I have two kids with birthdays coming up and as much as I would like to sidestep the Birthday-Industrial Complex, it's no easy task. There are two levels of peer pressure in the birthday universe: the peer pressure exerted on your children (not that I really care about that) and the social pressure exerted on you, the parent (of much greater concern to me personally). For example, consider this email from reader Peter:
What is appropriate advance notice for a little kid's birthday party? My 4 year old received an invite on November 18th to a friend's party at one of those kid gyms on February 8th - almost 12 weeks away.
That is just one of the many headaches of planning and executing a birthday party for a child who, if we're all being honest with ourselves, doesn't deserve one. Let's go through every hurdle one by one.
Once you hit your 30s, it becomes perfectly acceptable to plan parties and other engagements months and months in advance. I think I have a drink with one friend lined up sometime around 2018. Other people's calendars fill up very quickly. Too quickly, frankly. Scheduling a birthday party is an exercise in self-mutilation. Let's do it on the 12th! No wait, there's another kid with another party that day. What about the 13th? Nope! Chuck E. Cheese is sold out! What if we made it late on the 12th or even COMBINED parties with that other kid? But wait! That kid is allergic to light, so that's a nonstarter. What about ... (cuts self).
Being an adult means realizing that there will never again be a time when everyone you want can be in place all at the same time. Unless someone fucking dies. Frankly, I'm amazed at how much BUSIER all these other parents seem to be. I'll talk to some mom and she'll be like, "Well, we have eight baseball games this weekend, 12 basketball games the next weekend, and then it's off to Florida for five days!" The fuck? Meanwhile I'm sitting at home every Saturday at 10 a.m., trying to get my kid to stop picking boogers and wiping them on the book we're reading ... the clock DRAGGING onward. Where did all these overscheduled assholes come from? I feel like the least active parent in America. I tried signing my kid up for a soccer league and that shit had filled up eight months prior.
Anyway, it's nice to give people two weeks' notice on birthday parties, not that they'll ever bother to RSVP. "Oh, you're paying $40 a head at the Clown Factory? Let me just never get back to you." Frankly, I don't mind when a birthday party invite springs up suddenly. One time my kid got an invite the day before and I damn near dropped to my knees in gratitude. DADDY CAN WATCH FOOTBALL IN PEACE.
Every parent tries to save cash by having the party at home, only to relent and cough up ridiculous amounts of money to hold it at some gym where you don't have to clean up afterward. These gyms are run more efficiently than a 49ers practice drill. I went to one gym where you played in one room, then moved to another room for pizza while a new party went into the play room, like you were being passed through some kind of festive large intestine. There is a squirt of Purell waiting for you at every door.
You pay a mint for the privilege, but any parent who has had a birthday party at home knows that a dozen kids will track in construction crew-level amounts of dirt, and then take down every toy from the shelf and wipe their snot all over it. Then you'll have to serve cake and they'll mash that shit into the dog's fur. The labor involved is so daunting that the local birthday party factories fill up centuries in advance. You have no shot. None.
Parents who have kids born in the winter are more hidebound. With a summer birthday, you can reserve a table at some park (I get irrationally angry when I go to a park and a table has been reserved for a birthday party and now I don't have anywhere to sit. I hum "Signs" to myself in protest) or even have a party in your yard and try to keep the fuckers from coming in (you will not succeed). Every parent would like to be a REBEL and stage some party at a location no one else thought of—We rented out space at the top of the Space Needle!—but that almost always proves expensive or impractical. It's ruin your home or pay up.
Every parent tries to keep the guest list low. We told our oldest kid she could have, like, three friends for a party this year and eat at a burger joint or something, like that old McDonald's ad where the poor kids are reduced to chucking straws into a cup for entertainment. Three kids is a nice intimate soiree. Only you have to invite the neighbors' kids because you don't want them giving you dirty looks, and then you gotta invite every kid from class because THEY invited your kid to their party, and then your kid wants to invite some fucking hobo she met a week earlier ("My best friend!"). But she doesn't want to invite ONE kid from the class because she hates her and you tell her, in that case, not to talk about the party at school or else the kid will have her feelings hurt and tell her mom and then the mom will want to know why your kid is a bully.
And then you gotta decide if it's a dropoff party or if the parents have to stay, in which case your guest list has now tripled. AND WHAT ABOUT THE REHEARSAL DINNER?! Other parents will host very large birthday parties for their kids and, whether intended or not, the message sent to other parents is that if you don't reciprocate, you are either a) a dick, or b) poor and lame.
The beauty of birthday factories is that they take care of all the entertainment for you. There's a teenage instructor there to yell at the kids and sing songs with them and generally absolve you of any responsibility to interact. Because keeping a dozen loud kids occupied is an exhausting, horrible task. If you have the party at home, what do you? You gotta put on a movie or buy a game of pin the tail on the donkey or use every last ounce of creative energy to do SOMETHING to keep the kids from bitching about wanting their cake now. Or you gotta hire a juggler with a dubious background vetting report.
Having your party at lunch or dinnertime? You gotta feed the kids terrible pizza. And what about the grownups? Do you have to feed them, too? You see them lingering, hoping for a free handout. SCUM. And what if one of the kids is gluten intolerant? Do you have to provide some kind of almond milk-based alternative or something?
And cake. You gotta have cake. You know damn well that a store-bought cake tastes better, but a homemade cake says you gave a shit. WHAT'S IT GONNA BE?!
Put them over on that table. The child will open them after all of you guests have left, when we can talk out loud about repeat gifts and shitty Logo Friends playsets. I still have no idea what the proper amount is to spend on another child's birthday. I wanna say five bucks, but that means you're handing a kid four superballs taped together.
No candy! I don't know when these became mandatory, like we're handing out free spa certificates and Omega watches at Sundance, but they are a dastardly bit of additional labor.
Here is what I propose, to end all of this angst and toil: No more birthday parties. No more paper hats. No more awkwardly standing in the corner and mouthing out the lyrics to "Happy Birthday" for another kid so that you look invested in his celebration. No more $400 gym parties. You get cupcakes at home, with your family, and the dinner of your choice. And maybe a couple of gifts. Not an ongoing conveyor belt of gifts from friends and families and uncles and the Franklin Mint. If we don't get a hold on Big Birthday right now, this will just keep spiraling and spiraling until we're all fucking broke and destitute because everyone in the class had to have his or her birthday party in Majorca. No more.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at email@example.com. You can also buy Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.