It’s Happy Hour at a Bouncy House Near You!

Over the last several years that I've been a parent, I have attended MANY birthday parties... most of them for people under the age of seven. Parties for my nieces and nephews, for the kids in both my son’s and daughter’s classes, or for the kids of my or my husband’s childhood friends. These birthday bashes for the juvenile set are becoming more frequent than date nights out, and as such, are now the primary avenue for which to hang out with other adults. However, unlike date night, leaving the kids at home is not an option; so we must improvise to socialize.  Beggars can’t be choosers, right?

Now I'm not talking about the parties at indoor play gyms with the socks only rules and two-hour time limits, or the ones at “stimulation overload” arcade joints where an oversized singing rat in purple serves pizza. My acceptance and non-reactiveness challenges are put to the test by these celebrations, with their greasy GMO-laden food, chemically-dyed sugar loaded treats, and favor bags full of toxic plastic junk. As the nerves of even the most laid back of parents are tried as well, an environment of social camaraderie amongst us is rarely fostered, and we all leave feeling like exhausted casualties of two very challenging and draining hours.

No, those aren't the ones for mixing and mingling. I am referring to the private backyard birthday parties - the ones where kids roam free alongside each other... where homemade food and libations are offered... and where parents can take a breather from their role as party chaperones. Getting the chance to talk with the other adults in attendance, whether they be siblings, close friends, or parents of other kids we may have just met, is something I and my fellow warriors in parenthood look forward to. It's as if we look to attend these parties in the same spirit as we did a college friend’s B.Y.O.B. barbecue, with a six-pack or bottle of wine in hand and a smile.  After all, the party elements are the same: good drinks, good food, lots of laughs, stimulating adult conversation... and an inflated bouncy house in the yard.

Ok, ok... It is not exactly the same, as the piñata hanging from the tree these days is not accompanied by rock music and tequila shots, but still -- we are OUT, we are FREE, we are SOCIALIZING WITH PEOPLE OUR OWN AGE! It’s the closest thing to happy hour these days without hiring a sitter.

However, dreading the former and anticipating the latter parties mentioned in these specific ways is a fairly new reality for me. Since up until very recently, ANY type of kids' birthday party had elicited the very same reaction in me.

I've come to realize that, at varying ages and stages of my children’s development, my feelings on the subject have changed drastically, reflecting the current reality and my existing state of mind.

It breaks down like this:

The Newborn Stage (0-12 mths) : A party invitation to a kid's birthday party is like a winning lottery ticket! Yay! A chance to get out of the house, take a shower and change out of my pajamas! Nursing a baby all day and taking photos of her lying on a blanket sucking on plastic keys or shaking a rattle can start to drive even the most devoted mom a little cuckoo if done too many days in a row without a change of venue.  For the upcoming party, I would dress my little bundle up in her cutest party outfit and show her off with pride to the party goers who relished the chance to "ooh and ahh" over a newborn. What fun it was to repeatedly share that my baby was “6 months and 3 days old”, had just started sitting up unassisted last week, and was now happily eating mashed sweet potatoes! Talking to anyone who could talk back about anything under the sun (who are we kidding, the baby was the subject of the conversation 99% of the time) was a real treat, and a welcome departure from the isolating world of taking care of baby at home: nursing, napping, playing and pooping. (*the stage applies to firstborn children only, since after that you will have an older toddler running amuck that thereby eliminates the joy of this stage)

The “Walk at One” Stage (12-24 months): Once baby started to walk, the prospect of going to these events loses at bit of its luster. Why? Well, the baby only wants to do at the party what she does at home: WALK. And who gets to accompany her on this walk fest? YOU. Or in this case, ME. My little Frankenstein walker and I would often spend the duration of the party exploring every nook and cranny of the host’s house, surveying all the rooms and deciding which ones had the most interesting things in them to possibly break. There was no more sharing baby milestones with fellow partygoers while your cute bundle sleeps in a nearby stroller or sits happily in the comfort of your arms. This new energizer bunny has gotten her first taste of independence, and she will not be content to stay put in your arms while you chat leisurely with your best friend. This kid wants to move and if you attempt to hold her and convince her to stay within the parameters of the festivities, she will unabashedly wriggle and squirm out of your arms and take off down a dark hallway. So guess what? No socializing for you. No keeping company or enjoying conversations with adults. During this stage, it was me alone in the corner of a play room with my one year old testing how many toys she could dump out of their rightful bins or off their shelves before she headed off in another direction. Following this kid and trying to impose limits on her behavior, all the while attempting to clean up the mess she left in her wake, was utterly exhausting.  Most of the time, it left me feeling like I should have just stayed home. At least there I could stay in my pajamas!

The New Toddler Stage (24-36 mths): Walking has lost its novelty and your two-year-old is now ready to dig in and join the party. Yes, conversations with other adults can be initiated, but only to be cut short 30 seconds later when your kid is getting into something they shouldn’t. So you are still your kid’s shadow, but you are now performing your role in the actual party environment. This has its own drawbacks, since although you are now somewhat experiencing the event for yourself, you still cannot engage with anyone for any significant amount of time. And if you are off your game in any way, get engrossed in dialogue with someone and foolishly trust that your two-year-old will be ok unattended, you will inevitably kick yourself for this, as they most often will find something to damage and you will have to apologize profusely for their unintentional vandalism. I often found myself standing around alongside a bunch of other silent parents, as we all quietly watched our kids interact, like we were scientists observing lab mice. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that no one should even bother to try to strike up a conversation with another observer, since at any moment one of the mice would most likely do something that required intervention by one of us. You know, like grab a toy, a piece of food, or a limb of another mouse and start a riot of crying or screaming.

The Older Toddler/Big Kid Stage (3+ years): Congratulations! This is your chance to be social again! Thankfully, this is the stage I am now in with both of my kids. Now that my son is three, I can leave him to go off with the other kids to play and not worry that he will snatch a toy from another kid, eat dog poop off the grass, or wander through the house breaking valuables. The only problem at this point is, if it’s not a party for one of his preschool classmates, most of the other kids there will be bigger and older than him. So I still have to worry about him being trampled inside the bouncy house by the rougher, older boys (and by older I mean four and five-year-olds). They can sure be bulldozers. My saving grace in these scenarios is my daughter. As a seven-years-old female, she takes on the role of my son’s guardian at these functions and does a pretty good job of watching over him and protecting him from harm.

So now that I have reached this coveted "big kid" stage at children’s parties, the brass ring, and am free to indulge in the happy hour at the bouncy house, I have recently discovered there is yet a new phenomenon I must encounter that I didn’t anticipate or expect...


(to be continued here...)