By Kathy P. Behan
My older sister knew she was in trouble when she found herself serving Dim Sum and shrimp cocktails at her son’s third birthday party. Granted, Mona’s spending habits have always been a bit over the top, but this was excessive, even by her extravagant standards.
Her motivation? Not to dazzle or impress her guests; it was just to do right by her son. You see, Mona suffers from that common affliction known as birthday-throwers’ anxiety. This is a syndrome that strikes even the most secure adults. It takes many forms, depending on the level and severity of the ailment. And frankly, Mona had it bad. In her case, it manifested itself in an overriding impulse to throw money at the party, and maybe then it would go away.
Mona now has two children, and months before their birthdays, the drama begins. “What should I do for Devin’s (or Taylor’s) birthday this year?” she asks anxiously.
“How about playing some games, eating a little cake, and opening a few presents?” I calmly respond.
“What, are you insane! Organize games. Keep all those children entertained. I couldn’t take the pressure!”
The result has been that Mona’s children and their guests have been treated to a dazzling assortment of birthday amusements. She’s rented petting zoos, skating rinks, laser tag arenas, and even amusement parks.
Even though Mona’s anxiety is extreme, almost everyone I know, including me, shares her apprehension to a certain extent. Unlike my sister, most of us can keep a monetary lid on it, but like Mona, our overriding concerns are to do something that the kids will like, keep the house from being destroyed, and, most importantly, get it over with for another year.
These are all worthy ambitions, but there are two complicating factors that muddy, if you will, the birthday waters. The first is that you don’t want to embarrass your child. You want to make sure you’re not planning something that will make him or her the doodie-bomb of the second grade.
What makes birthday party planning even more of a nightmare is the “birthdays past” factor — we’re all haunted by the ghosts of long-ago birthdays that for some reason or another went awry. Most of us have had at least one party that can best be described as a social disaster. There can be many reasons for this, but usually we’re embarrassed in front of friends because of a gaffe committed by one of our well-meaning parents.
Even though this is probably a standard, though painful rite of passage we all must go through, we party-planners live in mortal terror of putting our children through a similar ordeal.
I know that I have been skirting the edges of birthday catastrophes for some time now. Though compared to Mona I’m cool as a cucumber, I have been known to get a bit hyper about my children’s birthday celebrations. This is partly because we always manage to have at least one kid who turns out to be the proverbial party pooper, and ends up trying to dampen everyone else’s enthusiasm. You know the type. They’re the ones who complain throughout the entire birthday. “I hate playing games!” “I hate doing projects!” “I hate this kind of cake!” ”I hate (fill in the blank)!”
These can be very dangerous guests because they may infect the children around them with their uncooperative and ill-mannered behavior. If left unchecked, the result would be birthday party mutiny. I try to handle the situation by staying on top (sometimes literally) of the problem child.
Birthday parties are really fraught with emotional and psychological trauma. No wonder most of us regard them with a degree of dread. Each year I hopefully ask my eldest child who’s now the ripe old age of 11, “Aren’t you too old for a birthday party?”
So far, the answer has always been a resounding, “No!”
That’s why I’m still not off the party hook with any of my children. Of course this means that at least for the foreseeable future, Mona and I will continue to exchange our annual hysterical, poignant and commiserating birthday planning phone calls.
Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a freelance writer specializing in family and health issues.