space in our lives. I get it that people want to celebrate. I want to too! When it’s my kid, I do. When it’s not my kid… not so much.

Akka is already talking about her fifth birthday in June and its associated party. I’ve been wrestling with how to handle it all since I don’t want to do nothing (I like celebrations, remember?) but I don’t want to impose our desire to celebrate on ten other families.

The way I see it, there are three categories of people who need to be involved in my child’s birthday. In the first group, we have our family. Those of us who know and love Akka. Those of us who live with her or near her. Who remember the day she was born and witnessed all the changes and transformations she’s been through since then. Those of us who, in June, will marvel at this little girl and what one tiny human life can become in five short years.

Then there’s the second group. These are the kids Akka plays with now; her increasingly important circle of friends. The girls with whom she giggles, shrieks, compares her outfits and invents songs. The kids she imitates and bosses around and imitates again. These kids matter, and they should celebrate with Akka, but they don’t really care that she’s turning five. The idea of her turning five doesn’t make them count through the years and catch their breath the way it does the first group.

The third group are those who share their lives with the second group. They’re Akka’s friends’ parents. They all have their own children whose birthdays matter most. My daughter’s birthday party is an obligation to them. If they’re more generous than me, they think of it as a fun outing. If they’re not, it’s three hours of their lives they’ll never get back.

Then there’s the issue of presents. We’ve had seven kid-birthdays in our family. Four for Akka and three for Malli. Each year, we bought a present or two for the special kid. We snuggled in bed in the morning and told them their birth stories. Later, we invited our own friends over for dinner and cupcakes. They brought their kids. We drank wine and called it a birthday party. No presents, please.

The cat is out of the gift bag now. Akka has been to enough parties to have seen the loot. I’ve also recently lightened up on the issue of toys. There are certain toys that I don’t mind if she owns, but I’d never buy them. Skinny little dolls with big eyes, sparkly things that label one as royalty, tiny plastic tradable breakable things. I’m prepared to have her be girl-toy literate; I’m not prepared to be the one who puts the things into her eager little hands. Letting birthday presents fill the gap allows me to maintain my snobbery while avoiding passing a holier-than-thou attitude on to my child.

There are other options: asking guests to bring donations rather than gifts. Asking them to bring cash; half of which would be used to buy a present for the girl, the other half to charity. I’m not convinced of either. When we live comfortably, we know we ought to give back. This is a good lesson for kids. This is a good lesson for grown ups. But, to me, this is not a good lesson for birthday parties. I don’t want to tie Akka’s special day to her duty to give back. I’m ok with giving her one day a year that’s all hers. And yes, that means its up to us to help her figure out how to give back on all the other un-birthday days; whether that means giving money to charity or volunteering at the food bank or running for office or inciting revolution.

So what to do? How do we celebrate in a way that satisfies the first group, her family; shows the second group, her friends, a good time, and doesn’t impose on the third group, her friends’ parents? No weekends. No obscure locations. Clarity around siblings’ and parents’ expected involvement.

It’s shaping up to be a Tuesday lunch at the park. Kindergarten winds up at 11:30am. From there, we could head to the park for lunch, cake, screaming, running and climbing. Gifts appreciated but not at all necessary. It’s not perfect: it excludes the kids who get picked up by daycares after school. But the morning is still ours – to give her her gift, to tell her her birth story and to marvel at what a tiny little human life becomes in five short years. The evening is still ours to serve her a cupcake, blow out a candle and fill up the camera’s memory card. And the weekend still belongs to all those busy families whose kids share some, but not all, of our daughter’s life.

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