I was at a talk the other day and the speaker cautioned, ‘Don’t wait for perfect’ – that’s the perfect piece of advice right there, no? I can’t tell you how many opportunities I have missed, projects left untouched, dreams I’ve failed to chase because I was doing just the opposite, standing in one spot waiting until I had the perfect plan. What even is a perfect plan? And who said that once you had the perfect plan it would run perfectly anyway? Damnit! So, my perfect plan is to stop planning to be perfect. I’m not even sure when this seed of perfectionism was planted in my brain, and lord knows I’ve failed to live up to this lofty ideal, so I am going to accept, embrace and celebrate the one area I do excel in, being perfectly imperfect!
It was Milly’s birthday this weekend, the most fertile ground for my perfectionist tendencies to thrive. I can count on one hand, in fact one finger the number of parties I’ve actually been able to enjoy, rather than being stuck in the kitchen or frantically wrapping the pass-the-parcel mid-shindig, that’s right, ONE. And it wasn’t even her birthday, those score a big, fat, perfectly round zero. If Milly wanted photographic evidence that I was even there for most of them I’d struggle to provide it. I don’t think I’m alone in that, so many mums (and dads) find themselves sweating away behind the scenes or barking instructions from behind the camera (or more often these days the smartphones that rule and record our lives) rather than hopping in there themselves. There was a great illustration of milestones from a kid’s point of view and all they could see was their parent’s face obscured by a phone…it was really thought-provoking, and maybe for a day I managed to resist the urge to pull out my phone and snap a ‘moment’ with Milly. I can’t remember which day it was, or what we did, obviously, because my Instagram is more a way of hiding my onset alzheimer’s than sharing my wildly (un)glamorous life! If it’s not up there, did it really happen?
Prepping for the party has evolved over time. In the early days I was so concerned with catering for the masses, keeping it low on the sugary treats, high on healthy, home-made, gluten-free, dairy-free, animal shaped, not to mention home-baked cakes etc. But 8 years in, I needed a break. I’ve not made the cake in the last couple of years and I have zero guilt there, Papa’s makes a way better chocolate mud cake than I could ever pull off and thankfully she’s grown out of wanting her cake to be in the shape of the latest Disney character. I still aim for a higher fruit-and-veg-to-sugar ratio, but I told myself this time, it’s one day, technically one snack, so provided no one eats to the point of making themselves sick (though what better deterrent than the memory of hanging over someone else’s toilet bowl filling it with a rainbow vom of sugary goop?). SO, this year I tried to relax and keep it simple. There was pizza – not gluten free, and not made by me (gasp). There were mini-chipolata sausages and veggie sticks. I admit the fruit was fashioned into animal shapes (but ‘wild’ was the theme, so it seemed remiss not to include them), but they were basic; grape-snakes, strawberry mice, watermelon trees – ok, not technically an animal, but a habitat, ha! I let them decorate cupcakes and eat them, but kept them mini-sized at least. There was popcorn, and the biggest sugar high would have been delivered by the marshmallows dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. Even though I limited them to one per guest and on the stipulation that they had to have eaten something savoury first (I know, who called the fun police?) the volume and level of hysteria raised exponentially when those came out, not surprisingly, so I admit I would rethink serving them in such a contained environment in the future, mainly for the sake of my eardrums and our relations with our neighbours. I saved the cake until last and dispensed it as the kids were leaving, therefore transferring responsibility to their respective parents as to how close to bedtime that sugar rush would be administered or whether it could be used as leverage the next day.
Thing is, while it seemed simpler on the outside, I was just as stressed on the inside, there was a wave of ‘feeder’s remorse’ as I sliced up the pizza and stacked the sausages and still I ended up wrapping the pass-the-parcel midway through….whyyyyyyyy??!?!?!? I’ll tell you why, because I spent so much time workshopping things in my head, trying to come up with the perfect plan, fussing over how to single handedly (we’ll discuss THAT another day) throw the perfect fuss-free party.
