Why Letting Go of Birthday Parties Is Harder Than I Expected

I gave up asking my almost 15-year-old daughter what she wanted to do for her birthday. After years of her begging me to plan the next party as soon as the other one ended and me assuring her that we had plenty of time to talk about it, the roles have been reversed. Now, I am the one who waits for her cue while begrudgingly learning how to accept the end of that special time of my parenting journey. 

I still remember twitching when my daughter would ask me, “What are we doing for my birthday next year, Mom?” before I had the chance to clean the house from the piles of dirty paper plates, deflated balloons and shredded wrapping paper.

Me, yelling over the noise of the vacuum cleaner, “I don’t know, honey. Let’s talk about it tomorrow when I am not so tired.”

My daughter’s attitude toward birthday celebrations has changed. (Photo credit: Della Cassia)

Now, when I ask my daughter what she wants to do for her birthday she shrugs

When I ask her what she wants to do for her birthday, I get “No idea; we’ll see,” followed by shrugs and eye-rolls.

Over the years, my daughter has had her share of fun birthday celebrations. There was the surprise 10th birthday dance party at the local community center, the 9th birthday diva party at an ice cream parlor, the 7th birthday roller skating party, and several slumber parties complete with costumes, slime, and glitter. I spent months looking for creative themes, designing invitations, and assembling the perfect goodie bags.

Ironically, things didn’t start out that way. As an immigrant, I didn’t know how to plan an American birthday for a little girl. Back home in Lebanon, birthdays are community events where neighbors come together to honor the celebrant. There are no themes, printed invitations, or decorations (except maybe for balloons).

In our culture birthdays were celebrated at home

Family and friends celebrate at home with music and food. I can still picture my mother in the kitchen cooking for days—making all my favorite foods from scratch, including the birthday cake and all the desserts. And, as per tradition, she would always take me shopping for a new dress and a pair of shoes.

On the day of the party, my friends and I would listen to music, dance, and run around while the grown-ups socialized in the kitchen until it was time to cut the cake. For presents, I received homemade tokens of love, such as baked goods, handmade hats or scarves, or a mixtape of my favorite songs.

Thus, the first time my daughter asked me to invite her little friends from preschool to her third birthday party, I didn’t know where to begin. My point of reference was limited to celebrity birthdays I read about in People magazine or ones I had seen in movies (Cue: Andy’s birthday party in Toy Story).

“How many friends can I invite?” my daughter asked.

“Let me check,” I replied.

“Where will we have it?”

“No idea. Let me check.”

“Can we order pizza?”

“Pizza? Are you kidding me?”

When I learned what Americans spend on a birthday parties I was overwhelmed

Not wanting to come across as ignorant, I probed my daughter for information, hoping for subtle hints about birthday expectations and norms. Instead, I got answers typical of a three-year-old, “I don’t know. Send invitations and dress up, I guess.”

After consulting Google about “How to Throw a Birthday Party for a Three-Year-Old Girl,” spending hours browsing Pinterest and learning that, on average, an American family spends about $400 on a little kid’s birthday party, I was more overwhelmed and confused than ever.

That’s when I made the mistake of inviting our family along with five of her little friends to the party, thinking I was being efficient and inclusive. On the day of the party, a big princess-themed bounce house stood in the backyard like a border between two cultures.

On one side, my daughter’s little friends ran around while their moms huddled together; on the other side, my husband grilled kebabs while our families socialized, and I dashed around in the kitchen cooking a five-pound box of Costco chicken nuggets and an eight-pound bag of tater tots—enough to feed an army. Now and then, I would peek outside to make sure everyone was still having fun. I was so busy cooking that I missed most of the party.

I learned a lot after my daughter’s disastrous third birthday party

A couple of hours later, with the food still in the oven and the kids getting antsy, one of the moms walked into the kitchen and kindly asked me how long until we cut the cake and opened the presents because they had somewhere else to go.  It may have been a legitimate reason or a hint to move things along, but I appreciated her candor.

After that disastrous third birthday, I made it my mission to learn the proper and least embarrassing way to celebrate my daughter and her younger brother. I mastered my way through Pinterest and began to look forward to each year’s celebration until my excitement was squashed when my then 12-year-old daughter told me she “didn’t want much for her birthday.”

“What do you mean ‘not much’”? I asked, thinking maybe she wanted to have her birthday at home instead or invite fewer friends. “No, not much, mom. You don’t do big birthdays at my age anymore.”

Dagger in the heart moment.

“So, what do you do”? I pressed.

“Don’t know. I’ll invite a couple of friends and maybe go to dinner. Or, we’ll chill at home, watch a movie and talk. No biggie.”

Letting go of throwing my daughter’s birthday parties is complicated

Let me get this straight. I spent the last 12 years agonizing over each birthday, planning, inviting, decorating, and now it’s all over. Letting go of birthdays is much more complicated than the work it takes to learn how to throw them or, in my case, throw ones that won’t scar your children for life. The non-birthday/birthdays remove parents from the equation, confining them to another room in the house, where they emerge only to serve food and cut the cake.

I miss the version of me who ran frantically around the kitchen cooking pounds of chicken nuggets, who spent hours thinking of a theme, looking for the perfect venue, and shopping for gifts and decorations.

Now, as the parent of a teenager, I am learning how to walk a tightrope between tempering my enthusiasm while still supporting my daughter’s need for independence. Regardless of what she decides to do for her birthday, I plan to take a page from my mom’s book of parenting, who, even when I was thousands of miles away, still baked a cake and invited her neighbors to celebrate my birthday.  

More Great Reading:

Parenting Teens Is a Delicate Dance of Holding On and Letting Go

About Della Cassia

Della Cassia is a writer, educator, and reformed journalist who immigrated to Michigan from Lebanon at 16 to pursue her American Dream. After two decades as a journalist and communications professional, she decided to pursue a career as a teacher to impart her passion for writing to high school and college students.

Della is a wife and mother to two teenagers—a boy, 12, and a girl, 14. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Literary Mama and Her View From Home. Her writing focuses on her experience growing up during the Lebanese Civil War and navigating life and motherhood from a multicultural perspective. She is currently working on her memoir. Follow her blog.

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