The amazing thing about the birthday party that my son Sam recently attended was not that all the guests -- about 40 children in all -- met at 9 in the morning at the birthday girl's house where they boarded a Greyhound bus draped with a banner that read "HAPPY SIXTH BIRTHDAY {GIRL'S FULL NAME}!"; nor was it that this bus then transported the children to see "Toy Story"; nor was it even that this same bus picked the children up from the movie theater and took them to a pizza parlor -- one of those places full of televisions that you can't hear because the twentysomething alienation rock music is so loud. Nor was it still that the birthday party also featured a hired clown the children didn't pay attention to, because they were too busy watching MTV with that glazed-over look they get when they're about to go into a sugar coma.

You might conclude, then, that what was noteworthy about this party was that the birthday girl was so overwhelmed by the huge pile of birthday presents that she ended up having a hissy-fit because she didn't get the right kind of Barbie. But you would be wrong. The totally and completely AMAZING thing about this event was that many parents, having been invited, actually came. Excuse me, but I thought everyone knew that the one undisputed good thing about children's birthday parties is that they get your kid out of the house for an hour or two, freeing you up to do important work, such as taking a nap. But when, at 2 o'clock, I shlepped through the rain to the pizza parlor to retrieve my son, the place was littered with stupefied parents gobbling ice cream and cake.

"Here," said the father of one of the young guests. "Have some." He handed me a giant slice of chocolate cake, with a side of pizza. "Why didn't you come? We had a great time."

Surely I can't be the only mother in America who thinks that this whole birthday thing has gotten out of hand. Of course, I didn't realize this right away: Some seven years ago, when we first got into this kid racket, my husband and I didn't know from birthday parties. We were young; our child smelled like cookie dough; his skin felt like silk. We'd never even heard of Chuck E Cheese, let alone been assaulted by a birthday party there. So innocent were we that Sam's first birthday saw us on vacation and Sam in McLean, with my parents.

"We had a little celebration here, nothing much," Mom said when we called to see how things were going. "Wait a minute, I'm going to put him on the phone. Here he is."

"Sam?" I said.

"Cake," he said.

"It's Mommy, Sam."

"Balloons. Ice cream. Candles."

"We'll be home soon, sweetheart."

"Bring present?"

Thus my husband and I were sucked into the birthday party vortex, where no doubt we will remain until the last of our children graduates from medical school. We were powerless to resist: What with the birthday party palaces, our children's greed, other children's greed, our own sense that our children were entitled to gorge themselves sick on ice cream and cake at least once a year as we ourselves had, and the grandmothers -- a k a Grammy Carol and Grandma Lola -- we didn't stand a chance.

Children's birthday parties were different in the olden days. In the olden days, your mother made your favorite cake -- angel food with chocolate frosting. She made it herself, in the mixer, with flour and sugar and egg whites. You got to lick the spoon. Then your friends came over, wearing pretty party dresses in orange and pink and pale pale blue. They had ribbons in their hair. They gave you presents -- a book, a doll, a mood ring. It was high summer -- blue sky, long grass, the buzz of crickets, the hum of birds in the trees. In the playroom, you played Pin the Tail on the Donkey. In the back yard, you had a treasure hunt. Later, everyone sang "Happy birthday to you," and you had ice cream and cake. Your mother and father kissed you. Afterward, you were vaguely depressed.

Of course I know that this picture isn't entirely accurate, either. God alone knows how many times my own mother shlepped carloads of goober-nosed 7-year-olds to Glen Echo Park to ride the Whip, a ride guaranteed to make at least one kid hurl. Yet something has changed. These days, parents go beyond Glen Echo Park, beyond roller rinks, beyond skating parties and swimming parties: Today's moms and dads have created something so monstrous, so appalling, so disgusting and just plain yucky that no amount of adjectival excess quite captures its nauseating essence. The question is, why? And the answer, when looked at from the socioeconomic point of view, is obvious: Far too many of today's parents were once law review editors. Only that's not what I'd meant to say at all. The real reason why today's parents endure birthday parties that involve eating cardboard pizza while being entertained by a bunch of oversized mechanical cartoon characters with leering expressions is that their kids utz them into it. The other real reason is that today's generation of thirty- and fortysomething chardonnay-drinking minivan drivers think that they invented parenthood -- after all, they invented both punk rock and junk bonds. The corollary being that, as the inventors of parenthood, it is not only their right, but their duty, to celebrate their children's birthdays in the most excessive terms possible.

