Over the years I have found some pretty unpleasant things lurking at the bottom of my children’s school bags; forgotten about bananas that have splurged their squidgy contents all over the books and pencils inside, sticky sweets that have melted, oozed and then stuck steadfastly to anything nearby in a hardened, fluff covered, impossible to remove mess and even, on one occasion a demanding homework assignment calling for my assistance in the construction of an Anderson shelter using just corrugated card and toilet rolls.
But there is something else that can be found lurking at the bottom of a school bag and it is something that has the power to instantly engulf me in a cloud of foreboding – a birthday party invitation. For as much as it has the power to fill a child with excitement and delirium, for me it has the opposite effect.
And today in my son’s bag I have discovered just that. Not one but two party invitations and it has compelled me to write!
It doesn’t help that in our family somehow, without my agreement, a particularly unjust law has been passed, an unwritten rule that mummy will accompany the children to parties. Oh yes, of course, there will be some meaningless discussion beforehand, a pretence at some sort of negotiation taking place before the final decision is settled upon. It goes along the lines of –
Mummy – “It’s _____’s birthday party today.”
Daddy – “Are you going to take the children?”
Mummy – “Well, I can do. Don’t you want to go?”
Daddy – “This afternoon I was going to repot some plants/fix my bike/paint the bathroom ceiling (insert any other previously unmentioned but suddenly essential task of your own here) and anyway, you love going to parties, you do it so well!”
Mummy – “Oh, ok, well…I suppose I’ll go then.”
And as quickly as that the deal is done and my fate is sealed. I’m off to another birthday party.
When I was a child birthday parties were very different to how they are today. I would invite some friends to my house, we would play party games that my mum had organised, we would eat traffic light sandwiches and jelly and ice cream, also made by my mum, there would be a dancing competition, judged by my mum, and at the end of the party everyone would go home with a party bag containing a slice of home made birthday cake, lovingly made by my mum, all wrapped up in a serviette.
Nowadays, birthday parties can be pretty soulless affairs with minimal parental effort required. Why do it yourself when you can pay someone else to do it for you? Parties will more than likely be held at a play centre where the children entertain themselves out of sight of the parents in the soft play areas and ball pools before being summoned via a distorted tannoy for an unappetising dinner of cold, soggy chips, a few cold, greasy chicken nuggets, a handful of crisps and a yogurt before disappearing off again to play until they are summoned once more by the tannoy when the cake appears. This will more often than not be a shop bought offering. At the end of the party the children are ushered out clutching a generic party bag containing various sweets, a bag of flavourless and anaemic looking corn puffs masquerading as crisps, a balloon and a lollipop. In my recent experience there has been very little variety on this formula. Parents tend to make little effort compared to our own parents when we were little, instead paying other people to entertain and cater for their child’s party.
For my son’s 4th birthday four years ago I decided I was going to revive the traditional party, the sort of party I used to have as a child. I was determined not to have another one of these soulless parties where I hand over all responsibility to somebody else. I wanted a fun party that I had put time and effort into organising. And so I spent ages making and baking party food, blowing up balloons, designing and colouring banners, wrapping up a pass the parcel, drawing a giant clown for Pin The Nose On The Clown and making props and wrapping prizes for Musical Numbers and Pass The Balloon. I decorated the house with the balloons and bunting and I made up party bags for the children to take home.
While the invited children had fun at the party and clearly enjoyed playing the games and winning prizes, they did look a bit bemused by the whole thing. I don’t think they were too sure what was going on but it didn’t matter anyway because the next year Sam was swayed by what he saw his friends doing for their birthdays and so he deckared that for his upcoming 5th birthday party he wanted to celebrate in a play centre. No more home made birthday parties for him. The same happened with my youngest, one party at home and then as he became more aware of what his classmates were doing, he too wanted his next party at a play centre.
And so, this has become the norm for birthdays and we revolve around the same faceless play centres in a never ending cycle of generic parties, month after month, year after year.
But why am I so averse to birthday parties? There are many reasons why I don’t enjoy them but I’ve whittled them down to 10, some of which you might identify with, some you might not. So here they are, in no particular order.
1. They’re full of children.
Of course this will come as no surprise but, truth be told, it can be difficult to tolerate other people’s children. Just the thought of sitting in a brightly lit party venue full of noisy, screaming (either in excitement or upset) children for two and a half hours when I could be doing something else is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.
2. They’re full of parents.
This necessitates a whole lot of small talk and I’m no good at small talk. As a quite shy person I find it a challenge to walk into a party venue, smilingly introduce myself to the gathered parents, sit down amongst them and join in with the chatter. It might sound very simple to some but for me, and no doubt for other shy people, it is anything but.
3. The present.
Buying a present for a child I don’t know is fraught with stress. I don’t know what they like, I don’t know what they already have, I can’t afford to spend a lot but I don’t want to look cheap and chances are they will open it in front of everyone at the party under the gaze of everybody. I don’t want to be the cause of the face that is publicly registering disappointment or disinterest in a gift.
