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Birthdays Suck

I'm going to take you back in time. It was a different era. Dunkaroos were new and exciting. Lunchables didn't suck yet. The Kool-Aid man was not yet a meme, he was a dream. We all dreamed that an anthropomorphized jug of red-dyed sugar water would come bursting through the brick walls of our school and release us from the monotony of our multiplication tables. Our curfews were streetlights and our prized possessions were Pogs, trapper keepers, and shoes we had to air up with basketball-shaped squeezy buttons in the tongue.

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It was The Nineties. Specifically 1994. That was the year I turned ten. That was the year I finally mustered my courage to ask for a birthday party. I'd been to several and I was a product of 90s sitcoms. Birthday parties were the end all, be all of a soon-to-be ten-year-old's existence. A good birthday party could make or break your social status as a fourth grader.

I'd grown up poor and birthday parties were never in the budget. This had been more true those few years preceeding my shift to double digits as my parents had divorced. But, come on, man. It was double digits. I had to ask. So I asked. Months before the official day, I asked to have a birthday party to celebrate my first decade on Planet Earth. My mom agreed. Magically, she agreed.

I wanted to have it at the coolest place in town; a play center called Discovery Zone. Miles and miles of tube mazes, roller slides, ball pits, and rope ladders called to us, beckoning us to come in and lose ourselves to delight. Now as a mother I look back on this plastic petri dish of tubular hell in disgust. The germs. The things, living and dead, left behind in those tubes. The ball pit of chemical warfare. Just thinking about it, I feel a deep need to huff some Lysol and bathe in bleach.

But at ten, or almost ten, it was everything to me. It was also wildly popular and therefore wildly expensive. A couple hundred dollars in 1994 and for a very broke family, my mom saved for months. She explained that the party was the gift and there'd be nothing wrapped from my mom. I understood and I knew she wasn't bluffing. The party was more than enough. I was delighted.

Luckily, Discovery Zone, had absolutely no limit on the number of kids I could invite. This wasn't limited to ten or fifteen kids. I could invite the whole fourth grade if I wanted to. I didn't but it meant that I could spread my branded Discovery Zone invites far and wide. (They came with the birthday package. Fifty flimsy cardstock invites emblazoned with the Discovery Zone logo and printed with the time, date, and address of my birthday party.) It was social currency I was armed with as I handed them out.

My entire class was invited. As well as my favorite playground compatriots from other classes. I even invited a whole fifth grader I knew from school choir. All fifty were passed out, all fifty were greeted with broad smiles from my peers. They knew what Discovery Zone was. They knew this party was going to be one for the record books.

The day came and I was buzzing. Literally. I kept pursing my lips together and humming in excitement and anticipation. So much so that my mom told me to stop or she was going to cancel the cupcakes. We arrived a few minutes before my party was scheduled to begin. My party room was bedecked with streamers and a few helium balloons. The real kind that actually floated. Not the cheater kind with a regular balloon on a stick like you got at Chuck E. Cheese back then. Nope. Real, honest-to-god, helium in those balloons. Bougie.

My party was slated to begin at noon. Noon arrived but none of my friends had. My mom assured me we had the party room for two hours and the rest of the play area all day. She told me to go play, lose myself in the tunnels but I couldn't. I wanted to be a gracious host and greet all my guests. It's the way they did it on Full House and Step by Step. It's the way I would do it.

12:10. No one.

12:15. No one.

12:20. Finally someone showed up.

His name was Michael. (It wasn't but that's what I'll call him here. Just assume I changed all the names. Not that I expect folks will recognize themselves in this story but all the same. I'll protect them here.) He was the tallest kid in fourth grade by a head. He loved Hulk Hogan and football. His favorite thing to do on the playground was pick up smaller kids like logs. Whether they wanted to be picked up or not. Thankfully I was a mid-sized kid in my grade therefore not subject to the lumberjack experience. But Michael was not the kid I expected to show first.

12:30. No one.

