I recently stood in the middle of a madhouse. Kids in electric-orange socks, like a too-bright dystopian fantasy, sprinted past me in every direction. Adults in coordinating electric-orange T-shirts stood guard. All that was missing was the heavy arm of an unseen totalitarian regime. Only, it wasn't exactly missing. I was there with my sneakers off, firmly in the grasp of a kid's birthday party planning existential crisis. Here's why:
My wife and I had, just that week, finally decided for-certain to plunk down a $100 non-refundable deposit for a two-hour birthday party package at a local family fun center, one of those massive indoor digs with climbing things, laser things, things that spit out tickets, other things. You know the kind. It was to be the much ballyhooed combo birthday party for our two daughters -- the first of its kind -- for us.
The very next weekend, only days after repeating my credit card number twice on the phone with the family fun center, I was standing with my youngest girl at another kid's party at another indoor play palace, a new indoor trampoline park -- the place with mandated electric-orange footwear.
A potent mix of headache and rage overcame me as I stood there confounded by the notion that this kind of organized party is the antithesis of everything we are as a family who revels in the splendor of childhood: structured play, time limits, liability waivers, mass produced pizza, hand sanitizer stations, looped instruction videos on giant HDTVs, goodie bags full of cheap plastic junk, adults saying what kids could and couldn't do/where kids could and couldn't go and the presence of other children. There was a designated area for resting. For resting!The totalitarian vibe of it all didn't feel right, to say the very least. I felt disgusting, just another middle-class, suburban parent doing the thing that middle-class, suburban parents do in 2014: bus your kids around to yet another overpriced structured play experience filled with rules, instructions and production-line food service.
I was tempted to eat the $100 marker I'd placed down only 72 hours earlier and move the combo birthday party back to our house, our backyard, our playroom and our kitchen... where it belongs, where kids can be kids without rules and a fear of phantom germs. Where kids can stop anywhere on the grass or carpet or sofa, and rest freely. Where no Big Brother-authorized instructional videos play ad nauseam on multiple TVs in a synchronized totalitarian multi-media dance.
We've had all but one of their birthday parties at our house and they've all been within the delightful to amazing range for our kids and their youthful guests. We did a science experiment party, in which the my wife presided over a half dozen incredible science projects. And we did the baking party, with me at the helm of the good ship lollipop as six girls made cinnamon scones, salted caramel cookie bars, banana muffins, and classic, family-recipe chocolate chip cookies. One of our 8-year-old guests was so excited to bake because, as she put it, her mom never let her even crack an egg. I felt like a champion, like I made a child's life a teensy bit better because I let her crack an egg, knead dough and taste the very thing she baked, even as unbleached all-purpose flour covered everything in my beautiful kitchen. It was totally, 110 percent worth it.
We've had moonbounces in the backyard. We've turned the play set into a water slide with a splash zone kiddie pool at the bottom. We've seen kids running wild in our backyard, firing off Nerf Rebelle darts, shooting Zing arrows. You know, childhood! And now we were making plans to move all of that inside, for a fee, with crappy food, and for what? So I have less to clean up before and after? Since when have I ever taken the easy way out of anything? Since when have I opted for convenience? Who am I? Who are we?
Those indoor party places do serve a purpose. Not every parent has the time, space or energy to do what is needed to throw a party for six kids let alone 26. But the trade off is a manufactured experience, a cookie cutter one with quickly torn down name placards, disinfecting spray, another wagon of gifts, another kid's name in a queue, more faces. It's an identical experience that will become less memorable when the memories are replaced or merged with the next friend's party to be held in that same room, with that same pizza... and there will be a next, probably within the month. I had to decide if I want to carve out a small piece of childhood with this combo birthday party of ours or if I want an easy two hours. I'm pretty sure I already knew the answer.
And yet, and yet, we are still outsourcing our daughters' shindig. It isn't the $100 deposit. It isn't a fear of a messy kitchen or house. It is the weather. The one thing I cannot control and the factor that pointed us to the family fun center in the first place. The weather has been wacked this winter and early-spring in the Northeast part of the country where we live. I cannot risk a Woodstock-esque mud fest from another heavy rainstorm. I cannot risk having to figure out how to squeeze nearly 30 kids and some of their parents inside our 1500 sq foot rancher home.
My only consolation is that the party place we picked is as loose and free as an indoor play space can be. There are no instructional videos or waiver forms, no matching socks, and no designated rest areas like that other place. And we can pay a few more bucks to have pizza from a local pizzeria, which we will do. It is not perfect, but it will do for this year.
Grab your hand sanitizer and get ready to party.