How to Survive your Child’s Birthday Party (booze optional)

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of parents like the realization that their child’s birthday is on the horizon. The first order of birthday business is invitations. If you plan on ordering customized invitations from an online vendor, you will need to start hammering out concrete details of your child’s party about two months in advance to avoid excessive shipping fees. The online stationery companies feed off of the procrastination of parents. The standard shipping option allows enough time for the cards to ship from the company to the Far East and back, and then the parent realizes she still has to mail out the cards and allow time for an RSVP response. Thus for the parent enjoying Christmas and not thinking about Junior’s upcoming February birthday, the clock is already ticking.

When choosing your shipping options, here is a translation: Standard shipping – Good job, a-hole. You got your sh*t together this year and get free shipping. We’ll screw you next year though. Expedited shipping – You’re savvy enough to order a customized invitation, but not smart enough to order them on time. We like people like you. The shipping cost will equal the cost of the invites. Rush shipping – You’re an idiot. How could you forget your child’s birthday? As punishment, the shipping surcharge will cost the same as a first year’s tuition at Harvard. You are our favorite kind of customer. Overnight shipping – Go to Walgreen’s stet and buy some cheap invitations. You can’t afford the shipping rate.

Of course, to design an invitation, one must know certain details, such as location, day and time. Text or Facebook message “save the dates” are becoming more common for the frantic parent who realizes the child’s birthday is two weeks out and hasn’t ordered invitations yet, let alone determined any relevant details. A message like this might read, “Save the date for Jake’s birthday party. Saturday, sometime in the afternoon(?), our house (I think…). Invitation to follow (maybe).”

Which brings us to venue. One would think choosing a venue, such as a bounce house place or dude ranch or Versailles, would cost an arm and a leg and be the most expensive option. Often times, holding the party at your own house is more expensive. All of a sudden you have to worry about entertaining the children (whatever will they do?!), feeding the kids and adults, elaborate decorations and a clean house. For the busy parents without time for party prep, a soiree at home might entail extra maid service, a caterer and a bounce house. The best option to avoid an exorbitant food cost is to hold the party at a non-meal time, but surprisingly, people will chow down any time of day, especially in the mid-to-late afternoon.

We have attended some stellar children’s birthday parties over the past six years. Some favorites include a carnival themed party with multiple elaborately constructed boardwalk type games, kitschy candy machines and batteries of balloons. This party was impressive because the family enlisted their friends and family to help with the food and set-up, and I can’t imagine the quantity of man-hours and manual labor this party required. The hosts also displayed amazing food, including a recipe for chile con queso that we tried to later replicate.

Another memorable party utilized the “farm it out” approach, and the family invited every child they had ever encountered. The family spared no expense, with catered barbeque, pony rides in the street, a craft station with an activity matching the theme and a magician. The activities were nicely staggered, and the party flowed as naturally as the hundred dollar bills fleeing their wallet in droves.

One party took place on a riverboat cruise with a master of ceremonies. I felt like I was at a rehearsal dinner. Except everyone was dressed in pirate costumes playing musical chairs.

As a parent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you occasionally attend amazing birthday parties and wonder how yours could ever match up. Perhaps you don’t want to cash out an IRA to fund your lovely three-year-old’s bash. It’s important to remember that a successful birthday party, defined as children and adults enjoying themselves, does not require a ridiculous amount of money to be spent. Simplicity is key.

Children love crafts. Set up a craft table that ties into the theme of your birthday party. The activity could be as easy as coloring a sheet of paper that you have copied with a picture of a princess or Spiderman on it. Check out Pinterest if you are not easily overwhelmed. I have never been on the site because I would mentally shut down from feelings of failure and inadequacy. Children also love being outside. Set up a baby pool or a water table with some cheap plastic boats and scoopers and watch them entertain themselves for an hour. Throw in some sand for the kids to make sludge. Nothing makes a party-going parent happier than a mud-caked kid and that forgotten change of clothes.

Regarding food, it is important to include some heavy hors d’oeuvres because parents are usually hungry, especially the ones with babies. In my experience, if I had to shower and apply make-up to look presentable for a party, and then also outfit my children in a costume or party attire, and possibly feed a baby pre-party, I seriously doubt I spent a lot of time eating leading up to the event.

Party food can also be inexpensive yet appealing. You can’t go wrong with chips and queso, chips and guacamole, and/or chips and salsa (sense a theme, here?). The frozen aisle at the grocery store offers some budget-friendly options that are easy to heat up in the oven and can be purchased in bulk packages. A fruit and cheese tray can be prepared at home and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Buy the pre-cubed cheese to save time, or cube it yourself to save money.