I began to truly understand this not long after my then-infant son and I joined a "play group." The idea behind a "play group" is that a bunch of moms get together with a bunch of other moms and their pumpkin pies, and while the moms gab, the little ones play. But of course most 3-month-old babies don't play. What they do do is doo doo . . . and meanwhile their mothers are having really fascinating conversations like:

"I was in labor for 15 hours."

"Oh yeah? I was in labor for 29 hours."

As the months in play group passed, though, we moms stopped talking about giving birth and started talking about all the neat things our children were doing, like rolling from front to back, or, for the very advanced, rolling from back to front. At which point I had to mention that my child could already read. What I'm trying to illustrate is that, though I eventually dropped out of play group, I never stopped competing through my children. I figure it's my generational birthright. We competed in school; we competed at Stanley Kaplan; we competed during our first summers in Washington when we had those neat internships on the Hill; and now that we have kids, we compete through them. PLUS , as everyone knows, yuppies work all the time. I mean, today's moms and dads may love and adore their children, but why hang out with them when you can go to the office instead? But once a year, you can make it up to them by celebrating their birth.

And then there's the tragic loss of our homemaking abilities. Speaking for myself and myself only, I'm not, in fact, Martha Stewart. Meaning that I'm incapable of doing a homemade birthday party complete with homemade cowboy and Indian costumes and a homemade double chocolate strawberry cake topped with peach sorbet. Which is where Chuck E Cheese or Ninja World or Discovery Zone or any other place where the kids go into sensory overload and end up spiritually flattened, television-addicted, intellectually impaired and committed to the goals of the Republican Party comes in. Because the one thing that is without a doubt great about these places is that somebody else cleans up.

Granted, all this is only so much sociology, which at the college I went to was known as "the science of the obvious." Yet it's true. I personally know a classic mom and dad team (Saab/Chevy Suburban) who need to buy a new house, not because the one they are currently living in isn't big enough for them, but because the one they are currently in isn't big enough to hold all the birthday presents that the kids have been drowning in since the day they were born. And speaking of presents, maybe I AM a bit on the cheap side. My own philosophy is: Why should I spend 10 bucks on some piece of junk that the kid won't even play with and certainly doesn't need when there are far better ways of spending money, such as buying myself a new blouse?

Of course there are moms out there, dads too, who don't know that it's 1996. These are people, and there are legions of them, who, despite fashion, give '50s-style low-key birthday parties. For example, there is my friend Diana Bybee, who not only doesn't have panic attacks when she goes to Tysons Corner, but who also loves homemade back-yard low-budget old-fashioned fun birthday parties. But you have to understand, Diana is not like you. Just for starters, she makes her own pizza dough. Last year she gave her son David a dragon party, complete with a cake in the shape of a castle that Diana had made herself with no help whatsoever from the bakery. The boys had swords, the girls had princess wands, and together they fought Diana's husband, who played the role of the dragon.

Versus the birthday party as a giant networking opportunity, like the one I once attended where the father of the birthday boy hunkered down on the sofa with the father of one of the birthday boy's guests. It turned out that the birthday boy's father was a desperate fifth-year associate at a giant, soul-grinding, downtown law firm, and the father of the birthday boy's guest was a member of the Clinton transition team. As the birthday boy tore into his presents, the two men sat there, heads together, saying: "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." And even though the birthday boy's father did NOT get the high-profile special assistant job at the State Department he was gunning for, he did get a job at the Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, when our twins turned 1, we had a pleasant birthday party experience. Again we were on vacation. But unlike that earlier vacation -- the one when Sam turned 1 -- this time we didn't really have a vacation, because, even though we were at my parents' summer house in Maine, we had our children with us. The other problem, of course, was that we had my parents with us.

