The Power of Mom Friends

To tweak a famous quote, no mom is an island. As moms, we get so caught up in our daily lives and obligations that cultivating friendships can often fall to the very bottom of the “to do” list. But as I was reminded the other evening, female friends are essential for reassuring yourself that you are not alone on this sometime crazy journey called motherhood.

When I had my first child, I was a full-time professional and single mom. I did not have “mom friends.” My girlfriends and work friends were in their 30s, like me, but I was among the first to have a child. Someone offered that a hairstylist she knew was a single mom with a child; perhaps we could be friends? I dismissed the idea and continued socializing with my work and college friends. Upon the suggestion of another new mom and work colleague, I began taking my daughter to a children’s music class on Saturdays. Although I didn’t really socialize with any of these parents outside of the classroom, the time spent singing and banging on instruments was a window into the social world of other parents of small children.

After my daughter turned one, I married a wonderful man, and a year and half later, we moved to a new city, along with our newborn son. I had stopped working at my law firm around the time of my daughter’s second birthday, and I was excited about the prospect of being a full-time mother, able to enjoy my children throughout all hours of the day, and truly experience all facets of motherhood.

My experience in our new city of Houston was vastly different than my mommy experience in my hometown. I didn’t have the security blanket of my parents, school friends or work colleagues to rely on; instead I dove in head first to the task of meeting other mom friends. It wasn’t really so hard – I joined the local MOMS Club, and I discovered that just showing up to a playdate or planned outing was the biggest hurdle. The moms were friendly, and it was a diverse group, ranging from moms with master’s degrees to engineers to the more rare Martha Stewart types. Overall I found most of them to be highly educated and professional women who had chosen to stay home in order to spend quality time with their children and not miss out on those early years.

Six months into my time in the club, I found myself as the prospective president of our chapter. I somewhat kicked myself, as the position took up a lot of time and planning, and other aspirations, like writing, took a backburner to planning social events, handling email correspondence and attending meetings. I didn’t realize the value at the time of these interactions and friendships that I was forging. When I had my third child, and other moms brought meals to us for four weeks straight, I was overwhelmed by their generosity and the power of moms. I finally understood that a group of moms is a powerful thing that could support each other in times of need. We eventually moved, and a few years later I still think fondly of the different ladies with whom I had the privilege of sharing parts of our lives.

After spending two years in Houston, we moved up to Connecticut for a short six-month stint for my husband’s job. I considered joining the nearby MOMS Club, but unlike my previous chapter, this one required a much longer drive to attend functions. With the winter weather and occasional snow, I tended to stay in my bubble and venture out primarily to the YMCA. I met some great moms at my daughter’s preschool, which is another promising venue to meet potential friends, as well as a like-minded young mom in our neighborhood of mostly retirees. After only six months, I was sad to say goodbye to the small group of friends I had made. We were now headed down South, where we would settle in and have the opportunity and time to forge deep friendships.

Since moving to Florida, my experience in making mom friends has been different but positive. There are various ways to meet people, and these days I prefer a more organic approach. I have met other moms at the dance studio, the local YMCA or playing at a park. There are some nice moms in our neighborhood, and I have met some friends through a simple introduction by established friends. I saw one mom that looked familiar to me at a popular, kid-friendly restaurant the other week and realized that her son was in my son’s music class. We struck up a conversation before her friend came to join her, who I realized I had met at the local pool the previous summer.

It had been awhile since I had attended anything formal or organized like a girls’ night out, as some friends had recently moved away or given birth. Last week a mom friend of mine through my daughter’s school and dance studio (though I initially met her as my daughter’s Vacation Bible School leader) kindly agreed to watch my daughter while I attended some local writers’ workshops. She asked me if I wanted to perhaps have a glass of wine when I came to pick up my daughter that evening. My Friday evenings are usually spent getting the kids to bed super early and gearing up to watch Dateline with my husband, but I thought a glass of wine sounded nice and didn’t require too much effort.

