Last weekend, we celebrated MFP’s 3rd birthday. When I was a child, I loved planning birthday parties. Whenever my birthday rolls around, my mom recalls how I always strategized my own party months in advance. Of course, in the early 80’s, a good kid’s party consisted of a couple of bags of Doritos, soda, a Carvel ice-cream cake, and pizza. We were lucky if we got a candy-filled pinata or the chance to pin a tail on the donkey. I did my own decorating, which meant paper streamers and balloons. Parties were my thing. My husband, on the other hand, gripes that his childhood birthday celebrations were much more bare-bones, insisting that cake was a luxury and the only balloons he ever got to blow up belonged to the “rich kids”.
Remember this guy?
Fast forward to today. Kid parties seem, well, fancier- petting zoos, magicians, bounce houses, espresso bars, Justin Timberlake…(ok, maybe those last two are for the Mommies). Pinterest only ups the pressure to put on the perfect party. As my sweet baby’s 3rd birthday approached, I started to panic. Party planning didn’t feel fun anymore. It just seemed like another opportunity to prove that I couldn’t live up to this mythical Mommy standard of perfection and that maybe I made a better career woman than a stay-at-home-mom. But then I saw the excitement in MFP’s eyes when I mentioned her upcoming birthday, that same excitement I felt as a child when my birthday approached, and I got my party groove back…sort of.
When I asked MFP what she wanted for her party (mind you, she had started planning her own celebration months earlier when she first brought up the owl theme), she replied, “I want you to make me an owl cake, like last year when you made me the Hello Kitty cake.” She brings up her Hello Kitty cake often, probably because she is severely cake-deprived as far as children go- mostly, due to her milk allergy and kinda because I try to limit sugar consumption, that is when she’s not sneaking into my stash of dark chocolate chips. But part of me likes to think that one day she will wax nostalgic about the homemade character cakes, lopsided features and all, her non-pastry chef mom attempted to create to help make her day special. So like the glutton for punishment that I am, I hopped onto Pinterest and began my search for ideas to make MFP’s birthday befitting a fancy pants three–year-old.
And you know what? It was super fun! MFP got in on the action, sitting on my lap as we perused all that Pinterest had to offer. She helped me craft the owl balloons; watched with great anticipation as I decorated the “Mommy” owl cake, complete with baby owl cupcakes; danced excitedly when she saw fireplaces and railings festooned with our arts and crafts creations; and sighed in appreciation at the aroma of sausage and peppers filling the house as I cooked for her party, exclaiming, “Mmmmm, Mommy, the house smells good! What are you making?” Yeah, and she also helped herself to some of the prosciutto from the antipasto, a girl after my own heart. Of course, it was a godsend that my extremely helpful mother was visiting from out-of-state and made it her job to ensure that the house was immaculate. And while she is a fantastic cook, Mom was happy to be my sous chef for the day, sparing me the chore of chopping and dicing several pounds of produce.
Speaking of food, I’m Italian and Macho Man (MM) is Mexican. To us, a party is just an excuse to gorge yourself on excessive amounts of food and if your guests leave without feeling like they require a vomitorium, you haven’t done your job as a host. In my invitation, I mentioned that we would be serving a “light dinner”. That light dinner included an Italian antipasto salad, tossed salad, sausage and peppers, kettle chips (MM insisted), pizza (safe kid option), and cake, much less than we’d normally serve. I fretted that I should have included more veggies for the children and maybe some fruit to round out the meal, but MM reminded me that birthday parties don’t require you to ensure that you’ve incorporated every food group. I nixed the owl s’mores at the last minute since I was worried that
my child the children would be too hyped up on sugar to go to bed at a decent hour and that I would receive hate-texts from parents about their children’s post-party tooth decay.
But I didn’t know the “rules” of a preschooler’s birthday party. Like, I didn’t know that it’s a good idea to limit it to two hours or less because that is the amount of time that both parents and 3-yr-olds can handle before someone starts melting down, and it’s not pretty when it’s the parent. And while I knew it was good to have some simple games planned, I didn’t know that if you focused on the food, planned a party that was way too long (when in reality, guests would need to leave much earlier for their own sanity’s sake), and your husband spent all his time during the party drinking wine and gabbing instead of making sure the guests were adequately hydrated, that you wouldn’t actually have time to do any of your fun indoor activities, like paint everyone’s face with the special organic, non-toxic face paint you had rushed delivered from Amazon just for the occasion when you found out the weather would be too horrible to partake in your planned outdoor activities. And even if your owl cupcakes are really adorable, displaying them before your littlest guests have eaten their dinner is probably not the best idea.
