Kids’ birthday parties are back, and so is the party planning stress

They’ve been creeping back onto calendars since sometime last year, as the country has limped toward a new normalcy. Now it seems the true resurgence has arrived, bringing with it an eternal truth: If you want to make a parent feel a rush of excitement, or a surge of stress, or a wave of anxiety, or maybe just exhaustion, tell them they’ve been invited to — or have to plan — a child’s birthday party.

“I love kid birthdays,” says Lois Montague, a mother of two young children in Napa, Calif. “We invite everyone.”

“Even just talking about those themed, super-organized parties makes me anxious,” says Matthew Koehler, father to a 9-year-old daughter in D.C. “My wife and I are introverts.”

“Oh, the treat bags are where I feel pressure, for sure,” says Jessika Boles, a mom of two in Nashville. “Some moms have custom-made cookies that they individually package with ‘so-and-so’s fourth birthday’ and a princess tiara on it, that kind of thing, and a bunch of little toys and candies, and you can tell, well, this probably cost $15 or $20 per kid.”

After varying periods of pandemic hiatus, the birthday party scene has rebooted, and parents are figuring out exactly what that means. Gifts, or no gifts? The whole class, or just a few friends? Where are we doing this, and do we want to be doing this? As weekends book up, parents say the celebrations often veer toward opposite ends of the party-planning spectrum: either more bombastic than ever, as the design fanatics reacquaint themselves with their creative muscles; or decidedly more mellow, as families embrace a casual vibe.

“I think everyone is just so burnt out,” Koehler says. “They want to do something special for their kid, but they also want it to be an opportunity to just have their friends over, and not have it be this big stressful sort of situation.” In his social circle, he says, this has meant abandoning the pre-pandemic house parties in favor of gathering in common areas outdoors.

“People are using public parks or the school playground after hours,” he says. “They don’t have to rent a place. It’s cheaper. They can invite whoever they want, and people bring food and drinks instead of presents. It’s much lower key.”

Others, though, are thrilled to have festivities resume. Montague, a physician who is in a Facebook group for “party-planner” moms who work in the medical field, says the stress and burden of the pandemic years actually heightened their focus on their children’s birthdays. The online group is “amazing in its over-the-topness,” she says. “I think covid has made some value the opportunity to gather and celebrate things so much more.”

Social media, of course, has amplified the urge to stage a photo-perfect backdrop. But the desire to indulge is not superficial so much as a necessary form of balance, at least in her community: “I know among my colleagues in medicine, we cling to the nonmedical aspects of our lives as a form of escapism,” she says.

In Nashville, Jessika Boles has seen her community of parents leap straight back into the pre-pandemic birthday party pattern, which is to say that she and her two children have been attending lots of larger group gatherings at gymnastics studios and dance studios and Chuck E. Cheese and trampoline parks.

There are things she doesn’t like much about this prepackaged party approach — the cost, for one (she spent $500 for her son’s last birthday at a trampoline park), and the impersonal, formulaic structure of it all. But, she adds, for families who can manage the price tag, there are also certain upsides. “I’m a working mom. I’m a college professor. I’ve got a second job in the health-care setting, and it’s a lot of mental energy to put toward — ‘Where do I find decorations? And where do I get the cake done?’ So I do appreciate that there’s a one-stop shop,” she says.

In Montana, Susi Milligan has only recently entered the world of hosting birthday parties for her 6-year-old son’s friends and classmates, and she says she has felt no sense of competition or uniform set of expectations about what a celebration should look like. Some families invite only a few friends to their home; others “go all-out with pool parties at the local hotels, filling the pool with blowup toys,” she says. One family they know “had a pizza and glow-in-the-dark bounce house party in the open space upstairs at a local bar,” she adds.

She finds the variety rather liberating: “Everyone does what is right for them. I don’t feel the pressure to do something big, just something right for my kid.” (For her son’s birthday, she says, this meant inviting a few of his friends over for a snowball fight.)

“I’m still torn at times,” Milligan says. “Do we say ‘no gifts’ on the invite? Do we invite the whole class?” Her guiding principle, she says, is to “try to figure out where our kid is. What are the things we want to teach him at this age, how will he feel celebrated and how do we help him love the kids around him?”

Caroline Willson, an educator and mom to a 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in Memphis, has noticed some big — and welcome — changes to the birthday party scene in recent months. Before the pandemic, she says, the parties were larger, complete with bouncy houses and princess performers and professional face-painting and the sense that parents had either put in a lot of effort or paid a lot of money to outsource that effort.

But as parents adapted to accommodate covid safety measures during the pandemic, those gatherings were replaced instead by smaller, more intentional celebrations, and that seems to have stuck. “Next week, my daughter is going to a birthday party that is just the birthday girl and two friends, and they’re going to do something special together,” she says, “and that’s it.”

She has heard other parents echo her own relief about this shift. “It definitely feels like people are glad to be able to reimagine how we do it,” she says, “that it doesn’t have to be this high-pressure thing. It can just be a few friends hanging out.”

Willson says she herself used to be someone who ordered all her color-coordinated streamers and buntings and cake toppers from Etsy, who stayed up decorating the cupcakes just-so until 2 a.m. the night before the party (something her kids never once seemed to notice, she adds). Now she’s someone who plops a stack of pizzas on a picnic table at the park and watches her son and his friends shriek with joy as they race around with Nerf guns.

“I used to feel like, to be a good mom, you’ve got to do this lavish, pull-out-all-the-stops thing,” she says. “And then, not being able to do anything allowed me to figure out: Maybe there are some things that the kids do care about, and we can still do those things. But as for the rest, who were we doing this for?”

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