That evening, I made the drive over to her part of the island and noticed the way the orange tinted sky looked immense from the winding road. Living on an island, people joke about not wanting to go “OTB,” (over the bridge), and I must admit, I don’t go OTB too often, or even venture to the south side of the island. As I pulled up to her home, I admired their vibrant fruit trees, blooming rose bushes and its elegant cottage feel. I entered their inviting home, and the girls were ensconced in a cozy set-up with cheese pizza and a Disney movie. Admiring her distressed white kitchen cabinets, we agreed on a red California blend and settled into her white couch to sip and talk. (After an unfortunate red wine and white couch incident at a close friend’s urban pad years earlier, I hoped that I did not repeat my past gaffe.)

An hour passed by quickly as we chatted about the differences between boys versus girls, our rescue dogs, career aspirations and feeling overscheduled with activities and obligations. I met her daughter’s pet lizard and was impressed that she allowed a pet that required live crickets as its diet. Not every mom would go for that! I thoroughly enjoyed myself and realized out loud that I hadn’t known how much I missed hanging out with another mom until in that moment. The clock struck 8, and not wanting to overstay our welcome or keep my daughter up too late, we headed back to our part of the island.

The next few days following our social visit, I began to have grand plans of double dates with other couples, game nights at our home with a few other parents and making time every few months for a fun moms’ night out. Sometimes as moms our focus is so laser-like on our children and pets (and husband, if he’s lucky) that the thought of nurturing our need for human connection doesn’t register. A simple shared conversation over a glass of wine was the eye-opening realization that cultivating friendships does matter, even to a woman in her 30s. Friends now are probably more important than ever. I’m looking forward to that next glass of wine.

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When Mom is Sick

It has been a few weeks since my last post on my blog. First, my husband and two kids contracted the flu. After bragging about my robust immune system to anyone who would listen, I then got sick with what appeared to be the flu. I say the flu because of its complete decimation of my person. (I thought about going to my doctor to get tested, but I simply didn’t have the energy to cross the bridge over to her office.) My middle son has survived this flu invasion unscathed (he is half robot). The CDC says the flu vaccine is about 23% effective. This makes sense, as only 20% of our family did not get sick, despite five flu vaccines.

After celebrating the fifth anniversary of our vow renewal ceremony (this has become our de facto wedding anniversary, because January seems to work better for us than the legal date in June), I started feeling bad. Come Monday I was running a fever, which did not decide to break until Friday. I suspected the flu because of the complete exhaustion element. All I could do on Monday and Tuesday was sleep with spurts of consciousness spent watching HGTV. When you have to set an alarm clock to wake up at 1:00 p.m., things are not normal, unless you are working night shifts.

On Wednesday, after napping away the morning, I decided this whole sickness thing might be mental, and perhaps some fresh air would perk me up. So I gather up the two dogs whose combined weight outweighs me to take on a casual stroll around the neighborhood on the way to pick up my daughter from the bus stop. The dogs pull this way and that, and I am incredibly grateful that our German Shepherd did not see the errant Chow running near us. Our Great Dane mix did, and she pulled on the leash with all of her 80 pounds trying to get to the Chow. The Chow looked our way, assessed the dogs and wisely decided to change course and jaunt off in a different direction. Crisis averted.

Once we got home, I was completely exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon, and decided to start putting a dent in the growing pile of laundry. By the end of the day, my fever had spiked up again. I guess fresh air wasn’t going to shake this thing, and being sick wasn’t just in my head.

On Thursday, my oldest child had an event at her school she desperately wanted to attend. We dutifully completed her homework in the afternoon, and I sold my husband on the idea of taking her back up to school for the evening festivities. Don’t worry about me, I reassured him. I can easily get our two sons down to bed on my own. Yep, I’m starting to feel better.