They are super cute, right? Like little babies peeking out of their nest.
And here’s Momma…
Despite my lack of knowledge of the “rules”, MFP loved her party, probably because she got to eat cake and pizza and drink a juice box all in one day. She’s still talking about the owls, her cake, and how much fun she had with all of her friends. I even overheard her on several occasions talking to her imaginary friends (hey, she is an only child) about her “great” party. In fact, she’s already decided that next year she wants a kitten theme.
So how do you know if your preschooler’s birthday party was a success? I have four simple criteria.
1. No one was severely injured or food poisoned
2. There are fewer than 3 meltdowns per every six children
3. The birthday girl/boy had lots of fun
4. You have celebrated the anniversary of your child’s birth
As you can tell, I didn’t set the bar that high. It allowed me to actually enjoy myself instead of stressing the whole time. Ok, so I did stress a little bit. A lot. Whatever. The process was fun even if the execution come party time was a bit hectic.
I did ask several of my friends (after the fact), many who have thrown great kid parties without pomp and circumstance, what their advice would be for parents when throwing a party for a preschooler. I thought their answers were thoughtful and helpful. As such, I thought I’d pass them along.
Make sure the party is child focused. Find simple activities for them to do (dancing, ball games, crafts, etc.) Happy, engaged children also have the added bonus of allowing parents to somewhat relax and enjoy themselves because they don’t have to spend all their time keeping their child away from the china cabinet or preventing a meltdown.
If your spouse/partner and/or family members are helping you to host, make sure you give them clearly defined roles. Like, don’t just tell your husband (MM), “You’re in charge of beverages,” which he may misinterpret as sampling all the bottles of wine before they are served. Instead, tell him, “You’re in charge of keeping the water pitcher full of ice-water, the ice-bucket full of ice, the wine uncorked when bottles are running low, drink boxes plentiful, and keep the herbal iced-tea coming.” Because sometimes, husbands are clueless about obvious signs that they aren’t keeping up, like an expectant mother almost passing out from dehydration.
When planning your party, have both indoor and outdoor activities planned in case of inclement weather.
Keep the party 2 hours or less in length.
Don’t forget about the parents. While they may not need a Vegas-style buffet spread, do have something for them to drink and nosh on besides M&M’s and juice-boxes.
Since a lot of parents try to limit their children’s junk food consumption, it’s nice (but not necessary) to have some more healthful options, such as fruit, for kids to munch.
Keep in mind that many 2 to 4-year-olds may still require a nap or “quiet time”. Plan your party with your child’s (and others’) nap schedule in mind so that the children are well rested, either in the morning or after an afternoon nap.
Open gifts after all the guests leave to help prevent “issues”.
Write down what guests gave (either on a notepad or in the card attached to the gift) to make thank-you note writing easier.
Keep gifts out of reach of little hands who may misplace cards or open presents. I learned this the hard way when we opened the gifts after guests left and discovered that many of the cards were no longer attached to the correct gift, necessitating awkward emails to friends to figure out who gave what.
Some other good ideas…
Serve ice-cream in individual sized cups (or in those little pre-cut squares) to cut down on the hassle of scooping
Having cupcakes instead of a cake also cuts down on the amount of time spent serving
Find an inexpensive venue to host your child’s birthday party to avoid pre and post-party clean-up of your own home
If siblings have birthdays that are close date-wise, have a combo party
Because children are often inundated with toys on their birthday, you may want to suggest to relatives (who ask what the birthday child would like) to instead help contribute to a larger group gift, such as a swing set or a college fund.
In lieu of toys for your child, you might ask guests to bring donations such as canned food, clothing, and toys to give to charity to help teach your child the notion of “paying it forward”. This suggestion may work better with an older child who can understand the concept of charity and giving to others, but you can also introduce it to younger ones on a smaller scale by having a couple of items to have him/her donate.
