I remember my eighth birthday party with astonishing clarity.
There had been other parties before—small gatherings at home with cousins and brothers and grandparents—but this was the first one to which I invited friends.
This was the first proper one.
I wore new jeans and a denim jacket; both much-longed for presents that I’d unwrapped with glee earlier in the day. There was a table piled high with sausage rolls and mini pizzas; an enormous cake with icing and candles. There were generous gifts from all my friends, and a stash of party bags for when they left.
It should have been perfect.
But about 10 minutes in I was given some overly rough ‘birthday bumps’. The combination of over-excitement and a bruised shoulder left me in tears, and that remains my abiding memory of the day.
Eight years passed before I decided to try again. I held a joint party with a close friend for our sweet 16th. It turned out to be another mistake.
Most of our friends spent the evening at the bottom of the garden, swigging vodka and smoking weed. As both sets of parents were at home supervising, we were unable to join in. We mooched miserably around the empty rooms, feeling awkward in our sparkly dresses. The DJ we’d hired left early in a bad mood because no one was dancing. We vowed never to host another party again.
As I’ve grown older and more accepting of my own introversion, I have made peace with my dislike of birthday parties. I realize that I will never find them fun.
In my ideal world, you wouldn’t even have to leave your bed on your birthday. You would just lie there, and friends could pop in throughout the day to deliver books and chocolate and wine.
Failing that, a quiet dinner out with your husband is probably the way to go.
Next month, my son turns six, and he has been trying to decide what to do for his own celebration.
Until now, his birthdays have been a lot like my early ones were. Small gatherings of family and friends, maybe a special visit to the zoo or a museum. As long as there has been chocolate cake and a balloon, he has been happy.
But after a full year of attending big parties with his kindergarten friends, I can see him begin to wonder whether he should be doing that too. Does he need 30 people in a local hall? Does he need a piñata, and pin the tail, and pass the parcel?
I don’t think he knows.
I think the idea appeals. He has suggested a rainbow theme, with streamers and balloons, where everyone has to dress up in bright colors. But when we try and talk about it in any detail—about where it would be, whom he would invite and what games he would like to play—he gets upset. Everything we suggest is wrong.
I suspect he has started to consider the realities of hosting a party. He is imagining holding it at the house, where people might mess up his carefully arranged Lego collection. He is imagining having it at the park, where it might be raining. He is imagining having it in a local hall, which would be fine… except that he’d have to share the cake. Sharing the cake is never easy.
All those social skills—sharing, being a good host, not freaking out when people are in your personal space—are important things to learn. And as he gets older he will learn them, like all kids do. But not on his birthday. Birthdays should take place well within your comfort zone, in a way that makes you happy.
So what will we do? I am not sure yet. We have six weeks to think about it. I will not try to sway him either way. I’ll let him work through it all in his own head.
If he chooses to keep it small this year, to stick with the cake and the balloon and the close family gathering, then that is brilliant. I will be thrilled.
If he chooses the big party, that will be fine too. It will be fun.
You will find me drinking vodka at the bottom of the garden.