“I love children’s birthday parties,” says Lois Montague, a mother of two in Napa, California. “We invite everyone.”
“Even only talk These themed, super-organized parties scare me,” says Matthew Koehler, father of a 9-year-old daughter in DC. “My wife and I are introverts.”
“Oh, I definitely feel pressure with the treat bags,” says Jessika Boles, a mother of two in Nashville. “Some moms have custom cookies that they wrap individually with ‘so-and-so’s fourth birthday’ and a princess tiara on it, that sort of thing, and some little toys and candy, and you realize, well, that probably costs 15 or $20 per child.”
After varying times of the pandemic pause, the birthday party scene has restarted and parents are finding out exactly what that means. Gifts or no gifts? The whole class or just a few friends? Where do we do it and do we do it want do that? When weekends fill up, parents say the celebrations are often on opposite ends of the party-planning spectrum: either more bombastic than ever as design fanatics flex their creative muscles again; or decidedly softer, as families prefer a more casual atmosphere.
“I think everyone is just so burned out,” says Koehler. “They want to do something special for their child, but they also want it to be an opportunity to just have their friends over, rather than some big stressful situation.” In his social circle, he says, that meant the Giving up pre-pandemic house parties and gathering in public outdoor areas.
“People use public parks or the schoolyard after work,” he says. “You don’t have to rent an apartment. It’s cheaper. They can invite whoever they want, and people will bring food and drinks instead of gifts. It’s much lower.”
Others, however, are thrilled that the celebrations are about to resume. Montague, a doctor who is on a Facebook group for “party planner” moms who work in the medical field, says the stress and strain of the pandemic years have increased her focus on her children’s birthdays. The online group is “amazing in its hyperbole,” she says. “I think Covid has made the opportunity to collect and celebrate things so much more worth it.”
Of course, social media has fueled the urge to stage a photo-perfect backdrop. But the desire for indulgence is less superficial and more a necessary form of balance, at least in her community: “I know that among my colleagues in medicine, we cling to the non-medical aspects of our lives as a form of escapism,” she says.
In Nashville, Jessika Boles has seen her parent community slip right back into the pre-pandemic birthday party pattern, meaning she and her two children have attended many larger group gatherings at gyms, dance studios, Chuck E Cheese and trampoline parks.
There are things she doesn’t particularly like about this ready-made party approach — the cost of one (she spent $500 on her son’s recent birthday party at a trampoline park) and the impersonal, formulaic structure of it all. But, she adds, for families who can handle the price tag, there are certain benefits as well. “I am a working mother. I’m a college professor. I have a second job in healthcare, and it’s taking a lot of mental energy from me – “Where can I find decorations? And where do I have the cake baked?’ So I appreciate that there is a one-stop shop,” she says.
In Montana, Susi Milligan recently entered the world of hosting birthday parties for her 6-year-old son’s friends and classmates, and she says she felt no sense of competition or unified expectations about what a celebration should look like. Some families only invite a few friends over to their homes; others “go all out at pool parties at local hotels and fill the pool with inflatable toys,” she says. One family they know “had a pizza and glow-in-the-dark bounce house party in the open space upstairs at a local bar,” she adds.
She finds the variety rather liberating: “Everyone does what is right for them. I don’t feel the pressure to do something big, just something right for my kid.” (For her son’s birthday, she says, this meant inviting some of his friends over for a snowball fight.)
“I’m still torn at times,” says Milligan. “Do we say ‘no gifts’ on the invitation? Do we invite the whole class?” Her guiding principle, she says, is to “find out where our kid is. What are we trying to teach him at this age, how will he feel celebrated and how can we help him love the children around him?”
Caroline Willson, preschool teacher and mother of a 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in Memphis, has noticed some big — and welcome — changes in the birthday party scene over the past few months. Before the pandemic, she says, the parties were bigger, complete with bouncy houses and princess actors and professional makeup and a sense that the parents had either done one a lot of expense or paid a a lot of Money to outsource this effort.
But as parents adjusted to Covid safety measures during the pandemic, those gatherings were replaced with smaller, more conscious celebrations instead, and that seems to have stuck. “Next week my daughter is going to a birthday party that’s just the birthday girl and two friends and they’re going to do something special together,” she says, “and that’s it.”
She has heard other parents echo their own relief at this change. “It definitely feels like people are glad they can re-imagine how we do it,” she says, “that it doesn’t have to be as much pressure. It can just be a bunch of friends meeting up.”
Willson says she used to order all of her color-coordinated streamers, bunting, and cake toppers from Etsy and stayed up decorating the cupcakes simply that way until 2 a.m. the night before the party (which her kids never seem to notice, she adds). Now she’s someone who plops a stack of pizzas onto a picnic table in the park and watches her son and his friends squeal with delight as they run around with Nerf guns.
“I used to feel that to be a good mom, you had to do this wasteful, go-anywhere thing,” she says. “And then not being able to anything allowed me to find out: maybe there are some things that are important to the kids and we can still do those things. But as for the rest, who did we do this for?”