Birthday Parties: Learning to be Flexible as a Mom

Birthday Parties: Learning to be Flexible as a Mom; My son's fourth birthday was stressful as hell. And yet I learned a lot about adapting to unexpected circumstances. (Photo: Kid blowing out candles on a birthday cake as a man lights them.)

The band-aid was the first sign of trouble.

My parents, my in-laws, Chris, and I were all rushing around, trying to set up Sprout’s fourth birthday party. A few days earlier, Sprout had badly cut his ring finger and now the band-aid was peeling off. Like all children, Sprout takes his band-aids Very Seriously. While we have a plentiful supply of Thomas the Train band-aids at home, my current stash was limited to Star Wars. “Look, I have Star Wars band-aids!” I exclaimed, trying to work up an adequate level of enthusiasm. “I don’t want Star Wars band-aids! I want Thomas!” he cried. After much whining, including an exclamation of “I don’t want to watch Star Wars!,” my mom resolved the situation. She offered to “make” a dinosaur band-aid from a plain bandage and dinosaur stamp.

This dramatic arc was solid foreshadowing for the rest of his birthday party.

Continue reading

A Stellar Second Birthday Party

I know I’m not a “Pinterest mom,” but my mom borders on being a Pinterest grandma. Thankfully, that came in very handy the weekend before last when we hosted Sprout’s second birthday party. Despite the fact that we had to change venues due to flash flood warnings, our Teddy Bear Picnic party ended up being a lot of fun for kids and adults alike.

Knowing this is probably the last year I can pick his party theme, I picked one he would like but wouldn’t choose himself, like dinosaurs or trains. As Teddy Bears’ Picnic seemed like it would be a common theme, I thought it would be easy to find ideas for decorations.

So like a stereotypical suburban mom, I searched Pinterest. While I found a few great ideas, I was rather disappointed. Instead of being overwhelmed by choices, I found two things: 1) the same cute ideas over and over and 2) photos of incredibly elaborate displays with no instructions on how to do them. After looking at several of the posts that fell into category 2, I realized the authors didn’t make the posts with the goal of helping others out. In most cases, the photos were of parties that were run by a party planner, catered, or at least had 90% of the stuff purchased from an expensive bakery. As I have neither the budget or inclination to take any of those options, these photos were pretty, but useless.

With that in mind, I talked to my mom and we chose a few crafty ideas that she could help with. Unsurprisingly, she did an awesome job. She made an adorable pair of bear ears for Sprout – because you better go in disguise to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic – that he actually kept on for a long time (aka more than one minute). While I just asked her to frame the lyrics from the Teddy Bears’ Picnic song in an ordinary picture frame, she went above and beyond by creating a border of picnic tablecloth. She also dragged some decorative old-fashioned picnic baskets out of the basement and her office. I can’t imagine how much paperwork she cleared out of the one.

 Unfortunately, as cute as everything was, it couldn’t change the weather. As early as Friday, with a 90% chance of thunderstorm, it was obvious we needed to relocate the party from the park pavilion to an indoor location.

So I took the decorations, red and white tablecloths from the party store, and every teddy bear in the house and headed down to our finished basement. This was part of the executive decision to stay the hell out of everyone’s way this year, as opposed to last year. Both Chris and my mom have exacting visions for their projects that don’t exactly match my areas of competency. While last time I had the excuse of Sprout waking up for hours on end at 2 a.m., I would rather avoid having a panic attack and being miserable to my family again. Instead, I picked up toys, laid out picnic blankets, and arranged stuffed animals and books as artfully as I could manage. With the blankets and camp chairs, it was an indoor picnic, but still definitely a picnic.

 Table with picnic food and picnic basket with framed poem 

In the meantime, Chris and my mom were whipping up delicious picnic food. Using a cookie cutter, my mom cut peanut butter and jelly and peanut butter and honey sandwiches into bear shapes, then drew mouths on with frosting.  

 Cars made out of Milky Way bars with M&Ms for wheels 
She also made little driving bears with Milky Ways, M&Ms, Teddy Graham’s, and melted chocolate chips. (For Americans, the Smarties referred to in the link are like giant M&Ms, not the hard little things everyone picks out of their Halloween candy.) Chris made a deconstructed eggplant parmesan salad with cubes of fried eggplant, roasted tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and shaved Parmesan cheese. He made it ages ago and I adored it so much I still remembered it seven years later. 

And of course, the cake. With this birthday cake recipe and the buttercream frosting recipe from culinary school, it was definitely the tastiest cake Chris has ever made. It was darn cute too. White frosting with lines of red colored sugar created a picnic blanket. Piping of green frosting around the edges made for convincing looking grass. And stuffed bears from Amazon (12 for $10!) around a piece of honeycomb, on top of a piece of Saran Wrap, made an adorable picnic. It was shockingly hard to find those little bears. We almost had to fall back on Care Bears, of all things. 

