As birthday invitations flooded my 4-year-old daughter’s cubby at her suburban Chicago Montessori school, I wondered if I had missed the memo. When child has birthday: invite entire class, rent warehouse space that manufactures child entertainment, order additional amusement in the form of a college student dressed as Disney character, serve pizza and cake.
My oblivion to this 21st century American birthday trend wasn’t without reason. My daughter was not only new to her school — we were new to American life. Even though we are Americans, my daughter was born in Switzerland and we had recently moved back to the States after almost a decade abroad.
Before I became educated in this version of American child entertainment, however, I had to give my daughter her first birthday party on American soil. I did what seemed fun and reasonable: I let my daughter invite three friends (and their three dolls) to our house for a tea party. I made the American sandwich of choice: peanut butter and jelly, and I also served crackers and homemade cupcakes. The entertainment? Dress up clothes and a refrigerator box my husband had painted to look like a castle.
At the time, my daughter’s fourth birthday party felt like a success. She loved creating the party as much as she loved the party itself. She decorated her cupcakes with more frosting and candles than necessary and her small group of friends all screamed with joy while playing in the cardboard castle.
But later, as I attended other birthday parties for my daughter’s classmates and friends, I wondered if the first real American birthday party I had given my daughter had been culturally amiss. It seemed like a silly thing to think, but think it I did. Could a small party thrown at home with sandwiches and a cardboard box for entertainment be wrong?
All signs from my daughter’s other parties and my Facebook mom groups pointed to yes.
“Help! Need advice: where can I throw my son’s third birthday — the jumping place closed and I don’t know what to do!” posted one mother.
“Is Flying High gym still a good place for parties for 5-year-olds?” wondered another mother.
But the question I wanted to ask never appeared: Is it wrong to have a small birthday party at home?
I am American, and even though I had been out of the country for almost a decade, I knew American life was big and plentiful. In some ways, I was tired of Swiss stores the size of one American parking space and part of me enjoyed the extreme bounty that was my newfound American life — at least, at first.
But the American life I returned to had either taken child entertainment to new levels or my expectations of what defined fun had changed. In Switzerland, fun is packing a backpack of sausages and grilling them in the woods. Switzerland has exactly 534 official Swiss Family Grill Places around the country and you can locate them via their coordinates, planning entire days out in nature around one barbecue spot.
At my daughter’s former Swiss daycare, Swiss children ate Zopf for their birthday. It’s a faintly sweet bread— understated, like everything else in Switzerland. A good time for Swiss kids is putting on their regulation grocery store rain pants and jumping in puddles. That’s where kids jump when there are no bouncy houses.
But I’m in America now, and bounce in a blow-up house is what you do, so I RSVP’d “yes” to my daughter’s most recent class-wide birthday party, even though it was for a child she never mentioned playing with.
The party was held at a 30-minute traffic-clogged drive away at a bounce place. The warehouse environment, filled with jumpy houses, arcade games and hordes of overly sugared children was so loud my head pounded. To have a little fun, my husband measured the noise in the building with his Smartphone: 84 decibels, louder than a diesel train going 45 mph if you’re 100 feet away. This party was my idea of a nightmare, but I told myself I was there for my daughter, and that my definition of fun was most likely not hers. But as the party crept by and Batman came and went with his balloon animals, my daughter turned to me, gripping her Styrofoam plate with its half-eaten piece of pizza on it, and said something.
“What?” I yelled.
“Mommy, this is no fun,” she said.
My head throbbed, but I smiled. I couldn’t help it. I hugged her, my little American daughter who couldn’t enjoy the ultimate American birthday party, and decided: the heck with the rest of my culture, my foreign ideas of fun were here to stay.
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