Finding Balance in the Season of Birthdays

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published October 16, 2008, issue of October 24, 2008.
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In our house, the end of Yom Kippur means the beginning of the hell that is birthday season.

ANOTHER YEAR OLDER: Josie shows off a birthday gift last year.
ANOTHER YEAR OLDER: Josie shows off a birthday gift last year.

Both my girls were born in October, a week apart. When I was pregnant with Maxie, due six days after Josie’s third birthday, I was terrified of missing my big girl’s birthday. Nor did I want a newborn distracting me. I felt so sorry for Josie, soon to experience the sibling tsunami after being my only; I wanted her to have this last hurrah.

And she did. A party animal even at 3, she had a blast at her cupcake-laden-sukkah-decorating fete. But when I went to see my hippie midwife a few days later, she gasped. In her gentle way, she murmured, “Okay, you’re four centimeters dilated and almost fully effaced. The only reason you haven’t had this baby is you don’t want to. Why? Is there something you want to talk about?” I laughed. “I just wanted to make it through Josie’s birthday party!” Once assured that I was not facing some giant psychological barrier to second-time motherhood, Yael peered into my eyes. “Would you like to have the baby tonight?” she asked. Uh, okay. Yael then performed some acupressure voodoo on my kneecaps. Then she said soothingly, “Okay, you’ll go into labor in four or five hours. Call me when you’re ready.” I inwardly snorted at this hippie madness, but four hours later, at another friend’s child’s birthday party, while shoveling in Mama’s Food Shop mac ’n’ cheese, I realized I was having contractions. A few hours later, la voila, Maxine arrived. Moral: Do not mock the hippies.

For the next couple of years, my girls had joint birthday parties. But while Maxie is always happy to bask in Josie’s reflected glow, Josie grew increasingly irked and begged for a party of her own. I did not want to do two big parties back to back, because I am sane, so last year I told Josie she could have a tiny solo celebration or a big celebration with Max. She chose the former. So we took her and four friends on a thrillingly long subway ride to see a performance of Gustafer Yellowgold, her favorite rock opera, about an alien from the sun who crash-lands in Minnesota. She and her friends sang along lustily, danced in their seats. I considered giving them lighters to hold up, devotionally, but decided not to get arrested for violating fire codes. We then came home and had pizza and make-your-own-sundaes. Done. A week later, Maxine had six friends over for a brunch-and-Halloween party. The kids test-drove their costumes for the next week, played pin-the-wart-on-the-witch’s-nose (apologies to my Wiccan friends), did Halloween coloring pages and word-finds I downloaded from the Internet, got temporary tattoos and face painting (by me, not some high-priced clueful professional) and decorated pumpkins with paint and stickers. I served bagels, an apple and oatmeal cobbler, and cupcakes. Done.

I’m lucky we don’t have to compete with the schmancy birthday parties other New York children have. We do not hang with the peeps who buy the $38,000 sleepover party at FAO Schwarz. We do not know the guy who hired 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Ciara to play his daughter’s bat mitzvah party, to the tune of $10 million. (His daughter requested Don Henley? You’d think that would be social death among the middle school set.) My friend, a professional clown in California, performed at a party for a toddler where the other entertainment was three (caged) tigers on loan from a local zoo; we were not invited. We’ve been to parties at a bowling alley, Chelsea Piers gym, a playspace with a climbing wall and crazedly enthusiastic “pumpers” (actual term in current usage), dancers hired to whip the kids into a party frenzy. But though these were big-ticket fiestas by my standards, the parents still weren’t exactly renting out the Temple of Dendur.

Yet parents everywhere succumb to party madness. Mall-centric companies like Libby Lu have make-over parties, where girls can be encouraged to stroke on blush like teeny pageant queens. Toy stores have booked-solid private party rooms. Gift bags for attendees have reached vomitous proportions. Professor William Doherty, a social science professor at the University of Minnesota, has started a non-profit called Birthdays Without Pressure, an organization devoted to encouraging parents to dial it down. Helpfully, my friend Dan points out that Saveur magazine, bible of foodie snobs, listed Costco birthday cakes among its 100 best things. Even foodies don’t even have to suffer when cutting back!

All my favorite kids’ parties have been low-key affairs. Josie’s pal Raffa had one at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, where the kids played on vintage subway cars and made mosaics similar to those they’d seen in many stations (bonus, a craft activity and a party favor!). Our friend Alice had a fairy-themed party where the kids made wands out of glittery pipe cleaners and beads and worked on a mural (a wall covered in craft paper on which her mom had drawn a few castles and trees). Maxwell had a party at the cool historic gymnasium in Hamilton Fish Park on the Lower East Side, built in 1898 in over-the-top beaux arts style. The permit cost $25. The kids had a blast eating sandwiches, playing tag, dancing to a CD player and decorating gingerbread men made by the birthday boy’s mom. As we left, we discovered that a snowstorm had pelted the city while we were indoors; we pushed our strollers home through a drifty, silent urban wonderland.

A friend of mine cleverly rented out a karaoke bar for her son’s 9th birthday; she got the place for an afternoon at nominal cost and the kid and his theater-geek friends belted out show tunes and ate pizza and cupcakes.

My fondest memories of my own childhood parties involved looking through my mom’s battered booklet from the Diamond Coconut company and wondering which of the many cakes covered in tinted flaked coconut I should ask her to make. (Mickey and Minnie Mouse? Train? Giraffe?) I loved studying the instructions, seeing how round cakes and sheet cakes could be cut up and reassembled to create delicious sculptures. The anticipation was as fabulous as the party.

This year, Josie will have her very first sleepover: Four girls, watching “Annie” on DVD, baking cupcakes. I figure one semi-sleepless night is survivable. Then Maxine will have a sukkah-decorating party for six friends — last year the most popular craft was stringing Froot Loops on a lanyard, so we’ll revisit it. (The kids were oddly hypnotized by the process; very Zen, I guess. Either that or they were in sugar shock from eating the Froot Loops. But many of these organic-granola children didn’t seem to understand that Froot Loops were food. Which is, now that I think of it, debatable.) We will hang drawings in the sukkah, pitch little stuffed pumpkins into a harvest basket, and pray for good weather.

I hate to sound Grinch-y about birthday parties, but more than half of me wishes we could go back to the days when birthdays went unacknowledged, or were celebrated with the immediate family and the gift of a cone of chickpeas or a few hazelnuts. But of course, back then you didn’t have as good a chance of surviving childhood. Dang, you can’t have everything.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.


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