the 1-year-old birthday party

As my kids have gotten older a lot of things that were once hard are now much easier. One of my kids shits in a toilet now! Also, they both know their order at Starbucks: Chicken - kids vanilla steamer with one pump of vanilla and one of the tall venti straws, big straw for a big boy; Buster - box of chocolate milk, no straw, motherfucker I better not see a straw.

But one thing hasn't changed yet: 1-year-old birthday parties are hard.

This is an event ostensibly for a young child, yet there is a crossing that happens sometime around mastery of mobility, where children stop being potted plants and start being problem-solving sociopaths, and at a 1-year-old birthday party, the birthday boy is usually sitting or possibly walking a few steps before landing on his diapered tushy on one side of that river, and my children are fashioning rudimentary harpoons and finalizing their hit lists on the other.

1-year-birthday parties are particularly tough for my kids, and have become almost impossible for us to navigate with our dignity intact, for many reasons.

pottery barn
you always know just what to say

1. At 1-year-old birthday parties there are delicious party foods placed at regular, intuitive locations where normal, regular, socialized people normally, intuitively place food at social gatherings. 

You know, like coffee tables, dining tables, and sideboards. FOOD PLACES, like the flat, smooth surface that The Earl of Credenza designed to hold platters of his cousin's groundbreaking "sandwiches" at their Earls-only luncheons.

You know, the places where my children can go elbow-deep in the bowl of Pirate's Booty in the time it takes me to scan the entry to see if this is a shoeless party or what.

A plate of cookies on the edge of the table? It's almost as if you thought that a table was the logical place to set out consumables! YOU FOOLS. I hope you don't mind if my children take a single bite out of every single cookie on that plate. I really do hope that. Because that happened.

The hardest is always the cupcakes on the sideboard.

And these aren't just 2-bite Trader Joe's cupcakes, the ones you pop into your mouth 2 or 3 at a time like cashews at the neighborhood tavern. These are THE CUPCAKES. The ones that are, if we're being honest, the entire reason for the party, not that Sofia isn't a precious angel from heaven but my kids came for the pastries and the apples didn't fall that far from my mouth, if you know what I mean.

Today DURING THE BIRTHDAY SONG, one of my sons threw a stuffed block at the platter of cupcakes, knocking one off of the cake platter, and after I dragged him into a bedroom to do some 'splaining, he said that he was hoping to knock the cupcake INTO HIS OWN MOUTH. Couple of things to reflect on here:

1) There is no way that 4 different guests at that party don't have different perspectives of the following scene captured on iPhone video:

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to--

(block flies through the air)
(cupcake lands icing-down on the table runner)

So yeah, just know that.

2) We need to spend some more time on physics if he thought that he could throw a block away from him, hit a cupcake even further away from him, and somehow time and space would curve that tasty cake all the way around the room and back into his gaping cakehole.

3) On the other hand, this logic makes complete sense to me. Chicken was trying to engage the cupcake in the same way that he tries to engage with friends at school. Throw something at him or her, see if he/she turns around and says "Oh hey, Chicken. What's up? Wanna play? Cool." He wanted the cupcake to be like, "Oh, hey man, what's up? Wanna eat me? Cool."

2. At 1-year-old birthday parties, there are babies, soft velvety babies, as sweet and slow-moving as banana pudding, EVERYWHERE.

Imagine the gasps you'd hear if you watched someone take a running start and then push a toy shopping cart with the focus and form of an Olympic curler, straight into the innocent face of a pile of banana pudding.

Imagine the facial expressions you'd see in the crowd if you watched a kid in light-up shoes crouch, with his arms thrown back and his head down, in the international posture of "OH YEAH. This is about to happen," and then jump up, and then drive those light-ups down, into a pile of banana pudding (that also happened to be wearing an adorable bandana-style burp-cloth and leather booties.)

My kids get amped up at party time (read #3 below) and they don't always corner like they're on rails. They're not always trying to hurt babies. Sometimes they just don't care if they happen to hurt babies. (Listen, if you're horrified by that sentence, I don't know what to say to you, except I wish I still believed in things too, and you should probably add a medium-weight axe to your disaster preparedness kit because I hope I'm wrong about humankind, but on the off chance I'm right you want to be ready for them.)

3. Chicken and Buster heard the word "party" and they started getting in a very specific, very dark mental place.

My kids have been well-trained by the last 2, 2 and a half years of birthday parties. They hear the word "party" and they know exactly what's going down:

1. The streets will be paved with pizza and cake.

2. The juice will flow like spring water.

3. Candy will rain down like rainbow-colored locusts in whatever culture that thinks locusts are candy.

4. There will be something to beat to death. Probably a pinata. Possibly a clown.

When I said, "We have baby Rockstar's birthday party today," Chicken started filling a sock with Hot Wheels in case shit got real, and Buster changed into all black in case the 5-0 rolled in.

I said the p-word and they heard the Mortal Kombat music start up in their heads. That one's on me. My bad. Just gonna own it.

Next time I'm going with, "Time to put on our sweater vests and spectacles, because we're going to a 1-year-old's museum reading placid contemplation retreat."