After being in nearly full-time childcare for the beginning of the week, due to my inability to care for them and relentless need for sleep, my two sons were beyond tired and cranky. I had to put my two-year-old, Blaine, in a near chokehold to brush his teeth. I then wrangled him up the stairs as he convulsed his body and screamed. Like one of the Super Bowl players, he was in “beast mode.” We then tussled on the bathroom floor for about five minutes as I attempted to contain his body while simultaneously trying to unzip his jacket. He was determined to keep that jacket on. I began to break out in a cold sweat from the exertion. I finally got him undressed and in the bathtub, victorious. He tried to throw a few toys out in protest, as well as the tub mat, and I was prepared to climb in there if necessary, as he is prone to throw his head and body back when angry.

The bath seemed to calm my toddler down, and we peacefully made our way to his bedroom to get dressed and ready for bed. Shoot, I realized, his bed needs to be made with new sheets, and I have to wedge an inflatable barrier under the fitted sheet so our son won’t roll out in the middle of the night. I struggled mightily to fit the inflatable bedrail underneath the too short and too tight fitted sheet. Unbeknownst to me, my husband and daughter just happened to check out the video monitor to Blaine’s room at that moment and chuckled watching me struggle with the bedding as they enjoyed pizza and bingo.

After the usual reading routine, exhausted and frazzled, I got Blaine to bed, and then turned my attention to his four-year-old brother, Brooks. Of course he refused to take a bath as well, so after much cajoling and idle threats, he was nearly ready for bed. At that time, my husband and daughter arrived home, my fever spiked up to a new high, and my other half could wisely say “I told you so,” about the decision to attend the school function.

Lucky for me, my fever broke the next day. I assured my husband I could handily get the children off to school. At 6:30 a.m., Brooks proceeded to have an accident and pee a huge geyser on our couch. I could picture the urine seeping into the cushions, where it would forever live and add to the smells of our home. Twenty minutes later, Blaine approached me crying about something on his hand. Turns out it was covered in his own fecal matter. After clean-up efforts, Blaine wanted to play outside, so I started with the dreaded task of shoveling up the unending piles of dog poop. Wouldn’t you know it, I managed to step in a huge one. Friday was quickly turning to shit.

Mercifully, the weekend arrived, and we spent the next few days catching up on massive piles of laundry, taking copious amounts of medicine and arguing about who needed sleep the most (my husband still has lingering effects from the flu). Bright spots included watching the Super Bowl and dissecting the commercials and half-time entertainment. Unlike Super Bowls of my younger years, this year involved taking a shot of Nyquil and praying I didn’t knock out until after the fourth quarter. I also wanted some game day snacks, but I was coughing so much I didn’t know if I could logistically chew food and cough at the same time. (My love for food won out, and I scarfed down some homemade nachos – yummy!)

Perhaps in a feeling of guilt due to the utterly wasted first part of the week, I spent a good chunk of Sunday de-cluttering my daughter’s bedroom, which could have appeared on an episode of “Hoarders.” Seashells, dried up Silly Putty, thousands of unmatched Barbie shoes, mangled Christmas bows, cardboard boxes turned puppet theater – it was amazing what she had managed to stockpile over her six years of life. Every dress-up purse I opened up was chock full of random stuff like marbles and sea glass. Toward the end of this huge undertaking, she told me that someone could pay me “like $55,000” for this type of work. I took that as a compliment, from one hoarder to another.

I remember when I was a child, having a sick day and missing school could be fun. Now I’m not talking the flu or strep throat variety of sick. Perhaps the culprit would be a garden-variety virus of the low-grade fever producing kind, allowing me to lie in bed and watch cartoons instead of schlepping to school. As a parent, however, I dread getting sick. The homework, chores and kids’ activities continue as the shell of your former self tries to keep up. I was fortunate this time that my husband was not deployed and that we had the availability of drop-in day care.

At some point, however, the novelty of lying in bed and watching TV begins to wear off – I want to rejoin society as a productive and contributing member. As a new week begins, I am fever-free but with a very annoying cough. I don’t have that pep in my step back. I am looking forward to returning to the gym, teaching Zumba, siphoning caffeine and feeling like myself again.