On the topic of beverages, it’s always nice to have accessible coolers where parents and children can serve themselves. We recently threw a children’s birthday party where we opted not to buy packs of individual juice boxes or bottled waters and instead used pitchers of lemonade, tea and water that guests could serve themselves. Not using bottled water is better for the environment, and you don’t see a bunch of half-emptied (or half-filled, if you are one of those) bottles to clean up and recycle after the birthday party. Just make sure to replenish those pitchers!

On the subject of whether to serve alcoholic beverages at a children’s birthday party, I’m sure reasonable minds could disagree here. If the start time is ten o’clock in the morning, most hosts will probably not serve alcohol, (save the raging alcoholics or filthy rich), unless it’s a high-end shindig with options like bloody marys and mimosas. I am a fan of afternoon parties providing some adult beverage options. I certainly don’t expect beer or wine, but a little booze sure makes a children’s birthday party more tolerable. As a hostess, you can bet your fancy gift that I will have some wine in my red plastic cup. How else am I going to converse with that parent of a classmate whom I have never met in my life? Or calmly smile when the kid high on sugar and Adderall wanders around my formal living room contemplating which breakable item to pick up first?

We usually serve some decent beer and wine at our birthday parties, unless it’s Cinco de Mayo, where margaritas will make an appearance. Just make sure you try out your signature drink recipe first if your guests will be doing their own mixing; one year the recipe we chose was way too strong, and we didn’t realize our error until we conducted a taste test shortly before the party. Pre-mixing your cocktails might be the preferred route, and if you’re a real high roller, I’d go for broke and hire a bartender. Oh wait, this is a children’s party, right? Maybe hire a clown then. Yeah, a sober clown.

If you do choose to indulge, don’t overbuy on the booze, or your afternoon guests may linger into the evening, enjoying the free beer while you are left cleaning up debris.

In Loco Parentis

The other week my daughter came home with information about a new classroom behavioral program that the teacher was implementing. I will call the program “Loco” so I do not get sued for disparaging their amazing product. Loco is supposed to act as a positive reinforcement tool to track your child’s behavior throughout their school day and create a tidy pie chart with a percentage given for positive behavior. The pie chart is broken down into segments detailing positive or negative actions of the student.

For instance, my daughter received points for actions such as “staying on task” or “helping others.” She got dinged for being “off task” at a different time and for “talking out of turn.” Each day, positive and negative behaviors are time-stamped to document when the praised behavior or offense occurred.

When my husband and I logged onto Loco for the first time, we were pretty shocked by this program. I can’t imagine how time-consuming it is for the teacher to continuously update real time information regarding each student and their various transgressions. The program seems big-brotherish to me.

We decided to enjoy the humor of Loco’s behavioral pie chart and not bother bringing any demerits up with our daughter, because presumably she has already been disciplined at school for being off-task or talking out of turn.

I’m not sure how effective a discipline strategy it would be to ask my daughter at bedtime why she was flapping her gums too much at 8:15 a.m. I also can’t imagine if adults had a Loco keeping them accountable all day long. This is what my Loco might report:

– 1 for hitting the snooze button multiple times (6:20 a.m.)

+ 1 for getting my daughter to the bus stop on time (7:10 a.m.)

+ 1 for making my group exercise classes (9:00 a.m.)

– 1 for gesturing at the driver going 20 in a 45 (11:05 a.m.)

– 1 for raising my voice at my mud-caked sons (11:37 a.m.)

+ 1 for making a decent lunch for the kids (11:45 a.m.)

– 1 for not folding that dusty pile of laundry (12:58 p.m.)

– 1 for letting too many dirty dishes stack up (2:13 p.m.)

+ 1 for chauffeuring the kids to their multiple activities (3:20 p.m.)

– 1 for hitting up Taco Bell for dinner (hey, it’s Taco Tuesday!) (5:36 p.m.)

– 1 for forgetting to brush one of the kid’s teeth (6:45 p.m.)

+ 1 for helping my daughter complete her homework (7:27 p.m.)

– 1 for that extra glass of red wine (9:32 p.m.)

+ 1 for getting to bed at a decent hour (10:30 p.m.)

At the end of the day, a huge pie chart would break down my good and bad choices into green and red colored sections with a percentage of my socially acceptable behaviors. I think my days might become a little less colorful if I aimed for a one hundred percent Loco score every day. Sometimes you need to yell a little (even if to no one) to vent your frustration; you might tap into your creativity staying up too late at night; the dishes and laundry will be there the next day, while your ambition to write, create or do anything instead of household chores may not be.

When I first saw on Loco that my daughter was penalized for talking out of turn or being off task, I thought of the hilarious 1980s film, Uncle Buck, played by the late, great John Candy. I remembered the classic scene where Uncle Buck tells off his young niece’s school principal for trying to create robot students:

“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously.”