4. Most of the parents at a typical 1-year-old birthday party have kids around, you know, 1 year old. 

I see the looks on those 1-year-old parents' faces when Buster starts stalking around with a xylophone in his hand like a club made of chimes that will sing you to death, and he's big-boned and curly-haired and surly like Vernon Dursley on 'roid rage, scanning the room with a look on his face like "Say 'baba' one more time," and then Chicken darts into the kitchen, pulls down the whole bag of M&Ms, scampers back into the party room, and laughs both fakely and loudly in my face like "HA HA HA BITCH" before horking down on two fistfuls of candy so brightly colored it must be mocking me.

I'm not mad about the looks. I 1000% get it.

5. Parents are people too. (The really tough one.)

Becoming a parent doesn't mean you can empathize with ALL parents.

Because you have a 4-year-old, that doesn't mean you can bridge the empathy gap to find compassion for the mom of the 10-year-old who steals the peanut M&Ms from the 4-year-old's birthday pinata droppings before the pinata has been officially cracked. You probably think, "Hey, Mom, your kid's a dick. Do something about that please."

And that goes both ways - because you have a 10-year-old, that doesn't mean you can recall your compassion for the dad of the 4-year-old who is melting down about a breakfast sandwich at Starbucks. "Hey, Dad. Your kid's a dick. Do something about that, please."

Perhaps your child is neurotypical and you're put off by a child who isn't (no judgment.)

Perhaps your child is laid-back and calm, and you're alarmed by my children, who aren't.

Perhaps your kids are just learning to understand the concept of "MY food," and you're disgusted by my 3 and 5-year-old's snarling territoriality over a single pretzel. They will fight to the fucking death over a pretzel, not even a peanut butter-filled one either.

Listen, you don't know 'till ya know, and sometimes you'll never know. It's hard for parents to find extra love and compassion for people whose kids are irritating or chaotic. I know.

When my kids were 1 and 3, I fucking hated parents of 5-year-olds who looked at every fucking batshit crazy thing their big, strong 5-year-olds did with the same expression of bored analysis. I was like WOAH WOAH WOAH he just threw a LAWNMOWER, and the parents would be like, "Yeah, he does that sometimes. He didn't hit anybody." I hated the way they made me feel like I was overreacting when seriously, that kid threw a lawnmower one time. I thought they were all assholes.

And now that I have a 5-year-old (almost), I get it. It's not that I don't care about my son setting the world on fire, it's just that I know that the worst thing I can do in those situations is fan the flames and match his fervor with my own.

Preschoolers are more complicated, in terms of emotional range, and more experimental, in terms of manipulation tactics, than toddlers are.

That is not something you explain to strangers, parents of younger children, at the play gym or the birthday party. At best they'll think you're making excuses for your own laziness; at worst they'll think you're pathetic and delusional about the monster you built, birthed, and are now grooming to serve in the 17th Trump cabinet in 2039.

And again, it goes both ways.

Once you have a 5-year-old, looking back on a 1-year-old can trigger haughtiness as much as compassion. I have to remind myself that shit wasn't easy. Truly, it was not. I'll never forget the turbulent 6-hour flight with Chicken, one week after his birthday, when all he wanted to do was WALK and that was literally the only thing he couldn't do, and he screamed so hard and so long that the woman across the aisle reached over, rubbed my back, and mercifully lied to me, twice, in rapid succession: "He only sounds loud to you. You're doing fine."

Looking around the room at a 1-year-old's birthday party I hear all the parents having versions of the same conversations we had at the time, and it's impossible not to be flooded with warring feelings of amusement and affection. It was hard then; this feels harder now. Nothing has ever felt as hard as now.

My husband and I communicate with hand gestures at the party, flowing seamlessly between man-to-man and zone defense, depending on whether the children are simply ticking time bombs, or if they are actively exploding. At some point, one of us wrangles both children and tags the other one out to eat and talk to other adults. At some point later, we switch.

There was a time when we parented our children with the sweetness and single-minded focus of these people. We thought of our children as a gift to offer to our loved ones, a creature that doubtless all would enjoy and delight in, for no child in the history of life has ever smiled so sweetly or waved a cake-smeared hand with more joy.

Now, as often as not, we have come to see our children as wild animals - beautiful, precious, but in need of expert handling and the occasional tranq dart. We have learned to protect our children from other people, and we have learned to protect other people from our children. Relatives come to visit and we forewarn them - our children don't cuddle and you don't want to eat dinner here.

It is hard to go to a 1-year-old's birthday party and understand how far you've traveled from that place of shining adoration. It is hard to see how complicated things can get, just from birth to year one, from year one to three, to five. Please slow down, okay? I am not handling this well.

The tray of once-bitten cookies, the field of banana pudding babies under my boys' stomping feet.

Teaching my children that it is not always okay to hit a donkey with a bat, and that, in fact, some donkeys are not filled with candy.

Missing a time long gone and forever, a time that I didn't appreciate for its relative simplicity. A time that was hard, when the baby started walking but not yet safely, when I started fearing choking hazards and pointy furniture. One year was a bigger step than I was ready to take, just an inch further than I knew I could reach, so I had to leap, a little breathless, to land on solid ground again.

It seems like the steps keep getting further apart, doesn't it?

And how many more are there?

Is it my turn to eat yet?

No way around it - 1-year-old birthday parties are hard.


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