Here’s to hoping this flu season doesn’t hang around much longer.

How do you cope when you are sick? If you have children, what are your strategies for parenting when you aren’t feeling 100%? Also, what is your favorite TV guilty pleasure when you are under the weather?

Come Fly with Me . . . and my rug rats.

Author’s Note: I am posting this blog on the eve of driving with our three children 1100 miles to Texas. Today we did a trial run of a three-hour round trip, and that was just to board the dog. A lesson quickly learned — buy Dramamine for everyone! Unlike last year, this time my husband is home to help me pack and make the trek to the Lone Star State. That being said, it is a little shy of midnight, and we have just finished packing! My conclusion is, whether you fly or drive with kids, packing is a b*tch, probably harder than the actual travel part. At least in a car one is not limited by airline restrictions, but the packing part is still brutal. This blog is specific to airline travel; perhaps I will have some car travel tips later on if we survive this road trip!

As the holiday freight train roars ahead to Christmas Day, many of us prepare to travel through the air to celebrate with our loved ones. Last year I faced the daunting task of flying from Florida to Texas, with three small children, alone. Alone, as in, I am outnumbered three-to-one. From my experience I have some ideas to increase your chances of arriving at your destination with your sanity intact and all members of your family present and accounted for.

Travel tip #1: Do not wait until the last minute to pack. And by last minute, I mean the day before your trip. If you have multiple small children, there are all sorts of considerations, such as clothing needs, personal hygiene items, baby utensils, diapers and wipes, to name a few. Not to mention a travel crib, bedding, a Boppy pillow and anything else you use on a daily basis. I heeded this advice, and my bedroom became a staging area for our trip for a few weeks’ time. I’m not kidding when I say that packing for my holiday trip was the most stressful part. Despite my best efforts to organize ahead of time, the clock struck midnight on the eve of our journey, and I realized I hadn’t even packed a suitcase for myself yet.

Travel tip #2: Pack your diaper bag strategically. You might even need two diaper bags if traveling with a baby or several small children, and most airlines will not count the diaper bag toward your carry-on quota. Of course, you have only two arms, so packing lightly for the plane is preferred. I like to clean out my diaper bag before traveling, getting rid of the used tissues, half-eaten granola bars and random toys that snuck their way in. By now we know to pack a spare outfit (or two) for a baby or young child in case of a diaper blowout or potty mishap, but a prepared mom should also pack an extra outfit for herself.

I learned this lesson the hard way after my then baby girl decided to regurgitate the gallons of milk she had been drinking on me several times as I sat next to a prim businessman. I truly felt like Greg Focker when I rolled into SeaTac. My freshly blow-dried hair, made-up face and crisp black shirt gave way to wild frizz with beads of sweat pooling on my face with the distinct stench of baby throw-up. On the next flight I would know that a fresh shirt, baby wipe to the face and a little water to tame the fly-aways can have me looking fresh as I deplane.

Tip #3: Use flight times and layovers to your advantage. In my experience, the best time to fly with children is in the morning. They are alert and happy. Airport delays increase as the day goes on. The best flight for me leaves mid-morning, allowing me time to get to the airport and feed the kids breakfast before we board. I try to time a layover around lunchtime to refuel the kids with food and do a diaper change. I like about a one and a half hour layover with small children if during a mealtime, as it gives you enough time to eat, use the restroom and let the kids run around a bit before boarding the next plane. Beware of the thirty-minute layover in a huge airport like Atlanta or DFW. You will have trouble making your next flight, especially if you have to get on an airport tram or train.

