Winter. Early January. Cold afternoon. I had a wedgie. This is the story of how I learned an entirely different strategy for dealing with obligatory birthday parties for other people’s kids.
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The woman in front of me obviously had fake boobs. She was wearing a velour tracksuit and she had swept her hair up into a perky ponytail. Her spray-tan enhanced her wrinkles and fine lines. Wrinkle-face, let’s call her. We happened to be at the same birthday party. My across-the- street neighbor had just turned eight. I had a four-year-old son. We went to the party, even though, as you probably already know, birthday parties for kids are boring, awkward, and give rise to creeping yet pungent inexorable dread.
Wrinkle-face had brought her kid too, a muscular little baseball type who issued challenges by way of instinctive response. Jocko, let’s call him.
Like any non-creepy and perfectly normal mom would do, I was standing three feet behind my son. I had my radar on the pool. The number of toys in his goody-bag. His propriety. I did not join Wrinkle-face in her little gathering of moms. These moms, I decided, were not my people. Now, I want you to read to the end, because there’s a twist in this story.
My son, meanwhile, vacillated between stepping a few steps ahead of me and staring at the kids (we are definitely not creepy onlookers in this family) and resting his back against me, chewing his thumbnail and watching. I was bored, my back hurt, and although I could see the cupcakes, they were not available, as of yet, for consumption. I longed to check my phone to see the time.
I perked up when a gaggle of kids emerged from the birthday girl’s bedroom wearing fantasy capes and crowns, opened the sliding glass door, and went outside. Oh good. Nerds. I like nerds. I pushed my kid out of the door, seeking, perhaps, a diversion, a social connection, a conversation, or an activity. Something that wasn’t being a backrest and trying not to pilfer cupcakes.
But by the time we got outside, the kids had discarded their promising-looking capes and crowns. It had been thirty seconds. No, now they were rock climbing on our hosts’ outdoor rock climbing wall. Oh, I was so thrilled. Now my tiny four-year-old could climb a rock wall in front of jeering eight-year-olds! This was a best-case. On what planet would a bunch of eight-year-olds allow my tiny four-year-old, with his soft blond hair and intrinsic kindness, a turn on their rockwall? I tensed.
My four-year-old, meanwhile, got into line for the rockwall and waited his turn. Jocko was right in front of him. I imagined my precious son slipping from the rockwall and landing brains-side down on the concrete just to the left of the protective mattress-like pad. Jocko turned to my son, who seemed suddenly short and wee, and said “I bet you can’t climb this. You’re too little.” My son gazed at the rockwall and shrugged, staying in line.
As you can imagine, when it was Jocko’s turn, he issued a challenged to my son. Jocko hung from a hold with his arms, looking like a beefy little monkey. “I’m going to stay on the wall for ten minutes,” Jocko declared, his eyes shifty but daring. “You’re looking great!” Wrinkle-face called from her position in the kitchen. The cupcakes weren’t out yet. I looked at my son. My son looked at me. “What do I say?” he whispered. “You’re on your own for this one,” I said.
I told myself that I was wisely setting boundaries, and using excellent parenting technique by making him step up to the challenge. Really, I just never have (and still don’t) know how to deal with bullies.
Another kid came over and encouraged Jocko to give my son a turn. I was embarrassed (why hadn’t I been able to do that?) but my son went to the wall and got his turn.
Later, Jocko, with permission from the host, began tossing tennis balls into the pool. They floated, and then he’d use the pool net or pool noodles to drag them back and retrieve them, then lobbing the tennis balls in again for another round. My son was fascinated.
And just about here’s where the twist happens, one which I’m guessing you’ve seen coming. You’re smart, after all. And my son and I are very ordinary people.
My son went and stood next to Jocko, gazing at the process of lobbing and retrieving, until it came to pass that Jocko lost control of a tennis ball and couldn’t retrieve it with his short eight-year-old arms. My son, naturally, leaned out over the concrete rim of the pool and sang “Hahahahaha,” to the tune of “Neener, neener, neener!”
Mean. If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s to never be mean with my outside voice. My son, with his intrinsic kindness and soft blond hair, had just been mean to Jocko.