4. The need to practice self-restraint with the food.
Usually the parents of the birthday child will arrange for refreshments to be provided for the other gathered parents which is all very lovely but I am always acutely aware that when I am surrounded by other (mainly) mums who I don’t really know it can be very bad form to enthusiastically grab at the proffered nachos or mini burgers or quiche. When presented with a table full of edible goodies it has been known for my eyes light up rather like a child at a sweet shop window and I have to practice a lot of self-restraint not to dive in. And then usually, just as I have taken a delicate nibble of a sausage roll I can guarantee that somebody will come up and introduce themselves to me and enquire whose parent I am while I hurriedly attempt to swallow a dry mouthful of puff pastry and try not to spray my companion with errant morsels of pastry while replying.
5. The need to practice self-restraint with the drinks.
This makes me sound like an alcoholic. I’m not. Let me explain. It’s not alcoholic drinks I need to restrain myself with, rather the open café drinks menu that is usually part of a birthday party. When the waiter repeatedly comes to the table asking if there is anything he can get me it is very difficult, almost impossible, to stop myself from over the course of the party ordering one of everything, just to try it.
6. The piñata.
Now this might sound like a bit of a strange one but from the first time my oldest child was invited to parties, the piñata has been a disaster zone. When the piñata was brought out and the sweets scattered over the floor, he always seemed to be on the outskirts of the scrum where nothing fell and despite his attempts to grab something to put in his sadly empty bag he was always left with nothing but scraps of ribbon from the piñata itself and the little broken bits of cheap plastic toys that nobody else wanted. Cue tears of despair. Consequently I started to take it upon myself to join in to help him. Now there is no way for an adult to participate in a piñata alongside a group of 4 or 5 year olds without looking desperately sad and competitive, even if your intentions are good. Scrabbling on the floor for sweets, plastic whistles and yo-yos and various other plastic tat is not a good look for a mum and the only consolation was that at least my son would have something to add to his collection of ribbons and broken bits that would cause him to smile. I may not need to throw myself into the piñata scrum anymore now my son is older and bolder but I still can’t look at a piñata without feeling a sense of dread.
7. They’re like buses…
…you wait for ages for one and then they all come at once. I can spend several blissful weeks without having to act as a chaperone to a single birthday party but then all of a sudden three or four invitations will arrive at once and sometimes all for the same weekend! Having two children obviously increases the odds for this happening and on some particularly hellish weekends we have been known to attend multiple parties on both days!
8. They go on for hours.
Parties at play centres go on for a minimum of two and a half chaotic, noisy hours. Two and a half hours! I don’t think I need to comment any further on this one.
9. End of party trauma.
Despite the party joy having lasted for two and a half hours my children are never ready to leave even though their hair is plastered to their head with sweat and their faces are bright red from the physical exhaustion of running around like wild banshees for the whole time. They are smeared with the party war paint of chocolate and ketchup smudges on their faces and clothes, as well as the remnants of some long since dissolved face paint design that has been gradually wiped and sweated off during the party and even though they have eaten the equivalent of their body weight in sweets and cake they have never had enough. I love it when the time has come to go home, when it’s time to call out, “Find your shoes now, we have to leave”. Sadly, my children don’t feel the same and every time, before we can leave, I have to go through the humiliating ritual of venturing into the ball pool and soft play jungle, crawling through tunnels while dodging flying foam balls in an effort to round up my reluctant children. Once caught they will wriggle like slippery worms on a hook trying to escape my grasp as I struggle to get them out of the soft play area. I do my best to get one child’s shoes on while keeping hold of the other squirming child and then do the same with the other child while all the time they are protesting, “but I don’t waaaant to go home! I want to stay heeeerrre! We haven’t been here loooong!”. I then have to physically propel my children forward, towards the door and out to freedom, and through my rictus grin I tell them to smile and say thank you to the host parents as we parade past the other guests and their parents who always seem to be getting ready to leave in a much more dignified manner.
10. Party fallout.
Getting out the door does not necessarily signal the end of the party turmoil. Still to be negotiated is the party bag, full of yet more sweets, balloons and more cheap plasticky whistles and yo-yos. The children will undoubtedly want to open them and consume the contents immediately and so a heated, lively debate will ensue where I will attempt to convince them that they have eaten enough sugar and artificial colouring for one day. Even after we have got home and the children have been calmed down and bathed and then put into bed the party is still not quite over. Often the parents of fellow party attendees will commence the sending of party photos. Through the joy of Facebook and Whatsapp a deluge of photos will be shared. Once, after an especially swanky 7th birthday party (that even boasted an official photographer) I turned on my phone the next morning to see 96 Whatsapp notifications each of which was an attached photo. But it wasn’t done there, oh no, the next day I was also handed a USB pen drive which contained 400 other photos with instructions to download the photos and then pass the pen drive on to another parent!
Well, this year I had had enough. I was determined not to go for another play centre birthday party for my children. I refused to pay a small fortune for another generic party! I was going to try to organise something different again. While I didn’t enforce a pass the parcel and jelly and ice cream type party on my children, I did find a happy medium. I rented a small, local sports ground where there was a small football pitch, a zip wire and some woodland to explore and play in (there was no piñata!). I was able to make sandwiches and cakes for it and the invited parents were able to sit in the sunshine talking and relaxing while watching their children play in the fresh air and I even enjoyed it myself!
So let’s try and take our birthday parties back! A little bit of research, effort and thought can go a long way to making them more personalised, to taking them away from the play centres and to injecting a bit of character and individuality back into celebrating a child’s birthday. Party on!