Party magic

March 31,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

On Friday I wrote about how amazing it was going to be to have a weekend with the carry-over of the glorious 80-degree weather we'd had that day. In reality, though, the temperatures plummeted some 40 degrees and both Saturday AND Sunday were cold and rainy and blustery. We even lit a fire on Sunday--long after we'd thought we wouldn't be doing that again for months and months to come. But Scott brought in armloads of wood and the kids gathered around, jumping up and down as they watched the flames leaping up into the chimney.

On Saturday we braved the cold rain and attended our first ever tailgate preschooler birthday party. It was a very different affair, really: the well-placed grandpa of one of T.'s little school friends has over the years donated tons of money to the local-and-very-popular college football team, and this secured him a prime tailgate parking spot for his massive, custom-built RV. So there we were, on a blustery, drizzly afternoon, huddled under the shadow of this RV sipping (cold) Gatorade and watching preschoolers punt balls around. L. and I toured the RV and were amazed--stainless steel appliances, a big-screen TV, more cabinet space then we'd had in that first house of ours! The party entertainment included a private, guided tour of the football center, and a special guest appearance by the team mascot. Both the last two activities were somewhat lost on the little ones; while the parents oohed and aahed over the players' cafeteria and lounge and the shiny weight room, the kids bounced off the couches, completely oblivious to the signed NFL jerseys decorating the walls. In the weight room the gigantic weight machines were like jungle-gym dreams-come-true to most of the four-year-olds. And the mascot's appearance back at the RV sent most of the kids screaming into their parents' arms; only the birthday boy seemed to really appreciate his presence there, which I guess was fine since it was HIS birthday party, anyway. But we had fun--kids and grown-ups alike and that, I think, is always the sign of a successful party.

All of this made me think about birthday parties in general, and a conversation I'd had not long ago with a grandparent.

"When MY kids were growing up," she told me, "birthday parties were about a little bit of cake and ice cream, and a chance for the parents to leave their kids off somewhere for someone else to deal with for a few hours."

Parties today, she went on to point out, have somehow become overblown affairs, with the host parents expected to put on not only a full entertainment spread for the kids, but for the parents as well!

I do see her point, I really do. But a part of me fully endorses this idea that a child's birthday party should also be a chance for the parents to have fun and socialize as well. It seems to me to be a purely American phenomenon--this idea of dropping your child off at another (sometimes strange) house for a couple of hours, and returning later to collect them, finding them maxed out on cake and ice cream and clutching a goody bag filled with cheap plastic dollar store toys in their sticky little hands. I only left T. once at such a party given by some friends of ours--a sweet, girlie affair involving lots of princess paraphenalia and time for dress-up. Yet it was clear from the beginning that the other parents weren't needed or even wanted there, so I left, and wandered around the nearby Target, feeling alone and unwanted. When I picked T. up one hour and forty-five minutes later (I just couldn't make it to the two-hour mark), I felt had been gone for hours. What had happened while I was gone? I wondered. What had I missed?

When we were in graduate school, Scott and I used to throw some pretty nice (if I can pat us on the back) parties. We seemed to have a knack for combining just the right sort of people, and just the right sort of food, and everybody (I hope) had a grand old time. So now that those days are long gone, I channel my party-throwing energies into the birthday parties for my kids. The parties we plan for our kids' birthdays are by no means lavish affairs. I love nothing more than a backyard gathering in the summer for L.'s birthday--popsicles or sno-cones to cool off with, and plenty of pizza and cake. This year for T.'s birthday I cooked macaroni and cheese bites, and cut up lots of fresh veggies. The parents mingled in the kitchen, sipping hot cider and talking, while the kids played, as kids will do, with every single toy they could find. For less than what it would cost to rent out one of those warehouse-type places filled with inflatable jumping things, you can turn the kids loose in the backyard, and watch them create their own party fun.

Maybe we don't get out enough, the two of us, or maybe I didn't get enough of my kid parties growing up, but I love the chance to be there at a party with my own kids; to watch the other parents in action, and talk about the ups and downs of parenting. I like going to different sorts of parties, too, and watching my kids participate in new experiences. I like to cook up a feast for my own children's birthdays, and to have a kitchen filled with family and friends. I love the kids running in and out of the back door, so busy with their own pursuits, until they hear the word CAKE! and then there they all are suddenly, squeezing around the dining room table, eyes shining from the magic of it all, parents laughing, and my kid feeling like the most special person in the whole world.