Am I a bad mother if I admit that I don’t like children’s birthday parties?
I can’t stand them. Hate them even. The appearance of a brightly coloured, child friendly invitation in my child’s day care pocket or my daughter’s school bag sends shivers down my spine, and they’re not shivers of excitement.
It’s not the balloons, the party atmosphere or the frenzied opening of a mountain of presents that puts my nerves on a knifelike edge. Nor is it the cake (I quite like that bit), the ‘pass the parcel’ or the sugar overload of too many Clinkers that makes my heart race.
It is the complex drama that plays out between parents that leaves me feeling curiously flat, filled with a mixture of projections and anxieties that I do not wish to ever have to experience.
At a recent birthday party I bore witness to what I have come to think of as ‘mothers behaving badly’. It left me feeling both sad and frustrated at the terrible things we do to each other, both consciously and unconsciously as mothers. We criticize, we compete and we compare, often leaving each other reeling from the comments that leave our tongues.
On this most recent occasion, my son was over-the-top excited to be invited to a fellow four-year-old’s party. As the youngest sibling he was quite used to be dragged along to his sister’s friend’s parties. But his own invitation warranted a new level of excitement. Let me just say up front that when my son gets excited he also gets loud. Really loud.
This would not normally be a problem except that in this instance the rest of the invitees appeared to be the most demure, well-behaved children on the planet. And they were quiet. So quiet you could hear a pin drop…or in my case, my son’s incredibly loud whoops of joy.
My anxiety began to mount as I noticed the others mothers staring at my son’s boisterous antics and exchanging furtive glances with each other, eyebrows raised in silent agreement that this behaviour was not only annoying and unusual, it was unacceptable! As I secreted myself in the corner beside the pastries table, I smiled at the lady beside me hoping that she too may be ‘in hiding’, an unexpected ally in the crazy social jungle of motherworld.
Alas, I was wrong. She turned to me coolly and asked if that was my son (of course it was....) and was he in the kindy room at day care? I nodded and she replied, a little too loudly for my liking, “It surprised me that he was in that room. I thought he was too babyish to be there with the other kids.”
Suddenly it felt as if all conversation stopped and five pairs of eyes turned to the corner I was hiding in to hear my reply. I muttered an “Oh really” and found myself giving some long-winded explanation as to his carer’s opinion that in spite of being the youngest in the group he was holding his own and…and …
I slunk away and found Nate playing with the birthday boy’s toys in the living room. The birthday boy was there too, watching my son’s pure excitement to be playing smash ‘em up, crash ‘em up with new toys, albeit someone else’s. Nate’s squeals of joy could be heard three blocks away. Yet, in contrast to the looks of the mothers who stood on the periphery with their beautifully behaved children, the look on the birthday boy’s face was one of pure and unadulterated admiration and awe. My son was not just loud to him; he was fun!
In that moment I had an epiphany. My son is who he is. The other children are who they are. They all no doubt contain their imperfections, but isn’t that what made them all interesting? In their imperfections weren’t they all perfect?
My son was loud, yes, so loud, and perhaps he was a little on the young side. He was also a bit scruffy around the edges and had a few things to learn about the finer points of sharing. But he was also kind, helpful and clever and there are moments, many of them, when his sensitivity and capacity for deep thought blow me away. He is who he is. And at this moment in time that requires no justification or defense. Just celebration.
My most recent encounter with Mums behaving badly has given me pause and forced me to examine moments when I too, as a mother, behave badly. Where am I freely dispensing judgment and advice not asked for, given with an air of superior smugness? When have I t’sked t’sked other children’s behaviour, comparing it to my own children’s, without knowing the full circumstances of that child’s personality, development or family context? And when have I praised the child who conforms, who fades into the pack and cast a critical eye over those who are different? Too often, if I’m honest.
Not all mums behave badly. In fact most don’t. Occasionally a kind word from a fellow mother can touch us so deeply purely because it is unexpected and unsolicited.
As the party was in its wind down phase and the children and parents were making their goodbyes, I noticed Nate tearing down the slippery dip. Leaving the party was not on his agenda. As I began to feel a mounting dread of how to negotiate with Nate a ‘quiet, dignified exit’ (unlikely!), a mother came and stood quietly beside me. Her eyes were locked on Nate as he began racing around the backyard with a deafening yell. I braced myself for the comment that would surely come. But mothers can surprise you.
“Nate has a lovely sense of joie de vivre, doesn’t he?” she said with a wistful smile.
I looked at my son, my noisy, scruffy and delightfully imperfect son. I really looked at him and saw him anew. “Yes he does,” I murmured with glistening, grateful eyes. “He really does.”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem