Andrea Mara

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the birthday party

So. Hosting children’s birthday parties. I can’t possibly be the only person who finds this extremely stressful? When chatting about this to other parents, I sense that they don’t find this quite the ordeal that I do. Or perhaps some are better than I am at hiding the fear?
I feel slightly…embarrassed about the amount of anxiety that birthday parties cause me, and also about the amount of work they take to organise; surely this should be an effortless event, that doesn’t require weeks of preparation?

I’ve hosted ten birthday parties over the last five years, and nine of those went pretty much as follows:
invite everyone – friends of birthday girl, siblings of friends of birthday girl, parents of friends of birthday girl, friends of birthday girl’s parents, children of friends of parents, siblings of parents, cousins of birthday girl –  OK I’m getting confused now, but you get the picture.

It starts like that when the first baby turns one; most friends have either small babies or no children, so it’s very much an adult-focused party, with proper food, wine and dessert.
Over the years, as more and more children appear on the scene, the guest-list grows, as does the effort and the stress. For us it culminated in a party for forty-two adults and children last year, all squashed into our small house, followed by three days of clean-up and preceded by buckets of stress.
Eventually the time comes to transition to a drop-and-collect party involving only children who are the same as age as the birthday girl or boy, and for us the time was now, with my second daughter turning four.

cup cakes - Office Mum
The cup cakes I make in my dreams but never in real life

Although I knew it would be easier to have a party without adults to feed, the idea of fifteen four-year-olds running around my house under my supervision petrified me. I would be responsible for their safety! And even more scary, I would have to entertain them!

A play-centre was considered, and it’s very much the norm these days, as is hiring an entertainer, but both of these options are expensive. And I think we’ll have many years ahead where one or other of these will be the only manageable option (I’m picturing fifteen eight-year-old boys running around my house in a few years and thinking a playcentre might be a no-brainer).

So while my daughter is still young enough to enjoy an unsophisticated, old-fashioned party with pass-the-parcel and homemade buns, this is what I wanted to do.
I also had the feeling that this was a rite of passage – that as a parent I should be able to host an unsophisticated, no frills, no clowns, no magician children’s birthday party at least once. If you are reading this and thinking “no way, there is absolutely no need to ever put yourself through that”, you are probably right. I’m just a sucker for trying to do things in a difficult way that could really be made much easier, as is described here in painful detail.

Anyway, I was petrified.

So when I read a newspaper column a couple of months ago, in which the journalist described the party she had thrown for her children, who I know are a similar age to mine, I cut out the page and kept it for reference. I e-mailed the journalist to say I liked the advice, and was surprised and delighted when she e-mailed me back with heaps of additional tips. She went a step further and phoned me to go through some ideas for my upcoming four-year-old’s birthday party. I took notes, and decided to follow her plan, which basically involved planning. This was new to me – I usually just invite loads of people, and then effectively close my eyes, take a deep breath and hope for the best. Needless to say, this isn’t a great plan and tends to result in two hours of chaos.
So plan we did, and birthday party number ten was the BEST PARTY EVER.
(I mean in our house, definitely not the best party in the world ever, let’s not get carried away)

Firstly, rest assured, this is not a post about how amazing we are or how flawless the party was. There were flaws aplenty. Mostly on the culinary side. My favourites were:

Discovering late the night before the party that I had dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate for the Rice Krispie buns. Just so you know, this results in black Rice Krispie buns. I tried to disguise the look and taste the following morning by buying milk chocolate, and melting it to put dollops on each bun. I wasn’t fooling anyone.. well except the kids who ate them with great gusto. Kids are great.

Another culinary disaster was being defeated by a piping bag: my attempt to ice buns with my new instruction-less piping bag was an abject failure. So I let the kids at them then with pink and yellow candy-flowers, and I don’t think any of the four-year-old guests judged us too harshly.

My absolute favourite moment was when I asked my husband to put on the chips to go with the sausages, as we’d come to the end of Statues, and the kids were getting hungry.

We had one of these type of conversations:

Him: where are the chips?
Me: I don’t know, wherever you put them when you went shopping yesterday?
Him: I didn’t buy any chips yesterday. They weren’t on the list?
Me (while still operating the music for the last round of Statues, and with a feeling of rising panic): I did have them on the list – crinkle cut chips, remember?

We simultaneously realised that he’d misunderstood my request for “Crinkle cut chips” and had bought two big bags of Hunky Dory crisps. One emergency trip to the shop later, all was back on track.

On the up side, the tips I got from the very kind journalist worked really well – I am sure that she will have to set up a sideline business as a party-planner now that this has gone so well, so as her first (non-paying) client, it would be a little ungrateful to give away all her secrets. But let’s just say it’s all about the planning.

I had a written plan; husband and helpers knew their roles, there was a structure. Kids love structure, and now I can see that they love playing the games they’ve played at other parties over and over. They know the rules, they know what to expect – they feel comfortable but also excited and delighted.
Simon Says, Statues, Pass-the-Parcel. A pinata full of chocolate sweets. A lucky dip for prizes. Sausages and (eventually) chips, followed by two types of buns. Keep is simple. They’re so easy to please really, and it’s lovely to see their excitement over such simple treats.

And of course birthday cake. I had asked my daughter what kind of cake she wanted – she was torn between a princess cake from a shop, or a chocolate-biscuit cake made by me. This is the only cake I can make. She decided she wanted me to make her cake, and we would decorate it together with smarties. Once I had carefully made it clear that it definitely wouldn’t look like a princess (there was some confusion at first), we were good to go. I even had the right ingredients, and no piping bag required. As we placed the smarties in the chocolate coating together, she turned to me and said “thank you for making my cake mummy” and my heart melted.

That was a perfect moment – there were many imperfect moments, like the birthday girl crying because she didn’t win at pass-the-parcel, or the CD skipping and stopping, causing all sorts of confusion during Statues.
And the work in the run up to this party was still huge. But I’ve finally realised that there’s a distinction between “effort” and “stress”. Kids’ parties will always take effort, especially if like me, baking is not a strong-point and the house is very small. But I think I’ve finally found a way to make it less stressful. Though I’m still not sure about fifteen eight-year-olds, so don’t hold me to it.





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