12:40. No one.

Michael had already dumped his shoes in the room and darted off to terrorize the ball pit or something. And I sat in my streamered party room staring at the door. That was it? Michael. A kid I wasn't even that close a friend with? Where was Mary? Elizabeth? Christopher? Christopher and I played Jurrasic Park together every single day at recess. And I always let him be Malcolm. Christopher couldn't come? And Jennifer? And the other Jennifer? And the other Elizabeth?

No one?

Just Michael?

Oh. I decided at 12:43 not to cry. I stared up at the bold red digital clock in the party room as the little colon between the hour and minutes flashed. Once a second. After seventeen blinks, the urge to cry had passed but the desire to play had not come. All the same, I stripped my jelly sandals off (don't worry, I wore them with socks. This was March after all. And also, 1994) and marched into the play area to find Michael.

Sure enough, I located him in the ball pits. I asked if he wanted to play Jurrasic Park with me. He told me no. He didn't want to play with me at all. His mom had made him come because she had a hair appointment next door and this was a good place for him to be while she got her perm refreshed. He hadn't even brought a gift.

I whipped my head around to my party room. It stood, it's gaping maw open. Teasing. Grinning at me with streamery teeth and a balloon tongue. The gift table was devoid of gifts. The picnic benches around the rainbow table, just as devoid of friends. Just my mom, reading her Mary Higgins Clark novel.

Oh. I decided at 12:57 to go ahead and cry. My mom rushed over and quieted me. She helped me calm down. I didn't feel better necessarily but was soothed enough to return to playing. Friends or no, I was still at Discovery Zone. The second most magical place on Earth. I got pizza that came with the party and we got to take home the whole dozen cupcakes Discovery Zone provided. Well except the one that my mom made me give Michael even though his mom had made him come.

To this day I don't know what happened. It might have been the fifty schedules misaligned. (Except Michael's mom's perm.) It might have been something else. Because I wasn't an outsider. I wasn't an insider either. Not popular but not a total outcast in the social hierarchy of pre-teens. I continued to receive invites to other kids' parties. I continued to play with Christopher and both Jennifers at recess.

But I developed a distinct distaste for birthday parties after that. The following year got better for my mom and I. She got a promotion at work that year and it stabilized the finances quite a bit. By the time my eleventh birthday rolled around, my mom volunteered to throw a party for me. Maybe a sleepover with my girlfriends this time. We could eat popcorn and watch scary movies. I declined.

Truth was, I very much wanted that. It sounded fun. It sounded like a lot of fun. But what if nobody came? What if it was a repeat of birthday #10? No. That hurt. I wasn't interested in crying on my birthday again. I said I wanted to go to a movie with my mom instead.

I can't tell if the following bit of memory is real or if I cobbled it together using my experience as a mom but my mom's face told me she knew why. I never did ask for another birthday party. My friends threw me a rager for my 21st. Jack pulled together a few friends to celebrate my 30th. I have a suspicion my upcoming 40th birthday will not go unnoticed.

But I won't throw myself a birthday party. I won't ask for one. Because even thirty years later, the possible rejection deals a blow to my very soul.

Now, I have a different quandary. Now I'm the one expected to sit in the room, reading trashy romance or see-through whodunnits while my kids celebrate how many trips around the sun they've enjoyed. Abbi had a few small parties. But we were just as broke as I had been growing up. As a result, birthdays were often distilled down to family and a friend or two. Mostly homegrown affairs. Nothing so grand as Discovery Zone. By the time our finances had stabilized enough to afford the more upscale birthday locales, Abbi had grown out of the big childhood birthday parties, preferring to take a pack of friends to smaller, more intimate celebrations.

And by more intimate we mean laser tag, but still. Her core group of friends joined her. They would have joined her if it was just yeeting rotten eggs into a ditch, it was that core group of friends. And I thought I was free and clear of worrying about birthday parties.