I saw the sting in Jocko’s eyes. The hurt settled over him like a bruising blanket. He looked over his shoulder at me, searching for support. Suddenly, instead of seeing in Jocko the archetype of all of the jocks that I’ve never understood, I saw, instead, a little boy. I looked at his bony shoulder-blades, sticking up under his jersey, his wide brown eyes, his tender little elbows. I have a real soft-spot, a weakness if you will, for little boys.
“Honey no,” I said. “Don’t be mean to Jocko. He’s doing the best he can. Don’t tease him, help him.”
Jocko melted. His little shoulders sagged with relief. He turned to my son and looked at his face for a long moment, his eight-year-old height towering over my son’s four-year-old, um shortness. “Oh my goodness,” I thought to myself, I just made Jocko feel understood. Well, there’s a miracle.”
“Oh,” my son said, his head tilting, and he grabbed a pool noodle. Within seconds, the pair had retrieved the tennis ball, now working as a team. My gaze fell to the room with the cupcakes, where Wrinkle-face still stood. I left Jocko and my son to their tennis balls and pool noodles and went in. (Yes, there was an adult watching them.)
This story’s running long, so I’ll give you just the highlights. I didn’t get just one cupcake (raspberry mousse) I got two. They were creamy, tart, and topped with a single perfect raspberry. I met a warm, affectionate mom who was my same weight and wore my same hairstyle. She hugged me when I left (she seemed like a long-lost relative). So maybe there were some of my people at that party after all. Wrinkle-face, mother of Jocko, was noticeably unhappy and insecure, but also a titan in the mom-volunteer world, and a real helper in the community. I can’t exactly say that I am a helper in the community. I started to feel a glow of affection for the motley-crew of bored, anxious parents at this party.
And the point is that I was mean with my inside-voice for the duration. I just stood there being all cold, bored, insecure, and judgemental - and lusting for cupcakes. Why did I waste my time like that when there were affectionate new friends to hug, stories to learn, and new projects to work on together? My son (who is an untouchable angel and perfect) was mean once with his outside voice. I was never mean out loud, but I spent the entire party being mean with my inside voice. And it was a drag. It sucked.
Now, just for a little accountability, here’s a quote from one of my favorite books, Eat Pray Love:
“Guilt's just your ego's way of tricking you into thinking that you're making moral progress. Don't fall for it, my dear.” Elizabeth Gilbert - Eat, Pray, Love.
My son will turn five soon, and we’ll be throwing him a party of his own. We’ve invited many of the preschool kids, and their parents will stand around awkwardly, on their own, lost and unconnected. My son will no doubt be an arrogant butt, and the other children will no doubt be provoking their parents in ways that I won’t understand.
The moral? I’m going to provide lots of booze for those parents.
And an ice breaker. And lots of snacks at parent height. And comfortable places to sit.
But, more than anything, I’m going to try to talk to them, to learn their stories, and to look beyond the stranger-danger and the cultural differences. Because, if anything sucks, it’s being mean. Ram Das says that at the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home. There’s no room for being mean in that.
In the end, parenting is an ongoing series of goodbyes. Goodbye, child, you’re getting older. Now it’s sooner, rather than later, that you’ll be grown up and gone. Goodbye child, I’m getting older, and it’s sooner, rather than later, that I’ll be dead.
And it’s also a series of Oh, My, Gods. Oh my God, child look at how you’ve grown. Oh my God, look at how alive you are, and how you’ve changed. Look at how very proud I am of you. (Where did my baby go, and who is this gangly little person-beast?) Look at how beautiful you are, and how tender you are in our wild, savage world.
That’ll drive anyone to stress eat. So eat at these parties. But be kind to the other parents there. Pray for them or wish them well. They’re also saying goodbye. They’re also saying Oh My God. They need your (silent, unspoken, non-creepy) love.
So, here’s my new strategy for coping with the kid birthday parties. Eat. Pray. Love.
And don’t be mean.
P.S. I aim that last mostly at myself, but you can take that advice too, if you want to.
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Permaculture Plus Houskeeping Footnotes!
Aw, lookit the scared little kitten. I think that this is how everyone felt at that party.
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