Uncle Buck wouldn’t approve of Loco, as this tool doesn’t encourage the dreamers and the sillyhearts to sometimes talk out of turn in their unbridled excitement or daydream to the point of getting off task. Often our best ideas form when we are off task and allowed to simply float in our thoughts. All I know is that I am not downloading the Loco app.

Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Three Kids and an iPhone

I am a busy mother of four – a first grader, a preschooler, a toddler and an iPhone. My little iPhone is the most demanding and needy of all my children. He beeps and buzzes at me through all hours of the day and night, beckoning me to pick him up, cradle him in my hands and caress his buttons. I take my little iPhone everywhere – he sits on the table while I eat my meals, he accompanies me to the bathroom where I catch up on Facebook statuses or the latest news. He is always by my side, in my pocket or within easy reach.

My iPhone is popular with the other children – everyone wants to hold him and play games with him. In fact, they fight over him. Sometimes I pay too much attention to iPhone, and the other children get jealous. I give me iPhone baths on a regular basis – my four-year-old enjoys sneezing on him, so iPhone enjoys a good daily wipe down with an antibacterial cleaning wipe. I haven’t figured out how to brush his teeth yet, but I’m working on that.

iPhone enjoys the newest toys (he calls them his “apps”). He constantly demands the latest and greatest apps. He will frequently throw a tantrum in the app store, demanding the app that tells me where to buy antibiotic-free chicken or where the cheapest gasoline is for purchase. He never has enough apps, and he is always whining for more. I’m not sure how I will afford the app for his college education, but we have opened a 529 account for that.

I can’t hug or kiss my little iPhone, but I can cradle him in my hands. He is too small for a baby carrier so I carry him snugly in my pocket. In the car he rides in a cup holder, as the car seat manufacturers are way behind the curve in creating a restraint to securely hold him. He is never out of arms’ reach. iPhone wishes he could go swimming, but the pediatrician has advised otherwise. Some parents have baby iPhones that ignore this warning and end up swimming in the toilet, which ends badly for everyone involved.

iPhone sees and hears everything. You can’t cuss in front of little iPhone, or he will catch your spewed obscenities on his video recorder. He loves to post photos on social media sites, even the less than flattering shots. He is social and enjoys communicating with other iPhones via text messaging. We relish playdates with other iPhones at restaurants, where the little gadgets sit on the table among the wine and calamari and revel in frequent interaction with the adults, as the humans try to remember how to communicate with each other.

iPhone delights in being the center of my universe. The smallest bing or vibration and Mommy will come running to see what prompted the cry. No meeting is too important; no face-to-face conversation is too vital; the call of the iPhone trumps all.

If I ever leave iPhone at home by accident, all hell breaks loose. Panic rises in my chest, my pulse accelerates and little beads of sweat pool on my brow as I rush home to retrieve the abandoned iPhone. iPhone can never be left unattended or out of sight; the consequences for abandonment are unfathomable. At a minimum CPS (cellphone protective services) will be contacted.

iPhone is very demanding for Mommy’s attention, but occasionally the other children need me to look at them and listen to what they are saying. During one of those rare occasions, I reluctantly (and gently) set little iPhone down and attempt to maintain an authentic interaction with iPhone’s human siblings. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with the flesh and blood children, as they don’t have buttons or provide any useful information in the way of stock quotes or weather updates, but talking to them reminds me how to be a human.

At the end of the day, after tending to four children, this mommy is exhausted. There is no better feeling than putting the kids to bed and silencing iPhone. Until we meet again in the morning, I will dream of your incoming messages and impending dings. And sometimes those human babies have interesting things to say too.

Featured image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Into the Woods

This past Saturday we decided to branch out and “get into nature” as the paleontologist from PBS Kids would instruct. The children had traded various maladies for the past few weeks, and we had been cooped up for the better part of a week. This was their father’s first weekend home since a recent deployment. The pressure was on to do something fun or interesting.

I am a frequent reader of TripAdvisor reviews and love seeing all the available options for a Saturday afternoon. We often stick to our usual routine, but I will mentally catalog the local things to do and tuck the information away for another time.

On several occasions I had read about a local natural preserve called the Tree Hill Nature Center. Most people gave it high marks for being a natural oasis hidden in the middle of the city. Unlike previous weekends, this Saturday was clear, cool and bright, a perfect early fall day. We decided to venture off of our tiny island and head to a new destination.

We noticed the nature center was on Lone Star Road, so its location was a good omen (a shout out to our Texas roots). We followed the GPS’s directions and found ourselves in a part of Jacksonville we had never ventured into. This doesn’t look like nature, I thought. I was concerned that OnStar was now playing a bad joke on us. We stayed the course and soon found the parking lot off of a city street.