By all means, if you find enjoyment in party planning and want to do it up, go for it! Getting your child involved in the fun can help create lasting memories. But if the “rules” become overwhelming, refer back to my four criteria, with a special emphasis on criteria number 4. Because in the end, birthday parties are a celebration of life- not about rules or gifts or cakes or party favors or games or decorations or Food Network worthy spreads. And while all those things can help make the celebration and create fond memories, you aren’t a failure if the execution doesn’t quite live up to your ideal (or the expectations of others). If you’ve hugged your children close, given thanks for their presence in your life, and celebrated their arrival into this world, then you have embraced the true meaning of the day.
A special thanks to my dear Mommy friends who have contributed to this article. Thank you Becky Price, Nicole Burns, Christine Ellis, Kristi-Lyn Purpura, Georgia Knight, Peggy Everling, and Terese Maineri De Velasquez.
Before I had a child, I was blissfully unaware of the “camps” that existed surrounding child-rearing practices. Yeah, I knew some parents spanked their kids and others adamantly refused to, but I didn’t realize that there were so many issues that sparked debate within the mommy crowd. I began my education in “Parenting 101” when I joined a group of expectant mothers who were all due the same month I was due with MFP. Their support and knowledge served invaluable throughout my pregnancy and especially during MFP’s first year, as I struggled to figure out what parenting style would best suit MFP and our family. Early on I thought I had it all figured out. I would breastfeed until she was at least a year old, co-sleep (but with a side-sleeper since I was paranoid that I’d roll onto my slumbering infant and crush her!), never succumb to “cry it out” methods to get my child to sleep, only feed her homemade, organic baby food, use cloth diapers, never use the TV as a sitter, yada, yada, yada…Haha, boy, was I in for a big surprise! Despite herculean efforts, I wasn’t able to produce enough breast milk and had to supplement with formula; MFP was never a “good” sleeper as an infant, but seemed to do much better when she was moved to her own room away from my husband’s snoring; all non-cry-it-out (CIO) methods implemented failed to help my child sleep well during the night and I ended up resorting to Ferber’s “progressive waiting” method (a.k.a. CIO) when she was almost a year old and we were both incredibly sleep-deprived; while most of her food was organic, she hated the consistency of my homemade baby food and much preferred jarred; cloth diapers? Ha!; and while I held off on having her watch TV until she was 18-months-old, once she did start, I realized that getting a free half-hour here and there to complete a task uninterrupted while she was in a zombie-like state in front of the tube wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I mean, I watched a boat-load of TV as a child and I turned out literate and relatively normal, right? Um, don’t answer that.
Through the school of hard knocks, I came to understand that there is no one “right” way to parent and that what works for one child may not work for another, even within the same family. While it’s terrific to have some sort of framework in mind, being fluid in one’s approach is sometimes more productive than forcing one’s “ideal” upon a child or oneself, especially when the approach isn’t working. We should be kind to ourselves when circumstances nudge (or shove) us away from what we had envisioned as the ideal parenting approach, and accept that sometimes, we may have to adjust our expectations. We should also extend this kindness to other mothers who may make choices different than our own. Because in the end, what’s most important is that our children are loved, nurtured, and well-cared for, whatever approach we may use to achieve those goals. Our choices don’t make us “better” or “worse” than other moms. It’s helpful to keep this in mind when differences lead to arguments over parenting approaches or guilt over our own choices.
Several weeks ago, in a moment of thoughtful reflection, I wrote a poem about this topic. I’m not a poet (except for a stab at an occasional limerick or two), but I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Motherhood is not a competition
It’s not about who did attachment parenting
or let their baby sleep in a crib
or cry it out
or breast fed
or bottle fed
or made their own baby food
or bought jarred
or fed only organic
or let their kid watch TV
or banned TV
or stayed at home
or worked outside of the home
or home schooled
or public schooled
or private schooled
It’s not about whose kid is smarter
or more handsome
or more athletic
or more artistic
or reading first
And while it’s great to be proud of your kiddo, your hard work, and to share your joy with others
It’s not ok to
make other moms feel inferior
fail to put yourself in others’ shoes when judging their actions
belittle their parenting skills
pit working moms against stay-at-home moms and vice versa
blame a high-needs child’s temperament on a mom’s (lack of) parenting skills
try to outshine other moms with petty competitiveness
Motherhood is a gift
Please don’t take it for granted
Mothers need to support other mothers
Not with a facade that everything is perfect when they’re not
Not with a smile to another’s face while gossiping behind her back
But with genuine concern
and good nature
and gifts of chocolate (ok, that might just be me!)
