By: Aimee Tafreshi
Birthdays have the potential to strike fear in the heart of every levelheaded parent. And I’m not talking about our own inevitable decline toward middle age and the nursing home—I mean our darling children’s birthdays.
Some moms lament on Facebook the advancing age of their precious little ones. “Oh my goodness—Junior is already 18 months old—make time slow down please!” The lazy and unsentimental part of me wonders if we really want our children to be babies forever, and isn’t increasing maturity and autonomy a good thing?
I love seeing my kids grow up. I don’t miss the sleepless nights (for months on end) and their complete dependence on me during their newborn days. I am thrilled that my middle child will finally be entering kindergarten next year and beyond excited that my three-year-old is potty trained. No more budgeting for diapers or one dollar a piece pull-ups.
What I have discovered is that children’s birthdays are extremely stressful. These days the expectations are sky high, and I have no one to blame but myself for that mindset. My husband and I both enjoy entertaining and planning elaborate parties, and by the time the last guest has left, we need about a week to recover. Over the years, we have managed to put together some memorable shindigs.
The most over the top was probably my daughter’s fifth birthday party in Connecticut. We lived there only six months for my husband’s work, and we planned to combine her soiree into a social gathering to say goodbye to all of our friends. I began soliciting catering quotes, and some of the bids sounded more appropriate for a small wedding. We lucked out with a local military wife who prepared our food at zero or negative profit because she loved cooking for others.
The entertainment was a different story. I found a website that matched local talent—like clowns, balloon artists, face painters—with families looking for birthday party entertainment. I could enter in the event details and the price I was willing to pay, and the site would provide potential matches. On our shoestring budget, even Giggles the Clown had better things to do. I finally found an enterprising high school student who fit the bill as a talented magician and performer. My husband tried to negotiate down his price, but “Austin” stuck to his guns. We bit the bullet and hired the young magician, and he was every bit the consummate performer and professional. The kids loved him, and my MasterCard bill would tell me their satisfaction was “priceless.”
For the drinks, we actually considered bringing in a bartender but decided we could save money by providing our own liquor and a signature mixed drink recipe. As my daughter’s birthday falls on Cinco de Mayo, we had to go with the classic margarita. The recipe we inadvertently chose was so strong that only a few men could handle the stiff concoction. Luckily we had some beer and wine as an alternative to our tequila on ice.
Most people would assume hosting a birthday party in your home would be the most economical choice, but I have found it to be the most stressful and expensive option. The food and drink bill usually runs several hundred dollars, and then you have to worry about entertaining the little guys and gals, so they won’t decide to destroy your house instead. And forget buying your own child birthday presents—that budget gets blown out of the water by food and entertainment expenses.
Another in-home birthday party for my middle child was more low-key but probably about the same price as the high-end catered affair in the end. My son’s birthday falls near Halloween, so he is stuck with a ghoulish theme for the rest of his natural life. We rented a bounce house, the best investment ever, as some kids jumped the entire time, including ours.
We also had fun placing dry ice in a cauldron for a spooky effect, and we turned our garage into a modest haunted house with a few scary characters and creepy music and sounds. Finally, we picked up some smaller pumpkins from a local church-run pumpkin patch and set up tables with washable paints and brushes. Each child could decorate his or her own pumpkin and take it home as a party favor. Normally I forgo party favors unless the party lends itself to them—like the pumpkins or cascarones (a/k/a confetti eggs) on Cinco de Mayo. Those filled-to-the-brim-with-confetti eggs are a fun favor to send home with unsuspecting parents. Now everyone will have something to vacuum post-party.
Two of my favorite birthday parties occurred outside of the home. For my daughter’s most recent birthday, we weren’t feeling up to the usual big bash and elaborate preparations. She loves to swim, so we rented out the local pool for the morning timeframe before it opened to the public. When I schedule a birthday party for the a.m. hours, the event doesn’t consume my entire day, and the kids (and adults) are still pleasant and alert.
We bought some kid-friendly beverages, heavier hors d’oeuvres and Minion-themed cupcakes for dessert. We invited her girlfriends, and they had a blast swimming and hanging out. A few of the moms told me they enjoyed the low-stress nature of the party, and I agreed. I marked this idea down as one I would replicate in the future. And most importantly, the birthday girl had a blast doing her favorite activity with her school and dance friends.
Another memorable birthday fete occurred at a local ranch that rents out its space and services for events on the weekend. The price was reasonable, and the featured entertainment was worth the cost. For my son’s third birthday party, the kids interacted with barnyard animals, including giving a bottle of milk to a baby cow. A rustic hayride was also part of the package. We simply showed up with some sandwiches, drinks and cake, and sat back and let the party hostess run the show.
For our two sons’ most recent birthdays, we decided to scrap hosting a shindig and go with a “family” birthday party instead. We don’t have any relatives whom live close by, but we are lucky in that various family members have traveled from Texas or Alaska to join us in celebrating our children’s birthdays each year.
For my youngest son’s third birthday, we made a dinner reservation at our favorite downtown joint, and they seated us in an area that was private yet open to the restaurant. My in-laws were visiting, so we had a festive number of people around the table. We devoured a custom Minion cake (what else), and the adults enjoyed margaritas during the delicious dinner. Following our meal, we headed down to the waterfront to load onto a boat for a sunset family cruise. We saw dolphins, some lightning (eek!) and enjoyed the tranquility of cruising around a river at dusk.
We took a similar approach for my oldest son’s fifth birthday last month. I asked him what he wanted to do, and in his direct nature, he told me exactly what he wanted—to visit the zoo, eat at a particular restaurant and go to the beach. Our family dedicated the entire weekend to his birthday. On Saturday, we spent the good part of the day at the zoo, riding the train, attempting to pet stingrays as they glided by and walking through the butterfly garden.
The following day, his actual birthday, he opened presents and ate cake mid-day, and then we headed to a casual beachside eatery that evening. The weather was blustery, but we were able to dine outdoors sitting under an overhang, while the kids climbed on a playscape in the sand, and waves broke in the background. Following a low stress dinner, we walked a few hundred feet to the beach. The weather was so uncharacteristically windy and chilly that we lasted about five minutes on the shore—enough time to shriek in the frigid air—while the kids dipped their toes into the tidal pools, and the sun melted down into the horizon.
We bundled ourselves up in towels, sprinted to the car and found satisfaction in checking another birthday off the list, the last one in our family for the calendar year. As that crazy weekend wound down, I realized the most important part of a child’s birthday is to simply live in the moment and focus on your child’s happiness. I don’t need a costumed character or twenty sugared-up children to properly celebrate my little one’s big day. Please send my regrets to Giggles the Clown because I see more carefree birthday celebrations in our future…
Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.