Once we entered the parking lot, the scene changed. Trees covered us in the dirt-covered parking lot, and the temperature dropped a few more degrees. We easily parked and saw one other car with some teenagers enjoying a picnic lunch on the tailgate of their SUV. We gathered up the jogging stroller (in case of rockier terrain) and provisions and followed the quaint path into Tree Hill. We passed a compost pile allowing visitors to take some compost home and directions for making your own compost pile. The path turned more picturesque as we approached the main visitors’ center, with flowers overhanging the trail and multi-colored butterflies flittering through the air.

A kind and helpful lady greeted us inside where we immediately noticed a stuffed bear and the entrance to the inside museum, containing artifacts and live creatures. We decided to save the museum portion for later when everyone was tired and ready to stop walking. We paid less than ten dollars with a military discount and free admission for our two youngest. We headed back outside and noticed only one other family in our immediate vicinity.

We decided to check out the butterfly house first. We entered the little wooden cottage and observed an abundance of milkweed and other butterfly friendly flowers. Large and vibrant butterflies danced around us in the space, and my husband laughed as I instantly held out my hands, like showing off a manicure, trying to entice a butterfly to land on me (none did). We had the whole cottage to ourselves, and we followed the front desk lady’s instructions to just “not kill any.” We took some photos and headed out to the nature trail.

We chose an easy, paved loop, ideal for strollers or wheelchairs. We walked around the trail under the impressive canopy of trees and heard the wind lightly rustling the leaves. We saw a few huge spiders guarding their impressive webs, a shed snakeskin and passed a community garden as well as an amphitheater.

Along the way we did encounter a few hiccups. My youngest son began exuberantly running down the trail and promptly fell down, hard. He came up with a bloody knee and scratched up nose, but everything was intact. Halfway through the walk, my almost four-year-old son said his “whole body hurt” and wanted me to carry him at the end (I refused). My daughter worried about hyenas. Perhaps we needed to get into nature more often.

After the walk, we headed back to the main area and checked out a drowsy owl and a few smelly roosters. We returned to the building and saw old fossils, life-like replicas of animals that roamed the area millions of years ago, as well as live specimens such as poisonous dart frogs, native snakes and two baby alligators. The highlight of the indoor tour was the upstairs touch tank, where the kids could put their hands in a wet touch tank and feel all sizes of turtles.

We left the nature center feeling peaceful and content. Unlike a zoo with tons of animals (and people), Tree Hill had few visitors that afternoon and a small collection of animals. The green space alone could be its own draw, as a peaceful refuge from a large city. I look forward to returning to Tree Hill, even if just to walk around under the canopy of ancient swaying trees and sit on a wooden bench to reflect.

Introduction

I had resisted starting a blog the past couple of years because I did not think the world needed another blog about the personal life of another individual. Does anyone really want to know what I ate for breakfast or the details of my children’s toileting habits? After leaving my law firm life behind, and when my kids were all out of the newborn/young baby phase, I finally felt focused and driven enough to pursue one of my dreams of freelance writing.

I have been fortunate to publish some of my articles and blog pieces for Nameberry.com, a prolific baby-naming website, and Fe Fit, an Austin-based fitness and wellness company. I have also written some pieces that have not seen the light of day. Sometimes the act of submitting a piece to a magazine or website can be more time-consuming than actually writing the piece. If you get a rejection for a piece you really love — you have poured your heart and mind into it — you may not have the gumption to write multiple query letters and submit multiple times. It is a huge high when you are published, and on the other end of the spectrum, it is disheartening when you think a piece is quality writing and relevant and you hear crickets from the publisher or website.

As a mother of three young children with a husband who gets deployed, I don’t have as much free time as I would like to devote to the craft of writing. Since I don’t have the time or patience to be as persistent as necessary to find more outlets for my writing, I finally decided it was time to create my own blog in order to put out the pieces of writing that I can’t — or don’t have the time — to find a home for anywhere else. People can read my works and enjoy them or hate them, but at least I am putting my words out there. When you write something you feel strongly about, you want someone to read it; otherwise, what is the point of writing it, other than for therapeutic or cathartic purposes?

This blog is not intended to be a mundane recounting of my life, as I am no different or more special than anyone else out there. I am hoping that through my writing I can connect with others, share something of my life that readers can relate to, and perhaps provide a little humor at times. I have no idea if anyone will read this blog, but if you do, thank you for taking the time to peruse my new site, and please excuse any freshman errors or grammatical errors/typos, as I am usually quite distracted by three small needy beings and a large furry one (and the dog, too). Kindly, Aimee