I want to sit myself down for a thorough debrief to work out what the hell I need to do next time. A friend asked as they were dropping off their small humans, “Is there anything you need?” My response, “Two more days?” Because no matter how much thought goes into it, I always underestimate the time it will take for me to actually meet my own expectations. Perhaps if I start wrapping next year’s pass-the-parcel now?
There was a moment about two-thirds of the way through proceedings, as pass-the-parcel was finally about to get going, that I spotted a downcast little figure sitting in the corner. I went over to investigate. Was it the post-marshmallow crash? Did they need to vomit rainbow sprinkles? As it turned out, this spectacularly articulate kid, with some gentle persuasion, opened up to feeling, well, a little jealous. As their sky blue eyes began to cloud with tears they told me they never get parties or surprises and how unfair it felt. And while I tried to lighten the mood, briefly pointing out that pass-the-parcel was all about the surprise, and because I conform to the new rules, EVERYONE gets a prize, so they should get in there, it also dawned on me, that, in some cases, the focus of the party can get lost in how to create the biggest fuss. Every year invites have come in to events ramping up in complexity and sometimes expense. It migrated from an afternoon at the park, to having an entertainer, a petting zoo, a visit to an adventure park, a trip to the movies with a private afterparty, tours of the neighbourhood in a stretched humvee. Don’t get me wrong, these are fantastic ideas and we have done our fair share, especially in the days of the ‘whole class’ invitation trend – you couldn’t fit 21 sugared up pre or primary schoolers in our place for a start! There are excellent ways to outsource the food prep and entertainment, enabling parents to return to tidy, crumb-free homes – I actually found half a chipolata down the back of the sofa the next morning, I mean really, who needs that? But, as wonderful as these experiences are and each to their own for sure, the increasing bars they set can have a downside, such as with our little buddy who for whatever reason doesn’t have parents jumping on the big birthday bash bandwagon. I have numerous friends who have opted out of the birthday party game, some prefer to gift the kid an experience, like a trip to the zoo, others with multiple kids have the rule; no parties after the 5th birthday, it’s all in the pre-frame and expectation management and I think they are geniuses!
As my little mate and I were chatting it occurred to me that I hadn’t had birthday parties as a kid. Not even a round of pin-the-tail on the donkey and a partially defrosted Sara Lee cake? Why that hadn’t registered with me before I don’t know. It might explain in part the pressure I put on myself to give my daughter parties. I mean it’s no surprise given our circumstances, there wasn’t the money, the space or the friends for such events. But what struck me most, was that in that moment my experience (or lack thereof) was a gift, because I knew exactly how this kid felt, and I told them so, with complete honesty and zero grown-up bullshitting. I explained that I didn’t have a party until I was a teenager, and totally understood how those feelings sucked, but that they were the most special person in that moment, because not only could they recognise their feelings for what they were, they were able to articulate and share them and that was far more important and would serve them better than 2 hours of hysteria and a slice of cake with candle wax on….not to mention day old chipolatas down the sofa, had I known. It didn’t change the source of the feelings of course, but a little momentary shift in perspective worked a charm to lift them out of their funk. I had to cut the cake and my mate joined me. Turns out their sister is an awesome baker and this kid’s cake cutting skills are far superior to mine…and I made sure they got their surprise from pass-the-parcel!
They say it’s our struggles that shape us. Aren’t they wise those ‘they’?! I expect my little friend will find their adult selves having exactly the same conversation at a kid’s party one day…granted they might be hosting the biggest and best party in the world ever, because you know, many of us want to give our kids what we never had, but hopefully they will remember how it felt to be seen and truly heard in the midst of someone else’s sugar fuelled extravaganza.
So, the cake may not have been home-baked and the pass-the-parcel a little hastily wrapped and I’m not in any of the photos, but my small human and her buddies had a ball, and I was there when it really mattered, for my little mate sitting quietly in the corner watching through cloudy eyes.
And it was something; a celebration, chaotic, stressful, but fun and it was the best I could do on the day. It was much like our story, as I’m beginning to realise as I look closer, through my own once cloudy eyes – it was, I am and we were perfectly imperfect.
Image by Wang Xi