Eight months pregnant, I waddled down the aisle at Safeway. I don’t know what I was looking for–lemon seltzer, low-sodium ketchup–but there before me was a wall of cake mix. A gallery of Betty Crocker perfections, icings, fillings, swirls and drifts. And it hit me as only a third-trimester panic can. I was going to have to make birthday cakes. Not the bittersweet fudge cake that was my party staple. But cakes shaped like the Little Mermaid or Superman or Apollo 13 including all crew members.
Years earlier, I’d been at Pizzicato with my family. My nephew toddled over with his crayons and scribble pad and asked Aunt Susan to draw him a pig. Aunt Susan, then a single working gal, sketched a pig and proudly turned the pad around so he could see it. He promptly burst into tears. “Nooooo, a pig. Draw a pig.”
My drawing makes children cry. What would my birthday cakes do?
Honestly, birthday anxiety was brewing even before my own kids were a glimmer. In graduate school–discussing short fiction over beers–(yes this really happens)–a classmate mentioned a story about a boy who has a birthday party. He and his mother get everything ready and proceed to wait for the party guests. They wait. And wait. And wait. No one comes. The mom starts drinking wine or gin or something. At the end he’s alone with his drunk mother, who hacks up the cake with a butcher knife. Possibly a poorly-crafted Superman cake.
Wars and famines aside, this story struck me as the saddest thing I had ever heard. It was painful. I wished I’d never heard it. Is it just me?
Part of it, I knew, hurt because years ago I had helped ruin someone else’s birthday. Back in Mrs. Hubbard’s class, I was invited to a tenth birthday party from a girl I was not great friends with. I knew my mom would make me go so I didn’t tell her about the little white envelope that had been slipped into my desk. On the day of the party, in the early evening, my best friend–a really, really good person, a person who at ten years old had already completed a juice fast to raise money for Oregon’s hungry–called and asked if I’d forgotten about the party. I lied and said I did. She said she’d gone and she was the only one there. Eight girls didn’t show up. My friend and the girl and the girl’s mom waited in the living room and finally the mom said, well let’s go and they drove to Mattson’s ice cream parlour on Highway 99 for sundaes. When I hung up, my mom and older sister had heard my half of the conversation. They pulled the story out of me. They were so disappointed in me. I could read the confusion on their faces: how had a child of this house turned out so selfishly? The day that was supposed to make this little girl feel special. And I, instead, had helped make her feel sad.
Thirty years later I still feel bad about that day. That girl did not have an easy life then and by accounts it did not appear to get easier. And now the payback. I have these two little loves, my hearts in eggshells. I spend way too much energy worrying that someone will hurt them (when truly no one will probably ever hurt them more than their PMS-y mommy bellowing, “Just a minute!”)
Nonetheless, looking back at my childhood I see how many times I was thoughtless and selfish to family and friends. And this is what scares me now. Because I really was kind of a semi-decent kid. And I still could be selfish and unfeeling. Which means, if even the nice kids can be mean: good luck. Did that guy who wrote Lord of the Flies teach public school?
My son’s birthday is today. For the sixth year in a row he has had a fun and rousing and well-attended birthday party. This year it was on the Sunday before the actual day. There are a couple of things that converge when I host a birthday party. My desire to create the best birthday party in the whole entire universe. And my background as an event planner, a career which, to be successful, is based on imagining every single thing that could happen, and thinking of how you will address this. (For an anxious person, event planning is either their calling or the nail in their coffin.)
Quick recap: it started a month out with picking the date. If the birthday falls mid-week you can choose either weekend. Look closely for holidays and days off school. People might be engaged in holiday plans. This year my son’s birthday was close to Valentines as well as Presidents Day, not to mention Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year.
Last year I had gone through all the calendars, school schedules and done all but consult an astrologer for an auspicious date. Finally I selected a date and was prepared to throw all my planning weight behind it. Then, I kid you not, I had the invitations and was about to start writing them out when my inbox dinged. I read the email and it was an invitation from another child in the class. Having no knowledge, she was inviting him and the entire class–really thoughtless– to a party on the same date at the same time. Doom! Back to the astrology charts.
This year I heard on the news that the flu was worse this year and worried briefly that there would be a mid-February outbreak, but my son’s friends seemed to have escaped the imaginary epidemic in my head.
I also worry about the time. Too late and kids start to melt down. Too early and it’s…too early. Plus the windows look streakier in the morning. Is the party around a meal time? Do we have enough chairs to sit down to eat? Will the fold out chairs collapse if a child is too squirmy? Do any kids have allergies? How much sugar can you give kids without their parents hating you? I would love to give them healthy food but don’t want to be the equivalent of the “toothbrush house” on Halloween. Will it be raining? Is there room in the closet for wet raincoats? Do those two kids who don’t get along that well still not get along that well? Should I wear my Wonder Woman crown or will I lose authority? How much medical history should I gather for a two-hour party? Will the kids play hide and seek and hide in the tub and go home and tell their moms about our moldy shower curtain liner? (I bleached it before the party just in case.)
I decide on a clipboard with a space by each name to collect phone numbers. No parent sidles up to me and whispers that their children is allergic to streamers or that they freak if they see the color blue. And the cake? I shelled eighty dollars for a bakery cake decorated by people who could sketch pigs with a pencil in their toes. It seems like we’re going to be okay. Fun is had. Treats are enjoyed. There are enough chairs. They do not wobble although one boy almost fell over backward but we caught him. (Was I supposed to tell his mom?) There is cheerful conversation at the table–adorable, zombie-based conversation. No, those two kids don’t get along that well but one stern look in their eyes and they became friends. (It was good not to wear the crown.) The only thing I kick myself about is that I had purchased lovely coordinated superhero-esque tablecloths- but I accidentally purchased circle ones instead of rectangles. To their credit, none of the children mentioned this. And I never did find a Batman soap dispenser to go with the superhero theme which would have been cute when they washed their hands for snack. Again, not one child mentioned the lack of theme continuity.
I don’t know what my big issue with birthday parties is. I’ve never had a bad birthday, neither have my kids. It seems a bit much to trace this all back to one ignored birthday party invitation. Maybe it’s part of a long standing personal tradition of not accepting that things will turn out all right. Or, actually, that things will turn out all right, just as soon as I kill myself wrangling them to the ground.
But as I vacuumed up pinata bits on Sunday afternoon, the fun times still hanging in the air, I felt myself loosen up. A little. Like maybe I was over birthday anxiety. As I read in a book somewhere, one way to reduce your anxiety about something is through steady exposure. Keep doing the thing you’re scared of.
Like waking up every day and facing a random, cold unpredictable world. One birthday party at a time. One joyous celebration after another.