Go out of your way not because it makes you look good
but because you care
Not to show off
but because you want to support the wellbeing of all children and mothers
Examine your actions
Sometimes the most confident are the least likely to assess their negative impact upon others
Sometimes the most worried and insecure are the ones who want to please the most
Sometimes the biggest showoffs or most critical are those compensating for their own insecurities
Sometimes the ones who think they know it all are the most blind to what they don’t know
Do your best to examine your motivations and grow
And sometimes despite our best efforts, we still fail…and that’s ok.
Because Motherhood is not a competition
and as long as we are trying
and recognize our own strengths and weaknesses
and continue to improve
and support each other
and our children
and other children
we all win
Today was my daughter’s first day back to preschool. Like, the day she was actually supposed to be there, unlike the prior Tuesday when I took her to school only to be informed by last year’s teacher that I had the wrong week. Yeah, that’s right, the wrong week. I should have known something was up since it was the first morning in recorded toddlerdom history that went down without a hitch. Miss Fancy Pants awoke bright and cheery that morning, giddy with excitement about her first day of school. She ate all of her breakfast, got dressed by herself, used the potty without insisting I tell her twenty stories first, and we were out the door in record time. I even managed to take a fancy pants picture of her on her to document the occasion. Ok, so I had forgotten to purchase the necessary classroom supplies; but no worries, I’d just drop them off at the end of the day. As you can imagine, we were both disappointed to discover my error. MFP cried when we got back into the car, and I mourned the To Do List that would remain undone. Fortunately, a spontaneous trip to Starbucks and Old Navy managed to brighten both our moods considerably.
But my tale of blondeness doesn’t end there. I totally blew off the open house this past Friday. Not on purpose, of course, but several of her weekly activities had gotten switched to different days this school year, throwing off the internal calendar I seem to function by, somewhat poorly. When I was working outside of the home, Microsoft Outlook, colleagues, and that little thing called a work ethic helped keep me on track. “Claudia, are you almost done with Little Johnny’s psychological evaluation for today’s meeting?” “Why yes,” I’d beam, as I proudly held up my eight page report that I had slaved and obsessed over for days, “I just put the finishing touches on it!” I may have been pushing the boundaries of punctuality, mostly because I usually held the record for most psych evals done in one school year and had a ridiculous amount of report writing to do, but I always made my deadlines.
Don’t get me wrong. 95% of the time, unless MFP throws a toddler tantrum right before leaving, I manage to remember and get her to all her activities on time (and on the correct day). My new babysitter (I totally love her!) comments on how organized I am and how well thought out MFP’s schedule is. People might even occasionally think that I’m too “by the book”, trying to ensure that every detail of her rearing is done “correctly”, whatever that means. Organic, scratch-made meals? You betcha. Well, um, most of the time, except on “once in awhile days” when I sheepishly sneak through a Wendy’s drive-thru, toss a hamburger into the back seat, and speed away before there are too many witnesses. Sleep schedule that allows for adequate rest? Uh huh. I mean, if she’s not sleeping for long stretches of time, then when else will I goof-off on Facebook, right? Win-win. A balance of intellectually and physically stimulating activities, with plenty of time left over for creative, independent play and relaxation? Yup, I try. And by “relaxation”, I mean turning on “The Cat in the Hat” for MFP as I relax with a glass of Chardonnay after dinner. But I am fallible, so I do mess up from time to time.
How did this morning go, her actual first day of school, you might be wondering? Let me tell you. I forgot that I had eaten all the prosciutto two nights ago and wasn’t able to pack MFP’s favorite sandwich like I had promised, sending her to school with an oddball lunch of kielbasa, guacamole, gluten-free crackers, and carrots. She didn’t eat her breakfast, freaked because there was “still a little bit of poop” in the toilet when she went to use it, and forgot to brush her teeth. Since we were rushing, I didn’t get to snap her “First Day of School” picture before we left, we got there late, and I forgot my camera phone in the car, only remembering when I went to take a picture of her in the classroom. Oh yeah, and MFP’s classroom supplies? Sitting unpurchased at Walmart (but I’m on my way now!). Why am I admitting all of this? Wouldn’t I prefer to present you with the image of the perfectly polished and poised mother that I sometimes fool others into thinking that I am?
