Up Close and Personal: Birthday parties
Since our first child was born 51/2 years ago, my husband and I have been to roughly 3,450 birthday parties. Or at least that is what it feels like. Not that we have anything against birthday parties. In theory, what's not to love? Fun games, yummy cake. Most are lots of fun for the children and an opportunity for parents to socialise, too.
However, some weekends it seems we spend most of our waking moments, on both Saturday and Sunday, at a birthday party. We could, of course, say no occasionally. But it never seems right somehow. I know my son is always very nearly heartbroken if any friend of his can't make any of his parties. So if we are free, it seems wrong not to go.
Fortunately, most parties are close to home. We have attended about 2,000 parties in our community's clubhouse. It's a popular birthday party venue. Our children are very familiar with its bouncy castle. They throw their shoes off before we've even made it through the entrance. The carefully wrapped present and card are shoved at the birthday child, and they then run off to join the other 298 children already jumping on it.
Getting them off it to eat the standard spaghetti bolognaise and tuna fish sandwiches they always serve is nearly impossible. The only thing guaranteed to get them off it is the usually dramatic and loud arrival of the clown. We have seen the same clown perform about 500 times, although our children never seem to recognise him. His magic tricks always make the children laugh. Everyone is always desperate to volunteer for the next trick, and there is always a line of chattering children waiting for balloon animals. One clown spent half an hour transforming balloons into scooters, umbrellas and other quite remarkable creations.
I usually then spend the next 20 minutes trying to get my children to eat something slightly more nutritious than neon jelly cubes, like a deep-fried chicken nugget or frankfurter.
Then the cake is wheeled in, often in the shape of a character that began life in a cartoon. Happy Birthday to You is sung, 300 children attempt to steal the birthday child's thunder by also trying to blow out the candles. The birthday child cries. The cake is cut, everyone fights for the piece they want, half of which they won't eat, only to hand it to a parent, who has to finish off yet another piece of chocolate cake coved in icing made from what tastes like at least five bags of sugar. Plates of half-eaten pieces of birthday cake litter the room.
Once the cake has been cut, you can start to leave - assuming you can get your child off the bouncy castle and into their shoes.
It is at about this point that my four-year-old shouts out: "But we don't have a party bag yet!" So we drag them to the door, throwing out thank yous. Someone shoves party bags in our children's hands and we are free to go home.
To be fair, there are plenty of great birthday parties held every weekend. Our almost-six-year-old went to a bowling party not long ago. He played for more than two hours straight, barely stopping to eat or drink - and it was one of the best evenings of his life ... he claimed.
When it comes to birthday parties, it really is the simpler the better. For his sixth birthday, my son wants to invite five friends to play Xbox at home. I said yes straight away. I know his friends' parents will be relieved. They can enjoy their Saturday afternoon secure in the knowledge that their son is doing the only thing six-year-old boys ever want to do - playing Xbox with their friends. And as computer games are my husband's thing, he'll be happy to organise and host the party. At some point, he can try and distract them with slices of pizza and a cake in the shape of someone from one of the computer games.
Rebecca Tomasis, a mother of three, was co-winner of the first Proverse Prize for unpublished writers