If I close my eyes, I can still picture my mom descending our spiral staircase in a full Snow White costume. She was surrounded by three-foot diameter paper murals of Disney scenes attached to the wall by sticky putty that would leave dime-sized oil stains on our walls for months. My mother, who you'd now call a Pinterest Mom, had spent weeks blowing up the images on an overhead projector, tracing them, and coloring them in by hand to prepare for my Disney-themed ninth birthday party. A wave of kids flooded into our home, dressed as their favorite Disney characters—all homemade, in true 1980s fashion. There was Tinker Bell, Chimney Sweep Bert, and a very creative Cinderella. My mom even managed to coerce my dad into a makeshift Roger Rabbit get-up.
It wasn't the only memorable birthday party she threw for me and my sister. Some were simpler—party games at our house or sleepovers—but every year she planned us each something with our friends. They are memories I will cherish forever. But they are memories I won't be giving to my own children. The idea of throwing birthday parties for my two boys causes me panic. My own social anxiety is robbing them of this childhood right of passage.
It wasn't always this way. I threw my oldest son a first birthday party to rival any my mother had planned, and I enjoyed every minute. Our family and my friends attended and we had a great time. For a brief while after I had my first child, the social anxiety that has plagued me since kindergarten eased a bit. Similarly to the way I was too shy to have a one-on-one conversation but could get on-stage in front of thousands to perform with ease, I was able to socialize and meet new people when I had my baby with me. When he was a baby, our senses of self were intertwined, and I drew courage from that. And of course, as a new mom, I was proud to show off my baby. I'm surprised I didn't hold him up Simba-style in the middle of the mall.
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We celebrated his second birthday at my parents' house with a smattering of family guests, and the beginnings of my birthday party anxiety began to surface. His third birthday was simply a playdate with my friend and her son. He hasn't had one in the eight years since.
I want them to have those memories. But I can’t. I am the mom on the playground at school pick-up, desperately hoping no one talks to her.
My youngest child has faired worse. I orchestrated an elaborate first birthday party complete with a theme, two-tiered cake, and personalized everything. I was prepared because again, he was too little to have friends of his own, and everyone in attendance was carefully curated by me to be people with whom I was very comfortable with. It is the only birthday party I've thrown him and the last one I have ever hosted. Despite the familiar guest list and months of care I had taken planning it, I was on edge the entire length of the event and sighed with relief as the last guest exited and cleanup began.
My fear of people came on abruptly in early childhood. As a toddler, my parents worried I would be kidnapped because of my ease with strangers. I would strike up a conversation with a random restaurant patron as easily I did my own family. I would happily wander off, once making a break for it at the mall, completely unphased when I was found casually strolling through stores. My dad once crossed the street holding my hand, looking over to discover I had embraced the hand of another man, the three of us making our way to the other side as a unit.
By the time I entered kindergarten, I was nearly mute around people I didn't know extremely well. I began to get report cards that read, "Heather is a very shy and sensitive child." If you watch the video of the awesome surprise party my mom threw me for my sixth birthday, you can see the initial panic on my face upon unexpectedly seeing everyone I knew appear in my living room.
This social anxiety never left me. It affected me as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, and now it affects me as a parent—and by extension, it affects my children. Playdates almost never occur in our house; the idea of playing host fills me with dread. I make up for this by ensuring my children get to hang out with kids outside of our own home, at the houses of my own friends, or in places I don't need to also be in attendance.
Home birthday parties with musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey have mostly gone the way of shoulder pads and acid wash jeans, but the tradition of throwing birthday parties rages on. My kids get invited to mini golf, laser tag, and gymnastics parties, their parents having figured out that renting a facility is easier and often cheaper than opening up their own homes. I have the means to throw these types of parties for my kids, and my own parents have often offered to help with the bill should it become cost-prohibitive.
I want throw my kids these parties. I want to see them running around with their friends, being the center of attention. I want them to have those memories. But I can't. I am the mom on the playground at school pick-up, desperately hoping no one talks to her.
I worry the party won't be good enough, and my kids will be chastised and teased. I worry about being responsible for other people's children—an especially irrational worry after having spent a decade working as a pre-school teacher. I worry even more about trying to entertain and interact with lingering parents. My breath quickens at the thought of having the spotlight placed on me in the same way I have always panicked when people sing "Happy Birthday" to me. As my children's birthdays come around each year, I dread the potential of them asking for a party. They never do. They know better. And it isn't fair to them.
As my children’s birthdays come around each year, I dread the potential of them asking for a party. They never do. They know better. And it isn’t fair to them.
I have never outright told them they can't have a party. When they were younger, I gave them the loaded question, "We have a limited amount of money to spend on your birthday. Would you rather a small present and a party, or no party and bigger presents?" It was a true statement, but I have to admit to over-selling the presents option, and the wave of relief I felt when my young children failed to make the connection that having a party would mean getting presents from party guests too.
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Eventually, it just became understood that we don't do birthday parties. Whether through precedent, or through my children intuiting my anxiety, it hasn't come up in years. I have always told myself that if one of them ever asks for a birthday party, I will find a way around my anxiety and plan one. I am hoping it never comes to that. I battle the guilt over that hope year-round.
This is not to say my children don't have great birthdays. They do. In addition to carefully thought-out gifts that show we know them well, my husband and I plan cherished family time, just the four of us, or one-on-one time with one parent. We do dinner. We go for ice cream. We take them somewhere they find meaningful. We make sure they know how loved they are, and how special their birthday is. When they were younger, before it was embarrassing, I hand-appliqued personalized birthday shirts for them. Sometimes we send treats to school, so they can have some of the experience of being the center of attention amongst friends.
My kids will probably never have the memories I do of amazing birthday parties, nor will they have the gratitude to me that I do to my mother for planning them. This will always bother me. But birthday parties are just one part of childhood memories, and I find comfort knowing that my kids are making countless others to treasure in their adulthood. They already speak of the moments we share together. They see the love and painstaking effort I have put into making them quilts, stuffed animals, and other handmade items just for them. They know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the lack of birthday parties does not indicate a lack of care for or devotion to them.