Nope. Here’s the thing. We do other mothers a disservice when we pretend to be perfect. Yes, there are some rock star mothers that come really close, but most of us are just trying to keep our kids alive, fed, and reasonably happy. We’re balancing work (be it at home or outside of the home), marriage (or coparenting with an ex), friendships, household duties, and finances. We’re lucky if can squeeze in a workout, shave our legs, and get a haircut. We have a lot on our plates, and society expects that we can do it all perfectly. We can’t. And if we think we can, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and an addiction to methamphetamine (at least according to Dr. Phil). I appreciate when my mom friends are willing to admit their flaws because A) I don’t feel like a total screw up B) their vulnerability endears them to me C) I don’t feel like a total screw up
I know some moms don’t want to come across as complainers. I can appreciate that. No one wants to hear someone bitch and moan ALL.DAY.LONG. There’s a difference between honesty and kvetching, one that I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing. I’m not suggesting being a Debbie Downer. “Hey Claudia, how have you been?” “My hair is falling out, I’m exhausted, my husband’s always working, my family’s so far away, and I think I just found a patch of skin cancer on my abdomen.” “Um, yeah, ok, see you around! Enjoy your latte!” That is not the kind of honesty I’m talking about, except for with your close friends and your primary care physician. I’m referring to sharing both the joyous moments of your life and the ones that aren’t so neat and tidy. You might not want to blog about it (how gauche!), but do remember that keeping it real is much preferred to being all Pinterest-y. Not that there’s anything wrong with being all Pinterest-y, as long as you share your chocolate ganache, salted caramel, fondant covered cupcakes with me. Just sayin’.
Me: Honey, did you share my blog at work like you said you would?
Macho Man (MM): Um, no.
Me: But I thought you really liked my first blog post. You told me it was great and that you were going to share it with your coworkers.
MM: I did. I loved it. I think you’re a great writer. But I had only read the first half when I said that. But then you had to go and talk about poop and you joked about having “dimples”. Do I really want my coworkers thinking my wife has a potty mouth and CELLULITE?
Me: ‘Nough said.
MM: But what exactly is your blog about anyway?
I’ve been thinking a lot about MM’s question. One of my goals is to entertain people. I come from an Italian family of storytellers. I remember as a kid sitting around the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas, my cheeks hurting from all the laughter as my cousins, grandmother, uncle, father, and godparents swapped tales. They had such a colorful way of relaying a story and always managed to find humor in the ordinary. I’d like to think a little of this story telling ability has rubbed off on me too. But just being able to tell a good story isn’t usually enough. If you’re lucky like me, really weird or tragic things will happen to you on a regular basis providing you with all the material you’ll ever need to keep writing for the rest of your life. “Claudia,” friends will insist, “You should write a book! The things that happen to you…you can’t make that stuff up!” Plus things only got quirkier when I married MM, who seems to have a permanent black cloud floating over his head.
But while making you laugh at my expense is all fine and good, I’m feeling a bit more ambitious. Ok, forgive me, I’m a geek and this is where I get all excited. Raising a child means that you get to wear different hats. Sounds cliche, but it’s true. My skills as a psychologist are useful because I can use all my Jedi mind tricks to get my child to conform to my will (cue evil laughter) and when that doesn’t work, I know how to find her a good therapist. Parents also play the role of doctor (Hello, I know you are all intimately familiar with Dr. Google, don’t deny it). Well bonus, I’m totally into alternative medicine, health, and nutrition so I play witch doctor too. Stick with me here, I have a point. Cook and housekeeper- yup, that would be me as well. Ok, except for twice a month I get a little help with the latter but in my defense, MM doesn’t do many chores since he’s a slave to his work. What does this mean for you, dear reader?
Oh geez, this is starting to sound like a cheesy infomercial. Ok, let me try this again. Not only do I plan on sharing my reflections on parenthood, but I’ll also be blogging about parenting tips, cooking, relevant health info (such as complementary medicine and nutrition), and lastly, how to find a good therapist if you royally screw up your kid using my advice. Just kidding on the last one. I only give really fabulous, effective advice.