My Anxiety Prevents Me from Throwing My Children Birthday Parties

If I close my eyes, I can still see my mom coming down our spiral stairs dressed as Snow White. She was surrounded by paper paintings of Disney scenes that were three feet in diameter and stuck to the wall with sticky putty that would leave oil stains the size of dimes on our walls for months.

My mom, who is what you’d call a Pinterest Mom today, spent weeks blowing up the pictures on an overhead projector, drawing them, and coloring them by hand to get ready for my ninth birthday party, which was a Disney-themed party.

Many kids came to our house dressed as their favorite Disney figures. Since it was the 1980s, all of their costumes were hand-made. Tinker Bell, Chimney Sweep Bert, and a very artistic Cinderella were among the characters. My mom even got my dad to dress up as Roger Rabbit.

It wasn’t the only party she threw for me and my sister that we will remember. Some were easier than others, like party games at our house or sleepovers, but she planned something for each of us and our friends every year. I will always remember them fondly. But I won’t share those feelings with my own kids. I get nervous when I think about throwing birthday parties for my two boys. Because of my own social nervousness, they won’t be able to do this.

Things weren’t always like this. I gave my oldest son a first birthday party that was better than any of the ones my mother had thrown, and I loved every second of it. The time spent there with my loved ones and my pals was fantastic. After I had my first child, my social anxiety, which has been a problem for me since school, went away for a short time.

I was too shy to talk to someone one-on-one, but I could easily act in front of thousands of people. Going out and meeting people was less of a hassle when I had my baby with me. When he was a baby, we shared the same sense of self, which gave me strength.

As a new mom, I was also very happy to show off my baby. I can’t believe I didn’t hold him up in the middle of the mall like Simba.

We celebrated his second birthday with close relatives at my parents’ house. This was when my birthday party nervousness started to show. On the occasion of her son’s third birthday, my buddy and her son came over to play. Since then, eight years ago, he hasn’t had a party.

My younger child has had a worse time of it. I planned a big first birthday party with a theme and a two-tiered cake, and I made sure that everything was unique. I was ready because, again, he was too young to have his own friends, and I made sure that everyone there was someone with whom I was very comfortable. It’s the only birthday party I’ve ever thrown for him and the last. Although the majority of the attendees were friends and family and the party had been prepared for months, I was on edge the entire time and could finally relax after everyone had left and cleanup had begun.

My fear of people came on quickly when I was young. When I was young, my parents worried that I would be taken away because I was so friendly with people. I could talk to a stranger in a restaurant as easily as I could talk to my own family. I would happily walk off. Once, I ran away at the mall, and it didn’t bother me at all when someone found me strolling through stores. My dad once walked me across the street by holding my hand. When he turned around, he saw that I was holding another guy’s hand. We crossed together, the three of us.

I was nearly completely silent among strangers by the time I started kindergarten. On my report cards, it started to say, “Heather is a very shy and sensitive child.” If you watch the movie of the great surprise party my mom gave me for my sixth birthday, you can see how scared I was when everyone I knew showed up in my living room all at once.

This fear of people never went away. It affected me as a child, a teen, and an adult. Now that I’m a mom, it still affects me and, by extension, my kids. We don’t have many play dates at our house because I hate the idea of being the host. To make up for it, I schedule plenty of time for my children to spend with peers at our friends’ homes and other locations where I am not required to be present.

While musical chairs, field games, and “pin the tail on the donkey” may have gone the way of shoulder pads and acid-wash jeans, the tradition of celebrating a person’s birthday with friends and family still thrives. My kids are asked to parties where they can play mini golf, laser tag, and gymnastics. Those other parents figured out that renting a center’s easier and often cheaper than opening their own homes. I can afford to throw these kinds of parties for my kids, and my parents have often offered to help pay for them if they get too expensive.

This is all because I want the best for my children. In my ideal world, they would have fun with their peers and be the focus of everyone’s attention. I want them to remember these things. I can’t, though. I’m the mom waiting on the playground at the end of the school day, hoping desperately that no one will talk to her.

I’m worried that the party won’t be good enough and that my kids will get in trouble and be teased. I worry about being responsible for other people’s children, which is a silly fear for someone who taught preschool for 10 years. I’m even more worried about entertaining and talking to my parents who won’t leave.

When people sing “Happy Birthday” to me on my birthday or when I think about being in the spotlight, my heart races, and my breath gets faster. My worst nightmare comes true whenever my children’s birthdays roll around: they want a party. It never happens. They know what’s best. And it doesn’t treat them right.

I’ve never told them they can’t have a party outright. I asked them a trick question when they were younger: “We can only spend so much on your birthday. To receive a larger present but miss out on attending a party: yes! No! This was true, but I exaggerated the significance of this gift option, and I heaved a sigh of relief when my young children failed to connect the dots between hosting a party and receiving gifts from guests.

In the end, it was just taken for granted that we don’t have birthday parties. It hasn’t come up in years because it’s been done before or because my kids can sense my worry. If one of them ever requests a birthday party, I will find a way to overcome my anxiety and throw one. I hope that will never happen. I feel guilty about that hope all year long.

This doesn’t mean that my kids’ birthdays aren’t fun. So, yes. In addition to thoughtful gifts that show how well we know them, my husband and I plan special time together as a family or with just one parent. We make dinner. We go out to get ice cream. We take them somewhere important to them. On this day, we go out of our way to show them how much they mean to us.

I made them custom birthday shirts by hand when they were younger before it was too embarrassing. We sometimes send treats to school so they can be the center of attention among their friends for a little while.

My kids won’t remember their birthday parties as well as I do, and they won’t be as thankful to me as I am to my mother for planning them. This will worry me forever. But birthday parties are only one part of childhood memories, and it makes me feel better to know that my kids are making many other memories that they will remember fondly when they are older.

Already, they talk about the times we spend together. They see how much love and hard work I put into making pillows, stuffed animals, and other things for them by hand. They know without a doubt that not having a birthday party for them doesn’t mean they aren’t cared about or loved.

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