When our son turned three, my husband and I co-hosted a construction-themed blowout with his best friend’s family and about 60 people. The party involved the honorees ripping off their clothes—guests be damned—before melting down. This spring, when he turned four, we sat around a table with his grandparents, half in-person and half remote. There was just one pizza. There was a lot less anticipation and a lot more calm, both of which had very little to do with him maturing by a year.
Recently our family muddled through what it means for a toddler to celebrate his birthday in isolation the very first year he anticipated it. (He had been talking about a Daniel Tiger concert—now cancelled—for months.) I’m not crafty and wasn’t particularly inclined to spend more money on Amazon. A drive-by birthday party with friends’ families wouldn’t work since we are sheltered-in-place with family out of state. Group Zoom calls work for some kids but don’t mesh with our preschooler’s attention span. Explaining the passage of time is especially abstract when it doesn’t feel like time is passing.
But what, exactly, is relevant—or important—when you’re planning a child’s birthday in the middle of a pandemic? My own parents alternated the years that each of their two daughters could invite their friends to parties, and I thought about this recently. What is accomplished with these elaborate parties? And what might we gain when we give them up?
Reassess extensive planning
Many families have celebrated life events in less-than-ideal circumstances, of course. Even in today’s consumption-focused America, parents at varying income levels agree that planning more resource-considerate events is a welcome change. “I personally dislike the over-the-top birthday parties and the required gift bags and other nonsense. I grew up in France and things are much simpler there,” says Sophie Bambuck-Vasquez, a brand marketing VP, who recently celebrated her daughter Juliette’s birthday in Portland, Oregon. Six-year-old Juliette woke up to find balloons throughout the house, and she received calls from loved ones throughout the day. Her parents gave her two gifts: both items that she really wanted that were available from a local toy store.
“You would think that as a professional toy designer I have a million ideas of how to organize a fun party while quarantined,” says Chloe Varelidi, the mother of a four-year-old daughter and an almost one-year-old son. Instead the plan for the day is deliberately low-key: play, bake, and maybe hike. “I am still recovering from my daughter’s 4th Octonauts-themed party. Keeping it simple means less stress for us and in return a much happier baby—which, after all, is what really matters.”
Consider the core components—for parent and child
“What makes birthdays special is that the child is the center of attention,” says clinical psychologist and mother Dr. Becky Kennedy. “You feel seen. This feels good for kids when there is a lot of distraction around them.” Amid the stress of a global pandemic, it’s worth considering what modern kids need. But this doesn’t mean you should count out parents’ desires. As anyone who has attended a birthday party for a one-year-old knows, it’s not really (or often) about the kid.
A birthday is a milestone for both kids and parents, and it’s useful to separate the motivations of the two. Kennedy says that on birthdays, “kids like connected, slowed-down special time with adults in their lives.” Some parents who are able might take a half or full day off work if they fall on children’s birthdays. (To create that feeling more regularly, Dr. Kennedy suggested dedicating ten minutes daily to child-directed play.) And, as Stanford Graduate School of Education associate professor Jelena Obradović articulated on a recent podcast episode, taking time to unplug can feel urgent as many parents are working double or triple duty right now.
It’s okay for adults to acknowledge disappointment that celebrations we would have otherwise planned are impossible this year. This is especially true for families with time-bound cultural traditions that they want to uphold. Korean families often gather for dol, a celebration of a child’s first birthday, similar to Chinese tradition of zhuazhou—commemorations that have persisted from the era of much higher infant mortality, and that are thought to foreshadow the baby’s future. In Berkeley, California, parents Stephanie Chang and Louis Basel say they are trying to determine how to celebrate their son’s dol while distanced from extended family. Without access to the appropriate historic symbols and child costumes, they will likely wait until they’re able to travel. But they still plan to honor the day of his birth, even if subtly, and enjoy themselves.
Look into the alternatives
I anticipated that many parents would be confronting their kids’ unfulfilled expectations. But most of the parents I spoke with have confronted fewer tears than expected. For her five-year-old Rumi’s recent birthday, philanthropic advisor Rashida Essack hosted a small party on video conference with only family members. Everyone came dressed as a favorite Harry Potter character, and played charades, freeze dance, and “Harry Says” (a variation on Simon Says). Another parent told me that her daughter deemed a low-contact, “walk-by” party for a classmate in Austin, Texas, in which the adults wore brightly colored wigs, the “world’s best party.”
Yes, there are options for outsourcing: virtual gatherings and remote robot-making parties. But there are many lower investment options, too. I heard about families who are making birthday sweets with the kid involved. Some are enlisting their child in selecting an organization that needs financial support, then making a donation in their kid’s honor. There are preparations for in-home Montessori birthday walks and singing of silly songs. Just please, avoid the quarantine-themed birthday supplies. One Bay Area mom, Joy Wong Daniels, organized the cards her son’s classmates mailed into a giant number “6” on the wall. “Nico was so excited to receive them, including one from his school crush,” says Wong Daniels, a design researcher. “I’m glad I didn’t have to throw down for a crazy expensive San Francisco party venue.”
As for our family, we ultimately celebrated with temporary tattoos, a family park walk, and plenty of chocolate, starting with weekday morning pancakes. Our son received sweet videos from people he knows, plus a few books, puzzles, and toys, one modeled on the bus that passes by our apartment. During their daily video lesson, his classmates sang happy birthday and held up cupcakes and muffins. He told us that night that it was his “favorite birthday EVER.” Of course, it’s the only one he remembers.
Read more from Vogue's Coronavirus coverage:
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Originally Appeared on Vogue