Sunday, April 16, 2006

Birthday Blues

It used to be just my birthday that I dreaded, but now I dread my kids’ too.

You see, their birthday means I need to plan their birthday party.It’s not that I dread all the work involved or that I don’t want them to have a fun party with their friends. I just don’t like the excess of it all, how over-the-top kids’ birthday parties have become. And all the stuff. I dread the stuff—the influx of plastic crap into my house. We’ve barely recovered from Christmas.

Before the boys started kindergarten, I’d have their birthday parties in our home. When they started school, it had an inclusion policy—which, by the way, I wholeheartedly agree with—that requires the entire class to be invited to all birthday parties. The boys were in separate kindergarten classes. This meant 22 four-year olds.

Not in my living room.

I wasn’t the only parent who took this line of thinking, but I only took it to Chuck E Cheeses. Some parents took it far. Really far. By the time they’d completed junior and senior kindergarten, they’d attended birthday parties at United Center (The Barnum and Bailey circus), CafĂ© Brauer (chi-chi Lincoln Park Restaurant—my friend Margie got married there), and The Saddle and Cycle Club (exclusive north-side country club.) My husband quipped that maybe for the boys’ party we could hire-out Cirque de Soleil.

During those two kindergarten years, the entirety of my social life was children’s birthday parties. We had one every weekend. Sometimes more than one. I spent my whole life cleaning the kitchen and buying gifts for other peoples’ kids.

I felt like doing a Susan Powter-type shout out: Stop the Insanity! But I also felt like I was the only one in the crowd who thought it was insane.

At their cousin’s birthday party—in a rented out gym, with a DJ and fancy lighting—in lieu of a goodie bag, I think the parting gift for each kid was, like, a Buick or something. Very similar to all the gala’s we’d been attending. At one point my cousin Steve, the party girl’s father, pulled the video camera away from his eye and deadpanned, “I remember my birthday parties like this when I was a kid.”

Finally. Someone who gets it.

There were no parties like this when we were kids! The parties I remember going to were not annual events at venues. When they happened at all, they usually happened at someone’s house. In the basement.

I miss that. Which is why I don’t think the underlying cause of my birthday party procrastination has anything to do with a fear of venue one-upmanship—or lack thereof. In fact, when I think about our creepy basement, the idea of twenty-two nine-year-olds running around down there doesn’t even scare me. Although, it would probably scare them.

I know the reason for my procrastination is really about all the crap—the plastic gifts that inundate my house beginning at Christmastime and ending when the last birthday present is received.

I hate the crap.

The boys, quite frankly, don’t want for a thing. They received more toys for their fifth birthday than I had my entire childhood. They have more Lego’s and stuffed animals and board games than can fit in their playroom and I get disgusted with the moreness of it. It makes me feel dirty. Decadent. Like a fat American.

I know it’s hard not to give your kids everything they want, everything maybe you didn’t have when you were growing up, especially when you have the means to do so. Maybe it’s a form of guilt that drives us to shower them with parties and presents, but I guess the better question isn’t, “Can we?” but “Should we?”

Maybe I am just lazy, because I especially hate it when someone buys me a project. You’re familiar with the project presents—the gifts that inevitably mean more work. I’m busy. I don’t have time to make a space rocket in 400 easy steps, with Step One being, Order liquid hydrogen from Edmund’s Scientifics.

I probably sound unappreciative. Maybe I am. I know people are just trying to be thoughtful, but can I really be the only person out there who gets a present and thinks, “Darn it, another thank you note I have to write?”

Laser tag is now the front-runner for the boys’ birthday party this year and I’m thinking that’s fine. Instead of gifts, I’ve tried to talk them into having their guests make a donation to a children’s charity. They look at me blankly. No way, man. They want the loot.

I’m resigned. We’ll do a laser tag party with all the bells and whistles. (The folks at Cirque de Soleil can breath a sigh of relief.) And they’ll get presents. Lots of them. Who am I to deny them their crap? But I’ll do it with my fingers crossed, holding on to the hope that someday we’ll all outgrow this rampant materialism—and also that, maybe, Edmund’s Scientifics will run out of liquid hydrogen.

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