The Good-Enough Birthday

Do children’s birthdays have to be complicated to be special?

Monday was my son William’s birthday. He turned seven years old–a magical age. He’s old enough to read chapter books and understand complicated riddles but still believes in Santa Claus so enthusiastically and purely that it actually makes me tear up a bit.

Will’s birthday is the second in a long row of birthdays spanning our fall months. Isaac turned 11 in September. Will’s birthday was 30 days later. Jacob will turn 13 in November. Jon turns thirty-something in early December, followed by Owen’s fifth birthday a few days later. Of course, there’s also Halloween and Christmas to fit in there, and Christmas is upon us almost as soon as Owen’s birthday toys are out of their packaging.

William surrounded by siblings and cousins on his 7th birthday

It can be pretty exhausting, frankly. The pressure’s on to host all-class parties, held in a gym or museum or playland of some sort. But add ’em all up and you’re looking at close to a thousand dollars we’d be spending on kids’ parties, right before Christmas. While I could come up with ideas for themed parties all day long, the reality of filling my house with children, decorating, planning games, and dealing with invitations  four times in three months is more than I can happily bear.

So somewhere along the line, we opted out. We’ve never rented a donkey. Never reserved a hall. Never set up a party at the local children’s museum. Never, to my memory, sent out themed invitations matched to the napkins and gift bags. The boys have had a few low-key pizza parties at home followed by sleepovers with a few favorite friends, and sometimes we let them invite a good buddy or two for a movie outing with Dad or a trip to play laser tag at the local arcade. But usually, birthdays in our house consist of a small, family-only gathering for cake, a few presents…and that’s it.

Isaac giving his gift–a pet tortoise–a pretend smooch before blowing out the candles

I used to feel really guilty about that. Wasn’t I depriving my kids of a time-honored tradition: the crazy birthday party with clowns, magicians, maybe a petting zoo? Even without going to that extreme, didn’t I owe them some kind of bash to share with two dozen of their closest friends? Or at least some kind of theme, gift bags, hand-made decorations or an expensive trip to the party store?

But then I realized that just because it seems like everybody else seems to be throwing big, elaborate parties doesn’t mean I have to. Just because other moms are great at cake decorating doesn’t mean my scrawled efforts at writing with icing with some scattered candies for adornment aren’t good enough. Special, even, in their own predictable, laid-back way.

Owen turning 4. He didn’t seem to notice that his cake was the victim of the Great Cake Malfunction of 2009. See how it’s about an inch higher on one side?

In fact, I now embrace our low-key, slow, family-centered birthdays. I wake the birthday child up with a hug and kiss, and he’s sent off to school with a chorus of “Happy Birthdays” from the rest of the family. He gets to choose his birthday dinner. I spend the afternoon baking a cake–usually from a mix–and wrapping two or three presents. I hang the same birthday banner we’ve used for years (actually, it finally fell apart, so now I have to buy another.) The birthday boy walks in the door after school, greeted by the smell of cooling cake. Sometimes we have a few cousins or an aunt and uncle or grandma over. Sometimes not. I love that I don’t have to worry about RSVPs, reservations, or gift bags.  I love that the day is all about us, our family and our home.

Jacob, turning 12

Looking back over years of our boys’ birthday party photos, most look more or less the same. Family gathered around the table. A rather sloppy cake (some years sloppier than others. Hey, I try, but this is one area where I’m lacking natural talent.)

I promise, I really do TRY

Candles. Singing. Lots of smiles and laughter. As you can see, the kids don’t seem to be suffering.

He is actually wearing this expression in EVERY photo.

I do hope to one day create a cake that doesn’t look like a first-grader’s 4-H fair entry. And we aren’t opposed to mixing it up a bit when we need to–for example, this year we’ll be in Florida on Jacob’s birthday, so I’m thinking about getting tickets to Medieval Times for a very special birthday dinner.

I also know that as the boys get older, their friends will become more and more important to them. Someday, they may prefer a trip to the movies with a buddy over sitting around the table eating cake and putting together their new Lego set with their brothers. Maybe one day I’ll actually have the energy, time and budget to put together one of those blowout parties my kids have never had.

Jacob turning 12

But I think I’ll always look back fondly at our dozens of slow, quiet, family-centered birthday parties. They’re not stylish, and they’re not terribly exciting, but sitting around the table is our personal birthday ritual–something that is just for us, that helps make us the family we are. And you know what? It’s more than good enough.

Have you ever felt guilty about throwing a low-key birthday for your children? What is your family’s birthday ritual?

*Speaking of rituals and family, did you know that Amanda Soule, aka Soulemama and author of The Creative Family, Handmade Home and a new book The Rhythm of Family (coming in August 2011) will be sharing her thoughts on making a house a home right HERE tomorrow? Be sure to come back and check it out!


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