Before we started, I wanted to see Sprout’s reaction. Last year, he didn’t have a clue what was going on, but this year, he’s already well-versed in the concept of make-believe. I’ve drank enough cups of pretend tea to know that. When he turned into the room, transformed into a teddy-bear fantasy, a big smile spread across his face. He was happy earlier in the day, but this was wonder. It made every bit of decorating worth it.

Once everything was ready, we waited for our guests. And waited. And waited. D.C. guests abide by the “fashionably late” idea and getting little kids out the door is a fight against entropy anyway. Just as I was getting genuinely nervous, our guests started arriving. Even though we had far fewer people show up than invited, it was the perfect number. If we had more, it would have been too crowded in the basement.

As it was, we had 4 kids running around, 1 infant, and a bunch of adults, both parents and not. The setting wasn’t as exciting as a playground, but they enjoyed our toy kitchen and little slide. They were self-sufficient enough that the parents could relax and talk, which everyone appreciated. I always like being able to see my friends.

But my favorite part of the whole day was just before we cut the cake. I held Sprout up to blow out the candles. As the lights were off and everyone was singing, he smiled quietly, his eyes shining. He knew everyone was singing to him out of love.

Later that night, he kept saying, “Happy day.” Happy day indeed.

Partying with the Other Cartoon Mouse

From reading parenting blogs, there appears to be a trifecta of parental hate: Calliou, glitter (the herpes of craft supplies), and Chuck E. Cheese. So when Sprout was invited to his first proper kid birthday party at Chuck E Cheese, I was intrigued. I loved the place as a kid, but I was a kid then, so what did I know? I found that while it wasn’t as bad as everyone says it is, it was rather mediocre – somewhat fun, no more and no less.

Although Sprout hid behind my legs when we first arrived, processing all of the action, he moved on to the toddler rides soon enough. Much like the their bigger cousins at Disney World, he showed much more interest than enjoyment. His little face showed rapt attention, his eyes concentrated and mouth neutral. It wasn’t that he disliked the rides – when we lifted him off one, he’d tap the seat and look at us, asking to put him on again. Instead, he was focused on absorbing and making sense of the experience. He requested going on the tiny carousel and the creepy clock swing so many times that we had to take a break for our own sanity. I have no idea how on earth they could be fun, but I am clearly not the target audience’s age.

Of course, the other essential part of the Chuck E Cheese experience is the games. Which – and I know this makes me sound hopelessly old, boring and nostalgic – were really disappointing. A few classics were present: driving games, basketball, and my old favorite, skeeball. They had a baby basketball game, which after the Thanksgiving playground incident, I knew Sprout would enjoy. As we handed him balls, he gently placed them in the basket. It was absolutely adorable.

But most of the games weren’t worth wasting free tokens on. A few were cutesy one-shots, where you had 1 level that took 30 seconds and couldn’t progress to the next level without putting in more money. No marathon sessions of side-scrollers like the old days. But even worse, the large majority of “games” were kiddy slot machines. They just dispensed tickets instead of money. They required little to no skill, offered a single chance, and promised big prizes with low odds of winning. Instead of a place where you could play with your friends to accomplish a goal (even if it was an inconsequential one), these games have turned arcades into casinos! I don’t want Sprout feeding my money into these machines, I don’t want him to be isolated, I don’t want the plastic crap the tickets pay for, and I definitely don’t want him gambling. I was very glad he was too little to pay notice to these games – I’ll take the baby rides any day.

About halfway through the party, the staff members pulled us together for pizza and the Chuck E. Cheese show. The pizza reminded me of the “good pizza” in the elementary school cafeteria. The birthday cake itself (not from Chuck E. Cheese), was simple – sandy tan frosting – but toy tractors on top turned it into a perfect tiny construction site. The rock-star themed show consisted of a costumed staff member “jamming out” with the birthday kid. The birthday boy – who had just turned two – had no clue about the symbolism but had a grand time anyway. He loved the inflatable guitar and crown, even though he had difficulty understanding, much less following, the instructions of the Chuck E. Cheese staff member. Under her beaming smile, you could tell she was the tiniest bit exasperated with trying to get a two-year-old to play along with a party template designed for an older child.

Standing around the pizza table was the first time all of the adults attending the party were in the same place. Before that, we were following our kids around the ride/game area, ensuring they didn’t put anything weird in their mouths or push other kids. Now, we were so physically close that normal social graces would require us to converse. But anything with multiple toddlers doesn’t fall within the bounds of normal social graces. Instead, we ignored each other, focusing on our kids eating without causing a disaster area. I kind of wanted to talk to people, but didn’t even know where to start. The only person we knew was the birthday kid’s dad, which Chris met at a Halloween party at our town’s community center. Instead, Chris and I talked to each other and watched Sprout eat his pizza cheese-first.

In the end, we cashed in our few tickets for stickers and headed home, having survived our first trip to Chuck E. Cheese as a family.