Coming back from Christmas last year, I thought 35 minutes in Houston’s smaller airport would be doable since I was familiar with its layout, and most of the gates are close together. I did not take into account a delay out of Austin, which almost had us missing our flight in Houston. Which takes me to the next tip…

Tip #4: Rely on the kindness of strangers. As we approached Houston after our delayed departure from Austin, and I contemplated missing my connecting flight, gathering up all the luggage, and sleeping in an airport hotel and doing it all over the next day, I started loudly voicing my concerns. A Good Samaritan couple and their son grabbed our bags and children and escorted us to our next gate. The gentleman explained that his wife used to travel solo with their children overseas to visit him, and they knew how hard it could be. Luckily for me our next flight was delayed, so with a little help and a little luck, we made our flight.

Many travelers remember the days they had small children, or they are simply kind and want to help out. In my experience, most people are helpful and gracious as opposed to rude when you are traveling with little ones. I even had several random adults pick up my kids and let them sit with them for a bit while I caught my breath. Normally we wouldn’t hand our child over to a stranger, but on an airplane, you take the lifeline that is thrown your way.

Tip #5: Bring activities and provisions (and sometimes kids’ leashes)

These days many parents are concerned with their children’s screen time on devices like smart phones and tablets. When stuck on a plane with children, sometimes those rules fly out the window. Last year I brought every device I could think of – a DVD player, an iPhone, a kids’ tablet, plus those old-fashioned real paper books! Dolls and a special stuffed animal to travel with are good options too – just don’t bring any toys with small pieces or anything too large. As a bribe you could promise your kid a new stuffed toy at a layover’s airport shop. This will kill time and provide an incentive for good behavior.

Also pack plenty of snacks and drinks. You never know when you will end up stuck on a tarmac for two hours. This did not happen to me, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. My kids are always hungry, so I just kept throwing goldfish, graham crackers and baby puffs at them. If you keep feeding them, they can’t complain that they are hungry. I also recommend bringing your own sippy cups, so you can fill them up for free at the airport’s water fountain, instead of spending a fortune on bottled waters, which also take up more space.

The godsend for me was two kids’ backpacks with leashes attached. I swore I would never be the parent walking a kid on a leash, but that was before I had to keep track of three wild children during a day of three airports. I made the backpacks seem like a special treat, and my oldest son loved his “big boy” backpack, whereas my one-year-old son enjoyed his soft doggy one. My five-year-old daughter relished “walking” her younger brother as well. The whole scene was quite comical.

The leash also came in handy on the airplane, as my one-year-old could walk up and down the aisles while I sat in my aisle seat and held onto the other end. He also made friends this way and hung out with a few other passengers to give me a break at times. Walking the aisle worked great for my toddler, except for on the flight with the stern flight attendant who reminded me each time the seatbelt light came on. At that point I had to become a human straitjacket around my son as he screamed at the top of his lungs and tried to break free. Which brings me to the last tip…

Tip #6: Know that the flight will eventually end. No matter what happens on that plane, no matter how loudly your kids cry or scream, no matter how dirty and disheveled you are by the end, know that the flight has to eventually end, and at some point your kids will go to bed and you will get a hot shower. And the flight will one day be a distant memory that you can laugh at for years to come. Just don’t think about the return flight home.

What to Do, What to Play?

When your children reach a certain age, many parents will start thinking about extracurricular activities and what skills they want to develop in their little ones. For some parents, what activities to put your children in is a simple choice. Perhaps you grew up playing soccer, so you feel at home on the soccer field on a spring day. Or maybe you were an accomplished gymnast and want your little rug rats to experience a similar glory. For most parents, there are practical, financial and even safety factors to consider.

I find choosing my children’s extracurricular activities to be an exercise in second-guessing at times. What if I am harboring a musical prodigy and don’t even know it yet? Because I grew up enjoying the fine arts, especially studio art and dance, I find myself gravitating toward those activities for my children.

It’s important not to make early assumptions about your children’s abilities. Perhaps they do not excel at the traditional sports offered at the middle school level, like basketball, volleyball and track. I was as slow as a snail at sprinting and terrified of hurdling, picturing myself tripping and sprawled all over the track. I wasn’t deemed especially athletic.

