Saturday, July 22, 2006

Birthday Blues

The first year of motherhood is replete with forays into new, unchartered territories. Breastfeeding. Baby Bjorn. Booger-Sucker (or whatever that bulb-shaped thing is called.) And as my daughter nears the end of this ferris-wheel ride of a first year, I find myself staring down at yet another new challenge: The Birthday Party.

Let me preface this by saying that the hurdle of creating a first birthday party might be more easily leapt over if I did not live in Manhattan. Having a child has lead me to romanticize the suburbs on more than one occasion, and her first birthday party is one of those times. I imagine that is somehow simpler "out there", where children can frolic freely in magical spaces like "finished basements" and "playrooms" and "backyards", all of which are missing when you reside in 800 plus square feet. And don't the clowns and the magicians all live in the suburbs? Not that it matters – because I have been told that they have gone out of style, along with diaper services, many years ago.

I challenged a friend who hails from the suburbs and hired a pony for her daughter's first birthday. "Why can't I just let the little ones eat cake and ice cream and play pin the tail on the (fake) pony?" She responded defensively. "Kids today expect more", she said. If you don't have a big activity for them they go nuts. They are accustomed to a bigger deal".
The biggest deal that I can remember from any of my own birthday parties was making necklaces out of shoe-string licorice and Froot Loops – a very big deal in my home where sugar was saved for very special occasions. Had so much changed? I am not sure my husband ever had a big deal birthday party, and he is one of the most well-adjusted grown-up kids that I know (despite his lingering affection for weird cartoons).

Still, I find myself getting sucked in to the "bigger is better" mentality of New York City parenting. I bring my ten month old daughter Chloe to her first birthday party, at a posh New York City kid-space on the Upper East Side. There is "valet stroller parking". It’s a beautiful set up, complete with Cheerio-appetizers for the littles and a make-your-own cookie bar for the "bigger-littles". An energetic band performs for what seems like forever. I look around at the groupies. Some are dancing, some are crying. Mine looks a little bit dazed and waved an egg-shaker around listlessly. The birthday girl seems most excited all day when sucking on a French fry in her high chair next to grandma. But I can't help being swept away in the magic of the day which likely cost more than my monthly mortgage payment. I tugged at my husband. "What are we going to do?" I whisper, stressed out. "We only have two months to plan". "I don't know". He replied. "Get lunch?" He gestured to the piles of petit fours and finger sandwiches piled on a table meant for adults. "There's nothing to eat here", he whined. My "other" baby was beating on my chest for "milk". Before things unraveled any further, we left.

Generally, I think I am pretty down to earth. I shop sale racks like it's my job. I don't frequent fancy restaurants. I buy my purses from street vendors. But somehow, after birthing my child in the "city that never sleeps" (how appropriate), I often feel like my face is pressed against glass – in this case – a window looking into a room filled with $800 Bugaboo strollers, bilingual music classes and baby yoga. Much like my daughter looks when sitting outside of the plexiglass door that keeps her out of our kitchen, thinking – "it must be better in there than out here."
And this perpetual state of wanting more, of insecurity-bred fears that you are not "keeping up" does not only apply to the choices we make for our children. Every mother in a ponytail and spit-up-splatter who has not wiped the crust from her eyes or her tee-shirt is immediately reduced to a pile of poop when the "Madison Avenue Mommy" breezes by her. You know the one – who is not only pushing the $800 stroller, but is somehow gliding in stilettos, gilded highlights, designer cargo pants and a definite return to her pre-pregnancy figure. Her baby never cries nor has explosive diarrhea, you are sure. Her diaper bag is always stocked the night before. I have been told that these mommies have oodles of child care help, as I touch up my roots at midnight with an at-home kit from Duane Reade and curse the spare tire around my middle that has not seen a gym in months.

In order to take a break from obsessing about how to celebrate Chloe's first birthday, I indulge in one of our weekly mini-celebrations – sharing a burger at a local restaurant. Afterwards, I am nursing her awkwardly in a too-tight booth. A Madison-Avenue Mommy stops in front of me, and I attempt to hide my embarrassment. "How old?" she asks, smiling at me through perfectly-glossed lips. "Almost one", I answer, barely believing it myself. "It's so terrific that you are still breastfeeding" she says, and I can't help but notice the twinge of sadness/jealousy in her voice. "I just could never do it. And I still feel badly about it." And with that, she glided away.

I realized in that moment that a rite-of-passage of parenthood is always feeling like you could be doing more, doing better. Sure, it’s probably a little harder in the Big Apple, but something tells me that new moms everywhere are chastising themselves for one thing or another, even as their children thrive under their care, oblivious to the very high expectations we set for ourselves. From Birthdays to Bugaboos, is bigger always better? Or is it just about making the best choice you can in the moment, and spending more time enjoying them.

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