Survivor: The Birthday Party

Be very afraid.

For my oldest son’s fourth birthday I took 15 kids on safari in my backyard. I transformed the space into the African savanna and led them all in pith helmets and sunglasses on the adventure of their lifetimes. I was living in New York City at the time, and took three separate trips downtown to a professional theater supply shop for equipment. There were lifelike animals, games led by me, a cake shaped like a lion and elaborate safari themed party favors. I spent more time and mental energy planning that party than I did on my wedding. And it cost nearly as much.

My son remembers nothing about that day. But the photographs are great, so great that I’m hoping I can convince him he’s actually been to Africa. Eleven years later, I’ve hosted a lot more birthday parties with varying degrees of difficulty. And I’ve learned a thing or two about the word “necessary.” My youngest son turned eight today and I am writing this with 110 minutes to spare before his party starts. I’m not saying I’ve conquered the birthday party, but I am happy to report that I am currently devoid of a migraine, a facial tic or a dangerously high blood alcohol level. Benefit from my experience:

1. Manage your expectations. The party is going to be fun only if you’re a child. Don’t plan to enjoy your child’s birthday party or even your child at that birthday party. That twinkle in his eye isn’t joy, it’s madness. Children understand scarcity, that this only happens once a year for two hours. They’re going to party like they mean it, and it might get ugly.

The stress of having to keep track of 15 kids at once makes you wonder about any social construct that supports the drop-off birthday party. These are not soldiers we’re managing, they are little children hopped up on sugar. Throw in variables like vomiting, the weather and the clown not showing up and really anything can happen.

One year, for a fifth birthday, I had 20 kids for a backyard extravaganza, and naturally it poured rain. So I ended up with 20 kids playing tag in my house. Carrying chocolate cake. I found one little girl hiding with her cake in my bedroom. Quick on the uptake, she saw me and wiped her hands clean on my drapes, and then stashed the rest of the cake in my husband’s sock drawer. I appreciated her discretion. Which really brings me to what probably should have been my first point…

2. Don’t have the party at home. It’s funny that we throw these parties on the anniversary of the day we endured childbirth, because the two events are really so similar. They’re painful, not for the squeamish, and invoke a feeling of elation when they’re over. So if you had the sense to give birth in a hospital where there were professionals to supervise and clean up, you should have the sense to do the same with your child’s birthday party. Go anywhere: a sports place, or an art place, the candy store, the park, a construction site with a port-a-potty. I cannot overstate the intense tranquility of returning home to my ordinary mess after one of these events.

3. Bring another adult. There was this one year when I took a bunch of kids to laser tag and my little one got his eye sliced open and needed stitches and I had all these kids and there was a lot of blood and thank goodness my friend Maria was there and drove them all home. I’ve blocked out the rest, but you get the idea.

4. Have the party on the actual birthday: This is one thing I’m getting right for the very first time this year. I used to choose the Saturday closest to my child’s birthday for his party. I’d have the Saturday party (suffering all manner of stress, hair loss and intestinal ailments alluded to above) and then a few days later on his actual birthday, he’d ask what we were doing to celebrate. I’d scramble to find photos to refresh his memory, but to no avail. The party’s long forgotten, the frosting’s been fully metabolized and the gifts were already broken. His actual birthday felt like a letdown. Bring on round two: another cake, fresh balloons, and the general merriment that can only be found at Party City.

5. Party favors can be anything. By the time those kids leave, they are so tired and strung out on sugar that they don’t care what’s in that goody bag. But I’m not saying you can skip it! Children over the age of two are programmed to expect entertainment, pizza and cake, followed by a bag of stuff offered as payment for having attended the party. They’ll stand there and wait, holding your gaze until you meet your end of the bargain. Don’t prolong their departure by having to explain that you are too green to give them a bag of landfill.

My kid’s party starts in an hour. I’ve got to go find some stuff to put in those goody bags. Any stuff will do.