However, when I picked up a tennis racket at age 13, or took tennis lessons once again in my mid-20s, I realized that I could have had a decent shot at being a competent recreational tennis player. I also discovered that my slow and steady pace on the middle school track gave way to endurance in running half-marathons. Your kid may not excel at the higher profile sports, but there are a myriad of options like lacrosse, tennis, golf and archery that go beyond most traditional school programs. The tough thing with kids is figuring out where they might excel and where their passion lies.

I was a late joiner to studio dance; a class as a young child didn’t ignite a fire in me, probably due to the strictness of the instructor. I don’t think it was the ballet, tap and jazz I didn’t like; it was the particular stodginess of the program. I later rejoined the world of dance in middle school, and performing on the high school dance team was the best part of my high school years. If you think your child may enjoy an activity but a particular instructor or school isn’t working out, you might want to try a different studio, teacher or league before calling it quits on that venture.

My children, including my two sons, take variations of dance, tumbling and art classes. My sons are young, and even if they do not grow up to be professional dancers, dance is a solid basis for developing discipline, flexibility and agility. One of them is built like a linebacker, so he will probably not leap as a principal dancer in “The Nutcracker” someday, but he might surprise me. My middle son is more of a slight build and loves to move, so he might have a future with dance.

Some reasons for my choice of their activity are practical ones: we don’t have to trek to Saturday games, and this particular studio offers a variety of classes in an unlimited package for three children. The program essentially offers one-stop shopping for busy parents. My two oldest love soccer, but I am not ready to spend every Saturday on the soccer field. We have found a happy medium with our local YMCA, which offers indoor soccer seasonally with no games or practices on Saturday, and more of an emphasis on fun and learning than competition.

Which brings me to football. I grew up watching college football since about the age of three. I attended a certain university because I couldn’t imagine not spending my college years in a football stadium every Saturday in the fall. I saw my team win the National Championship in person, witnessed our Heisman Trophy winner break long-held records from the stands and viewed sports history in the making. I have even dreamed at night of running under the lights, fielding punts, thinking I must have played football (at least on special teams) in a past life.

I live in a state where kids start football young. I am originally from a state where the Friday Night Lights still dominate towns. I always dreamed of having sons who one day played football, and I have friends whose boys play football all the way from the Pee Wee level to the NFL. I am not knocking any parents who put their sons in football, because I understand that passion and that choice.

I was at the pediatrician’s office the other day for a well-child visit for my middle son. The nurse commented on his soccer shirt and mentioned that the same sports group offered football for young children in some nearby schools. I told her that they tried to offer the football program at my child’s preschool but not enough children signed up, preferring the popular soccer program. She told me that she had also missed out on the opportunity for her son to play football in the preschool program, and that he was finally playing football, and had never even played tackle before. “Oh wow,” I uttered, “and how old is he now?,” imagining a 15-year-old boy suiting up for the first time at the tackle position. “Six,” she said.

Her son is likely among a group of elementary school boys who practice for upwards of two hours on the field behind our house in the autumn glow. The little cheerleaders cheer them on as they practice and race around the field. My boys will not be joining their peers in playing Pee Wee football, because I have read and heard too much about traumatic brain injuries and high school football deaths to suit them up. However, if I had a son determined to play in high school and passionate about the game, I’m not sure I could tell him no. Time will tell, but in the meantime we will explore other sports like baseball, soccer and perhaps golf.

We recently watched a touching segment on the national news. The story centered on a ballerina who created an entire ballet performance based on her son’s life and ultimate death as a Marine in Iraq. The young man had studied ballet as a child and teen and endured some ridicule as a result of his passion. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after high school and was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in 2006. His mother drew parallels between the traits that made him an accomplished ballet dancer and those attributes that made him a good Marine. The story stuck with me as a valuable lesson — our children may take the skills we cultivate in them and apply their talents toward an endeavor we never imagined, a future we may never have pictured for them. And toughness in boys is not only developed on a football field.

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.

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.