As a child, I remember birthday parties being simple affairs. I would be allowed to invite 10 of my friends, usually children I played with in the colony. My mom would bake a cake, which we would decorate together with icing and gems. The menu would be chutney sandwiches, chips and sometimes samosas. There would be a few balloons painstakingly blown up that we would hang in awkward ways all around the room. We would play parlour games like ‘musical chairs’ and ‘pin the tail’. Return gifts would be practical — a pencil or two that one would use in school the next day. I don’t remember any of the gifts I received as a birthday present. But, I do remember having the best time on my birthday. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me all my adult life. Anyone who knows me knows I love celebrating my birthday, irrespective of how old I get with each passing year.
When my children were born, I looked forward to celebrating their birthdays as well. I was determined to create the same memories and experiences that I had as a child for them. With my older son, I threw myself into the process with gusto. Everything was handmade. I scoured the city for return presents, ordered fancy cakes and deliberated endlessly over what should be the theme of the party. By the time the actual party day came, I used to be a wreck — stressed out and snapping at anyone in my vicinity, more often than not my hapless husband and on the rare occasion, even my son for whom I was supposedly making all this effort.
As time passed, more children, additional responsibilities and busier lives made the ‘everything handmade’ harder to execute. We then went through a brief outsourcing period where event planners and outside venues came into the picture. The parties grew bigger and so did the expectations. As we started attending more parties, it seemed like the bar was lifted every time. Now, a bouncy castle at a birthday party seemed like the most natural thing in the world. We would attend parties where the return gift would be far more expensive than any of the birthday presents given. Loud blaring music and equally loud party hosts competed with each other, while children were made to do one activity after another as moms and helpers stood around aimlessly. I returned from each party with a splitting headache.
With my twins, I miraculously got a free pass. Maybe because they had each other to play with or maybe I was just done with birthday parties by then or even the fact that their birthday was during school holidays, we went back to the basics. They didn’t care for the big birthday parties. They wanted to call only six friends — three for each of them. They rejected the store bought cake. A fancy theme was great but they preferred the cake that their grandmother or I made. And this time around, I actually listened. I listened to what they would want. What would make them happy?
I didn’t get caught in inviting 40 friends because we had been to 40 birthday parties. I realised that they didn’t want the fancy decor. They would rather have a few balloons that they could play with and toss around, than have fancy decor on the walls. “Why do I have to give everyone else presents, if it’s my birthday?”, said one of them. We did away with return presents. We organised games that they wanted to play with the people that they wanted to play with. And they and I had some of our best birthday celebrations ever.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that when you celebrate your child’s birthday next, take a moment and ask yourself: “Who am I doing this for?” Is this birthday really what your child wants? Or is it what your friends and family expect? Do you really believe that the size and scale of the birthday party is an indicator of your love for him? We all want the best things in life for our children but the best things in life aren’t necessarily the most expensive or grand options. Sometimes, the best things can be listening to your child and taking their choice into account. It can be creating special moments and memories that focus on celebrating him.
Free yourself from societal expectations and plan your child’s birthday based on his needs and choices. Keep the guest list small. A good indicator is usually the same number of invitees as the age of your child. Ask them what they would like to do for their birthday. What kind of games they would like. By shifting the focus from celebration of an event to celebration of the individual, you may actually end up gifting your child his best birthday present yet.