Mom wanted to know what we were planning to do for Rose and Scooter's first birthday. I started thinking about it. Should we (a) throw a party for a bunch of World Bankers so they could stand around talking about their latest levee-building, swamp-draining, investment-banking project in Upper Montalvia while munching on very expensive olive-oil-based hors d'oeuvres, as some friends of ours did to celebrate their daughter's first birthday? Should we (b) invite a bunch of beer-bellied young men and their extremely pastel-dressed wives over to talk about golf, as some other friends did for their 1-year-old, who got really bored and cried the whole time? Or should we (c) take the low-key approach that I favor, and ignore the day entirely?

We chose (d): Mom. Mom not only made a cake, but she made the very same cake that she made for me every year at my birthday -- angel food. Just like then, she let me lick the spoon. We sang "Happy birthday to you" under a star-studded sky, while, out on the lake, the loons called to each other, loon to loon.

Also surprisingly pleasant was the birthday party we had last year, when Sam turned 6. My husband and his law school friend Peter -- who has this cool special-assistant type job pretty high up in the White House and recently played hearts with the president on Air Force One, not that my husband feels like an out-of-it weenie in comparison -- took Sam, five of his favorite friends, plus Sam's first cousin, Sarah, to play soccer in the park. A half-hour later, they brought them back to our house, where we hosed them down and fed them ice-cream cake that had been purchased at the last minute.

Lesson No. 1: Never plan your kid's birthday party in advance.

Lesson No. 2: At-home birthday parties are best. The problem with at-home birthday parties, though, is that they're at home. Meaning, just for starters, that there will be pee-pee on every toilet seat. Even that's better, though, than the kind of birthday party that Sam went to a few months ago, for a boy turning 7. This boy's mother apparently had the same aversion to pee-pee as I do. Which may be why the party was held so many miles away, both from her own house and the homes of all the guests. The party, in fact, was held at one of those wretched mini-malls just off the highway, in the middle of what was recently a field, in the middle of Nowheresville. But the party itself was the real McCoy -- lunch at Pizza Hut, followed by a movie called "The Big Green" at the theater at the other end of the mall. Sam had a good time, and parents weren't invited, and so I, too, had a pleasant afternoon. This is what I did: I drove Sam to the party, then I drove home. Five minutes later I drove to the party, picked Sam up, strapped him down and drove home.

It's hardly surprising, then, that now that Sam's about to turn 7, this is what he said he wants:

"Okay, we'll go to that place, um, I forgot the name of it, that place where Jeffrey had his birthday, you know, in the mall, the Playzone or something, and we'll play on the tubes and then go into the birthday room and have a ninja birthday party. I want a real black belt karate ninja to teach us his best karate moves. I want pizza, and Coke, and two cakes, one chocolate, the other vanilla. And what I want is, I want Nintendo, a whole book of baseball cards, lots of comic books, two dozen Super Soakers, and $25 just to spend on whatever I want, and don't forget my own TV with remote control so I can play Nintendo in my room."

Which brings me to my next point. Kids love this stuff -- and the parents who plan and pay for these extravaganzas love their kids. Still, I can't help but ask: Why can't my children stay babies forever, anyhow? I mean, have you ever met a baby who demanded a party at Jeepers? But I know that it's only a matter of minutes until my younger son will no longer want me to sing "Scooter has a doggie-dog/ His name is Mr. Doggie-Dog/ He snuggles up with Scooter-dear/ And they drink their daddy's yummy beer" to him every night when he makes shluffy. He probably won't even want me to call him "Scooter" anymore. What he WILL want is a mini-bike.

Next year, no doubt, we will succumb to Sam's wishes, and give him some sort of party involving many children breaking our furniture while they practice karate moves in our living room. The year after, who knows? The bowling alley? The roller-skating rink? The Hay-Adams? The Lincoln Memorial? Then what? Bar mitzvah parties at the Chevy Chase Club? Graduation parties at the Inn at Little Washington? A full-princess wedding at Dumbarton Oaks even if my kids don't marry Jews? Where, indeed, will it all end?

Yes, it's an apocalyptic vision, but then again, my kids' birthdays are right around the corner, and I'm about to have my house overrun by hordes of small children bearing brightly wrapped gifts. Jennifer Moses writes frequently for the Magazine. Her last article was about Passover angst.