Happy flipping birthday

The first year of a baby’s life is more like caring for the world’s most demanding pet than it is raising a person. There’s not a lot of personality on display, there’s very little communication, even less evidence of comprehension, and a sleep schedule that, at its best, can be described as “minimal.” But once that first birthday comes around, things begin to turn. It all starts with a party. A child’s first birthday is a momentous one, and the start of his emergence as a person; his first party is a waste of time, energy, and money.

Jack turned into a one-year old in October. We eschewed a party for him. He got some presents, courtesy of Grandma, but we just didn’t see the point in a party. We threw one for Joshua which was low-key, but still not low-key enough. There is exactly one highlight of a one-year old’s birthday party, and it’s watching him eat cake with his hands. Invariably, parents set a piece of cake in front of him, but he can’t wield a fork any more than he can a pair of hedge trimmers. Also, since most of his diet for this first year has been liquid, it’s not a lock that he’s even seen cake before. So giving him a piece of cake is setting him up for failure for the entertainment of others. This kind of schadenfreude is not unique in parenting, but given that the parents have to subsequently hose him down, they’ve not only made a fool of their kid, but they’ve also created one more thing to clean up. So we didn’t do that for Jack.*

Also, no matter how elaborate or well-planned your party is, your one-year old is cognitively incapable of remembering anything about it. Hell, at one year of age, he can’t even tell you if he’s having a good time while it’s happening. I don’t care if the cast of Rent sings him happy birthday while you launch Antares rockets from your patio — he won’t remember it, and he definitely won’t appreciate it. So what, exactly, is the point?

When Joshua turned one, we gave him a Dr. Seuss-themed party. We made a variety of treats inspired by various Seeusical stories, and we used rather a lot of teal food coloring**. We invited his family because, at one, it’s not like he had any friends. One-year olds are not really capable of developing those sorts of relationships. In fact, pediatricians and psychologists describe a one-year old’s typical interactions with his peers as “parallel play.” We went through the motions of partying. We offered him cake to demolish, presents to be ambivalent about, and we sang the Happy Birthday song.*** So again, what is the point? He has no friends and will neither appreciate nor remember any of it. And it’s not as if a one-year old receives any gifts that are going to be meaningful. Those autographed Hemingways you found on eBay should probably wait until he’s at least three.

Jack’s grandma came for his birthday and brought with her some presents and some cupcakes. This was all we could have asked, and more than we had planned. Jack’s other grandparents forgot he even had a birthday, sending a birthday card several days after the fact, and only after we mentioned that it was his birthday. They can’t really be blamed for this as we in no way made a big deal about the day and got him neither presents nor a card. Their response is no better or worse than our own, so this is not a judgment, but rather an illustration of the fact that one-year olds don’t notice anything. Everything is new to them, including their birthday, so the best-case scenario for a one-year old’s birthday party is setting up an expectation that he will have themed parties every time he finishes another orbit of the sun. Again, raising kids is plenty of work without making more work for yourself. It’d be like a farmer devoting his life to growing his crops, and then annually inviting people to come and throw a rager in his alfalfa.****

The parenting industry being what it is, the sentimentality of parents has been predictably exploited and turned into a money-making venture. Businesses abound that rake in cash selling low-quality, disposable decorations for just this event. So not only do you make a mess of your child and your home, but you also paid money to do it. Costs go up once you convince yourself that you need to rent a bounce house, a clown, or other babysitter performer. Jen is a DIY-er. Her heart beats in rhythm to the whirr of her table saw and sewing machine. So we at least spent a small amount of money throwing Joshua’s forgettable and forgotten party. Jack’s was obviously even less. But we never felt compelled to have an inflatable structure erected on our property, nor to have some guy make balloon animals while wearing oversized shoes. I’ve never hired a clown, but to me, the most awkward moment would have to be writing a check while a clown watches you. Actually, come to think about it, almost anything can be made more awkward by having a clown watch you do it.

Once all your friends leave (and let’s face it, most of your efforts in throwing this cutesy party have been about showing off to your friends how great you are at throwing themed parties and how many ideas you ripped off of Pinterest), you get to clean up after them. You also have enough food to sustain a third-world country for a day or two, but most of that will end up in the rubbish once you let the crudite platter you made for a gaggle of toddlers spoil in your refrigerator. (I don’t care how much you say your kid likes eating vegetables; you know as well as I do that those things are just delivery vehicles for ranch dressing.*****) So the end result is that your kid turned a year old, which he would have done without the party. He got some gifts your friends felt obligated to buy for someone in no way related to them and with less personality than a schnauzer. He’ll have more fun opening those than playing with them, anyway, so that’s a wonderful exercise. And you got to spend a day making sure all your friends’ kids don’t break your stuff. Then you clean up your child and your house. And you did all this for someone who doesn’t care that it happened and wouldn’t have noticed if it didn’t. So tell me, really, what is the point?

Parents are ridiculous people.

*Jen’s best friend threw a party for her one-year old who was born within a few days of Jack. She graciously invited Jack and celebrated his birthday along with her own kid. She’s a wonderful friend.

**To my knowledge, no one sells or makes teal food coloring. We ran through a fair bit of blue and green food coloring before we found the right combo to make teal. Nothing I do for the rest of my days will recover that time of my life. Also, under certain lighting conditions, I can still see the slightest tinge of blue on my fingertips.

***Mildred and Patty Hill co-wrote “Happy Birthday to You” in 1893. Given its pervasiveness, fame, and longevity, it has to rank among the most successful joint song-writing of all time. Why it took two people to write that song is beyond me.

****Perhaps it’s because I’m not getting enough sleep, but this sounds much dirtier than it is.

*****Don’t tell me about how healthy your kid eats when half his diet is buttermilk. You’re fooling no one. Go eat some kale chips.


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