So, birthdays stress me out. The birthdays of my kids.
It’s just one of those many things in life that, on paper, seems like a no-brainer for a happy day. And usually, on the actual day that commemorates the day I gave birth to one of my three utterly and undeniably delightful children, it is a joy-filled day. We start with copious and excessive snuggles and a special breakfast; we open a present or two from Mom and Dad or grandparents. The birthday girl or boy gets to pick what’s for dinner, and if the official party is on a different day than the birthday, we’ll do cupcakes with candles and singing and the whole shebang, on a microcosmic single-family scale, and it’s all good.
So I’ve been trying to analyze this. I know it’s the party — but what is so stressful about a seemingly benign birthday party?
Well, sure — there are the actual kids. While I love mine beyond the boundaries of the universe, and even like most of my kids’ friends, I’m not typically drawn to situations where there are 8-10 kids together in one place, with me in charge. Kid chaos + Katy = headache and a strong desire for gin & tonic.
And then there’s the party. Because while, yes, that birthday party we went to last year at the bowling alley was lots of fun, and seemed to be really easy on the parents since everything was done by the staff, it probably cost as much as several American Girl dolls. And, the way we live, you can usually have either the party or the American Girl doll, but not both — which can be difficult to explain to a 6-year old.
Which, really, gets to the heart of my anxiety. It’s knowing that, for as long as I hear my kids talk about their next birthday — a never-ending soliloquy which starts the day after their last one — that for the whole year leading up to the event, with all the daydreaming fed by the birthdays of friends and the list of gifts fed by every toy seen at those friends’ houses, the guest-list growing with each new playmate and classroom, that the party will most often end in disappointment.
When I think about this in moments of objectivity, I know it comes with the territory. That most every birthday party I’ve ever witnessed ends with the kid-of-honor in some form of tantrum or tears. And we always say, Oh, he must just be so exhausted, poor guy — just too much fun for one day! And this is true in a way — but at the same time, isn’t it also the fact that, already, at age 5, our kids have learned to put all of their happiness-eggs into one basket? That after a year of dreaming, no party could possibly live up to the one in their imagination?
Our Little Man turned five last week. For about six months now, ever since going to a friend’s party there, he has asked to celebrate his birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s (or, as I recently hear it euphemistically referred to, Charles E. Frommage’s). And then just last week, he told me he wanted a “police car cake.” And as mom to this adorable, loved boy, it is my job to figure out how to make this happen in some form or fashion — to help him receive what he’s asked for, grant him a portion of his wish — while not breaking our bank or sanity.
So we told him we could go to Chuck E. Cheese’s, but only with our family and maybe one or two friends (I can handle two hours of bad pizza, video games, and visual over-stimulation, but not while simultaneously keeping up with 8 four-year olds). And I would make the police car cake — but could Mommy interpret it loosely? After last year’s last-minute Leaning Fire Truck adventure, I was wary of tackling another edible public safety vehicle.
The plan was laid: we would meet some friends for dinner at Chuck’s, eat some bad pizza, and give everyone enough tokens to fill a couple hours with car rides and ski ball. I baked a square, double-layer cake, and went to Target in search of toy police cars for easy decoration. When Target’s Hot Wheels section left me surprisingly high-and-dry, I found the best police car specimen in the Lightning McQueen department, making it a Cars Cake with Police Car rather than a police car cake. And the birthday boy seemed fine with all of this. On Friday night, he danced with a happy rodent on video, threw balls in the general direction of point-scoring holes, rode virtual jet skis with his Dad, and gathered tickets. He ate his birthday cake, even though I had taken his birthday as an opportunity to experiment with using whole wheat pastry flour in cake-baking, learning that you should never use whole-wheat pastry flour in cake-baking, not if you plan to enjoy the cake. But the whole of the night, he seemed to be searching. Searching desperately for the next thing that was going to make this birthday his dream-come-true.
The tantrum started when it came time to spend their won tickets, and he didn’t have enough to get what he wanted from the glass case. Then on the way home, he asked tear-filled questions like, “Why didn’t I get more presents?” and “Why weren’t all of my school friends there?” and “Why couldn’t I get the shiny frog?” and my heart started to break for him. Not so much out of regret for the decisions we’d made, but out of knowledge that he is already beginning this cycle that we continue, right up through adulthood.
Because I’ve had my share of birthdays. And while I am old enough now to know that a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s isn’t all it was once cracked up to be, I am still not over that vague sense of disappointment when the day is over. Disappointment that the world didn’t stop turning so that 4 billion people could join hands and sing to me — which, in my heart of hearts, in my most honest moments of daydreaming revealed, is pretty much what I expect to happen. Still, after almost (but not quite yet) 40 years.
I’ve always said, of my kid’s birthdays, I bake the cake. When the parents drop-off and see me finishing it as the party begins — even though I’m really not that great at decorating (c.f. the aforementioned Tilting Fire Engine cake) — they always respond with questions about why in the world do you do this? That it’s worth it just to order it, it’s so easy, and so-and-so’s bakery does a fantastic job.
But it comes down to my limitations and insecurities. I am not a good kid-person, not an entertainer. I’m not a good party-planner, I’m too cheap to hire out a bowling alley or magician or trip for 10 to the American Girl Doll store. But I can bake a cake. And bake cakes, I will — I will let them pick the flavor and theme, and try hard as I can to make it like they want it.
Because I can’t keep them from desiring more than a birthday party can possibly fulfill — but in baking a cake, I can only hope that there is a part of them that consumes a belief: they are special enough, to their mom and dad, for the world to stop, and sing to them a birthday song.