How I Failed at My Son's First Birthday Party
When I was nine months pregnant with my first child, I went to a birthday party for a friend’s three-year-old. There were a bouncy house and a roving troupe of superheroes-for-hire. The cake matched the decorations that matched her daughter’s outfit that matched the favor bags. Completely overwhelmed by the Pinterest perfection of it all, I ate a piece of cake (ok, two) and left as fast as I could. Safely back in my car driving home, I did what I do best: I started judging.
I swore to my soon-to-be-born child that I would never be so over-the-top with birthdays or other major events. I questioned my friend’s sanity, her parenting skills, and her financial decisions. When my husband got home, I talked his ear off, saying things like “What is she trying to prove?”, and “What kind of lesson is this for her kids?” I made a million assumptions about my friend’s values and motivations, and then a million more proclamations about how I was going to be a different, better kind of mom.
I’ve never been more wrong.
Fast forward two years and I’m in the process of planning my son’s second birthday. While there won’t be superheroes or a bouncy house, there will be color-coordinated balloons and cake, a playlist of all his favorite songs, and lots of fanfare around unveiling his much-longed-for tricycle. I’m doing all this because I’ve finally learned what my friend knew all along—the importance of creating memorable moments.
See, our brains are selective about what we remember. They focus in on the scenes from our lives that represent high points. Often those high points are important firsts, like a first day of school or the first time we rode our bike down the street without our parents’ help. Or they are the unexpected, like when we got to have pancakes for dinner, or when “Santa” (aka Uncle Ed in a red suit) stopped by for a surprise visit on Christmas Eve. I guarantee that if you reflect on your own best childhood memories, you’ll see that this pattern holds true.
Sometimes these memorable moments happen naturally. More often, though, they are created for us. When we become parents, the torch passes. We officially become responsible for making memories—and, spoiler alert, this takes a lot of work. Anyone can buy a grocery store cake, a couple of balloons, and call it a party. The effort comes in planning a memory—an event so delightful that your kids will talk about it for years to come.
For some people, like my friend, this kind of effort comes naturally. For others, like me, it’s a challenge. My core values of minimalism and ruthless efficiency do not align well with creating memorable moments. But what kid wants a minimalist Christmas morning or an efficient birthday party?
I learned this the hard way from my son’s first birthday. As it approached, family members asked what we were doing to celebrate. I told them we were going to put a candle in a cupcake and call it a day. They assumed I was joking. My rationale for the bare bones celebration was that my son wouldn’t even remember the day, so what was the point in making a big fuss? What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t creating a memory for him, I was creating one for me and everyone else who loves him.
At the last minute, I threw together some decorations and bought a cake, but nothing about the day felt intentional. We sang happy birthday, but beyond that, it could have been any other family gathering. When I looked back at the photos a couple of weeks later, other than a picture of my son tearing the paper off one of his gifts, there was nothing to indicate that it had been a special day. I felt like a failure.
Since then, I’ve worked to do things differently. When it comes to planning a special event, or even a regular family weekend, I try to look beyond my to-do list and think about the feeling I want everyone to be left with—including me! This year for my son’s birthday that feeling is “celebratory”. Even though he’s still not at the age where he’ll remember any of it, everything about the day, from the moment he wakes up, is about recognizing the joy he brings to our family.
In this process, it’s taken me a while to find the right balance between “memorable” and “over-the-top”. I’ve realized that while I’ll never be a bouncy-house kind of mom, I can and should take my role as Memory Creator in Chief seriously. Instead of thinking about it as more effort, I’m grateful for the opportunity to shape my son’s childhood. Our celebrations will likely never involve a petting zoo or a fireworks display, but that doesn’t mean we won’t remember them fondly for years to come.