Then I had more kids and we are now entering birthday party territory once more. The first few birthdays, the parties are for the parents and my introverted ass didn't care to throw those. The next few birthdays my kids celebrated under the shadow of a global pandemic. So if they'd wanted a third or fourth birthday party, we wouldn't have been able to do it anyway. We dodged the fifth birthday party by way of sudden illness. It had been a small affair planned anyway. Another home-grown, "we decorated the living room with streamers" gig.

But they turn six sooner than I'd like to acknowledge so I find myself sitting with "Do I offer them a birthday party?" Ultimately, at this age, a child going to another's birthday party is dependent on two important factors; a) the invite making it home and into the parents' hands and b) the parent being willing and able to bring said child to said party.

I'm sitting here reliving my own birthday party trauma and trying not to wrap my kids into it. Because I'm asking other parents to find a way to get their kid to a party I'm throwing. If they don't come is it because their kid wasn't interested? Because they were just busy adults living busy adult lives? Or perhaps, whispers the nasty voice in my head, because they don't like me? Will I net a bunch of rejections and wound my children?

Will I make a thing that is very much not about me, about me? I'm trying not to. I have some months to decide. To get my head right. And no, there's not a neat bow for me to wrap around this little gift I've made here. Birthdays are hard. Low key, for me, to me, perhaps because of me, they suck.

Where am I going with all this? I don't know. Because it isn't so simple as just putting a request out there to take your kids to others' birthday parties. Again, busy adults. Busy adult lives. Hell, in this day and age, busy kids. Busy kid lives. We've got t-ball and dance class, swim lessons and family days to contend with. They are good problems to have. But problems nonetheless.

I'm 100% overthinking this. It's what I do.

I've celebrated the turn of almost three more decades since that doomed Discovery Zone birthday party. I never want my kids crying in a ball pit because no one came. (To be fair, we're not going in a ball pit cuz ew but you know what I mean...) But am I depriving them of an experience because I'm afraid of repeating one of my own?

Parenting is hard.

None of us have any idea what we are doing.

Do you throw birthday parties for your kids?

  • Yes. But I keep it small.

  • No. It's just a family celebration.

  • Yes. We go all out.

  • Depends on the birthday kid.


4 comentários

Birthdays are the worst. My 8th birthday was the one that killed all the birthday joy for me. I invited my entire class to my house for a slip ‘n’ slide, water balloon, bob for apples, dance all night, watch movies, sleep over- all that fun birthday party shit-extravaganza! No one showed. No one called. No one said a word about it. I was birthday girl scorned forever. After the tears ended, my stepfather (at the time) took me out to go get Dairy Queen to fill that sadness hole with food (and I assure you I’ve been filling it ever since-hello obesity and other fun struggles) and then rent my 2 favorite movies, Wayne’s World and the Princess Bride…Didn’t…


Kristal Reagan
Kristal Reagan
01 de fev.

Birthdays are complicated. They shouldn't be, but unfortunately they are. I do not have childhood birthday trauma (and I'm not bragging at all), I remember some great birthday parties. I turned 10 in the 80s and in the 80s birthday parties were something most parents made sure kids got to. I still love my birthday but I don't rely on a single person, not even my husband and 6 kids, to make my birthday special. I planned my own 21st birthday and made my own cake and decorated the house. I LOVE balloons, I rather get balloons over flowers any day. Even after being married I bought my own balloons. Our marriage has grown and now I do not buy…


D Donlan
D Donlan
01 de fev.

Order of events… thanksgiving, my younger sister’s birthday, Christmas, mom’s birthday, New Year’s Eve, my birthday. ….. as last in line, I accepted that birthdays weren’t a big deal. Nothing wrong with dinner and a movie. And in my later years, I’ve come to look forward to the tradition 😂


They’re twins. They’re in different classes. One is an extrovert. One is an introvert. One has ADHD. One has Autism. Their birthday is in December. I don’t remember my own birthday parties fondly and do not enjoy celebrating my own. Birthdays are HELL.

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