As I turned the page on my local newspaper not long ago, I read a story about a new self-help group in which I could have been a charter member: Birthdays Without Pressure. The group is made up of recovering over-the-top-party throwers and those disgusted by party excess. The trend toward ever-grander parties has led, the group says, to such a sense of entitlement, young guests are apt to yell, “This is a rip-off!” at a birthday party without gift bags.
Here’s my shameful confession: For my son’s first birthday, I rented a newborn tiger cub from a local country zoo (cost: $200 for two hours; my enabling friend Lynn picked up the bill). My lame justification: my son’s name, Shibli, means “my lion cub,” and, yes, I first asked for lion cubs. For his second birthday, I had custom-designed invitations ($42.20), rented a barn at a place called Rich Farm outside of town, and booked a hay ride and karaoke machine (final price tag: about $300). For his third birthday, I rented a white stretch limo ($300) and had the driver take us to a home recording studio ($275), where my son cut his first CD, belting out the “Dump Truck Song,” with his own lyrics. It went something like this: “Dump truck! Dump truck! DUMP TRUCK! DUMP TRUCK!”
Each year, I asked my mother for a simple favor, a piece of cake for any doting immigrant grandma from India: “Can you cook biryani for, oh, say, fifty people? Oh, and can you be sure to have it all done beforehand so you can, you know, have fun at your grandson’s birthday party?” Each year, she obliged, saving hundreds on catering that could then be spent on the next extravagance.
Hit play for scenes from the parties. Sing along with the “Dump Truck Song.”
Before Shibli turned four, I watched with envy as parents of a pre-school pal hosted their son Cole’s third birthday party with cupcakes and grilled cheese sandwiches for the children, who played happily with the birthday boy’s regular, everyday toys. My son was thrilled pushing a fire engine and taking home a party bag with knicknacks. The whole thing couldn’t have cost more than $50. And Cole’s parents were chill throughout, chatting with the grown-ups. Could throwing a birthday party really be that easy? I resolved to restrain myself.
And restrain myself I did – until the eve of Shibli’s fourth birthday party, when I panicked and pulled an all-nighter, downloading pirate theme ideas all night long to create a complicated scheme consisting of gang planks, treasure chests and treasure hunts. At the craft store, it wasn’t enough for me to get the ninety-nine-cent treasure chests. I had to get the $2.99 ones. And I couldn’t just get the store-decorated cake; I had to put up masts myself on a pirate-ship cake. “Where are the skewers?” I asked a clerk, almost breathless from my sprint through the store’s aisles mere hours before party time.
Of course, at cake time, Shibli was more interested in a new Polly Pocket gizmo than eating a slice. And the masts were so lopsided, the cake looked more like a shipwreck.
According to the quiz on the Birthdays Without Pressure website, I scored eighteen out of twenty points. Their verdict: “Have 911 on speed dial at your next party.”
At least I’m not alone. Birthday parties gone wild are part of the cultural zeitgeist of Gen-X parents like me. On its website, Birthdays Without Pressure has listed some 300 pieces on the trend, appearing everywhere from the Poughkeepsie Journal to BBC World Services, with headlines like “My Super Sweet Six: Don’t you wish your birthday party was hot like mine?” The Irish Independent called birthdays gone wild, “Posh Party Syndrome,” and described Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham’s daughter Brooklyn’s fifth birthday party, which featured champagne (for the parents) and a DJ. The Norwich Bulletin in Connecticut chronicled “Supersize Birthday Parties.” A columnist in the Virginian-Pilot exclaimed, “A stretch limo for a seven-year-old? Please!”
I couldn’t agree more. Stretch limos after the age of five are so tacky.
The children’s birthday party business has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Paper plates come with every conceivable theme, because colored paper plates just aren’t good enough anymore. The competition factor is huge. The April 2007 issue of Family Fun magazine features a photo of a grinning redhead with a balloon, across which is emblazoned, “Birthday Blowout!” The cover story: “Secrets of Great Parties!”
But for whom are we having these birthdays? It goes without saying that it’s about us, not our children. I know where my impulse comes from: guilt about being a working mom, projected ambition, a desire to be the “fun mom.” With slumber parties and other “cool” American social habits foreign to my own mother, I’m going overboard creating my own idea of what a fun mom looks like.
As we drove to gymnastics practice the other day, I asked my son, “Do you remember the baby tiger from your first birthday?”
His answer: “What tiger?”
How about the party on the farm?
“Farm?” he answered.
The limo. How about the limo? Do you remember what color it was?
Okay, touch’. What does he remember from his last birthday? “The pirate cake.” Yes, the shipwreck. And what would he like to do for his fifth birthday party?
“Play,” he answered quickly. “And we get to do whatever we want to do.”
Grilled cheese sandwiches and Legos it is.