Last week at the grocery store, The Boy asked if he could show his Iron Man action figure to another kid in line. They sized each other up, exchanged a few words and spent a minute checking out the candy rack together. Then we were all rung up, and it was time to go. On the way out to the car, The Boy turned to me hopefully and reported, "That boy said I could come to his birthday party when he turns 6."
My shoulders slumped. One of the most common ways I feel like I'm screwing up is by not providing The Boy with a hearty enough circle of playmates. And it stands to reason that the fewer playmates a kid has, the fewer birthday parties he attends. Which makes me a horrible parent who is obviously ruining her child.
Sure, we go to the family parties for the cousins and the grandparents, and The Boy gets cake and balloons and presents with the family on his birthday. But the storybook kiddie party with the themed invitations and a rented bounce house and pizza and Pin the Tail on the Donkey? So far it really hasn't been a part of his childhood. And the buck stops with the parents, so it's all my fault.
That night, lying in bed, hating myself for not providing more piñatas and goodie bags for my kid, I thought back to my own childhood. My plan was to think of all of the happy and enriching memories that I personally had of friends' parties that I attended, so that I could feel even guiltier. And you know what? I couldn't remember a single one.
I grew up on a street with 20-odd kids roughly my age, and I went to public schools where there were 25 kids to a class. So I'm sure I attended my share of birthday parties. But cherished memories? Not a one. I can tell you one thing I remember like it was yesterday, though. I remember Susie's birthday party in first grade. All of the girls in our class were invited except for me and Latoya, who had behavior issues. The party was the only topic the other girls talked about on the playground for a week, and on the Monday after the party, they all wore the monogrammed flowered smocks that had been party favors.
I don't want to give the impression that I am lugging around a bunch of self-pity from my childhood, because I'm not. I have tons of happy memories of fun times and great friends. But apparently the birthday parties were not that memorable. However, the one I missed hurt — a lot. And I'm thinking that if the hurt for the kids who get left out is something that stays, and the afternoon of cake and presents isn't making anyone's life that much richer, maybe it's not such a big deal that it's not something The Boy is experiencing as a part of his childhood. In fact, I think that if there were not another birthday party ever thrown, we would all get through life OK. In fact, we'd probably all be better off.
Recently I was talking to another mom who relayed a story from her son's last birthday party. The party had taken place at a neighborhood park, and it was in full swing when a boy from their class happened by and jumped into the fray enthusiastically. Everybody was having a great time until the new arrival spotted the cake and presents.
"Wait a minute … this is your birthday party!" the latecomer exclaimed, suddenly not so joyful. "And you didn't invite me?"
The mom telling this story was telling it because she was mortified. I think she wanted sympathy, or validation that it was totally OK not to invite this other kid, or at least reassurance that it was no big deal. But I wanted to say that it was a big deal to that kid. And he would remember that moment when he realized that he had been excluded, and how it felt, for a long time. And that it wouldn't have killed her to invite him. But that's not what she wanted to hear.
I had a hard time responding as a sympathetic fellow mom, because in my heart I was that first-grader without a monogrammed smock. And it still hurts. I know I can't protect The Boy from that kind of hurt forever, or even for now — but remembering it does make me feel a little less guilty about raising him in a birthday-party desert.