My dictionary defines hell as “any place or state of torment or misery.” Well, then, I’ve been to hell on earth and it’s other people’s children’s birthday parties.
When I was a mother of a kindergartner, I experienced many things for the first time. When my daughter started in real school, there was the requisite retooling our lives to her holidays and school closings; snow days were particularly challenging, of course. There were the new vagaries of school lunch, having to be home for the school bus and the fearsome teacher conferences.
But those were small potatoes, compared to birthday party hell.
Like many children her age, when our teetered for a while on the milestone when she was not still completely tied to us and not yet comfortable being dropped off with friends. The parents of her friends knew this and tried to include other parents in the festivities. Which is worse, I remember wondering: When your child happily goes off alone to parties with kids you barely know, to do things they’ll never tell you about, or witnessing every single ear-splitting, clothes-rending, icing-smearing, stomach-turning minute of someone’s rite of passage into her sixth year?
And it’s not only the individual experiences that made me crazy. It was also the number of parties. In her first month at her new school we attended three, and it stayed that way ever since. Twenty-four kids in the class, nine months of school — you do the math.
In those early years, we went ice skating, roller skating, bowling, swimming; we visited gymnastics halls, museums and community centers; we found ourselves in basements, backyards and several living rooms. Just as I started to swoon at the mailbox one day — recognizing, as I came to do, the terror that began when I saw a little pink Disney-inspired envelope waiting to be opened — I caught myself, just before the whining began, and said aloud, “What did you expect?”
What did I expect when I became a parent? Did I really think I would enjoy everything about the experience? Specifically, did I somehow imagine I would magically morph into someone who is comfortable with blue icing, bad punch and noise?
I think I did. And I was wrong.
Like so many issues in life — one’s comfort with one’s own body, the books you’ve read versus the ones you keep meaning to read, the length/color/curly or non-curliness of your hair, your in-laws’ politics, to name a few — I realized that some things are all too easy to whine about and way too difficult to look at with a gracious eye. So I took it one step further, there at the mailbox, and applied the age-old leveler, the great question passed down from the beginning of man: I asked myself, what, after all, does any of this have to do with me?
Not a thing.
But what if I was too late? What if the damage was already done? Standing there by the mailbox, I panicked, wondering if I had made any nasty comments or retching sounds before, during or after any of the parties we had attended. Had I infected my child with my displeasure in any way? I ran into the house and called my husband at work. He assured me that to date I had been the perfect party girl: well behaved, ate everything, didn’t hurl.
Determined, then, to start all over again, I took the invitation to the bus that afternoon and handed it to Grace with a flourish.
“Look what came for you!” I said excitedly.
She sat straight up, opened it and read it aloud. As she did, her little face glowed with the secure joy that only a request for the pleasure of one’s company can bring. And nothing else mattered.