Yesterday, we had DiploBoy 2’s birthday party. When I was a kid, birthday parties were a cake made from a Duncan Hines box with frosting out of the tub and sprinkles on it, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (which I know how to cheat at and win every time), balloons on the walls, maybe some crepe paper if your mom felt motivated, and a small treat bag with a mini bag of m&ms, a plastic whistle, and if you were lucky, a pixie stix. Today birthday parties are insane affairs, and nowhere else is this more evident than the Expat Brat Birthday Party.
I’ve been to some off-the-hook kid birthday parties. I’ve thrown some off-the-hook kid birthday parties. The most insane party I ever went to was in Hong Kong at a club where the kids ran around in an indoor playground with the nannies while the moms got mani-pedis in a separate room. When it was time for the cake, all parents saw the kids for a nanosecond to watch the candles get blown out, thereafter we were escorted into a private room for hors d’oerves and champagne while the kids stuffed their faces with chicken nuggets and fries. My kind of birthday party.
I think that there are several reasons for this craziness. First, there is the Expat Guilt. Grandma usually doesn’t show up for the birthday parties, and your fun cousins don’t come into town for festivities, so you divert attention to other things. I will say that my Mom and Dad managed to attend both of the DB’s first birthday parties. I won’t exactly admit to guilt tactics to get them to DB 2’s first birthday party in West Africa.
Second, you can generally throw a party for much less cash and fuss than you can back home. I had a ride-on train at the Embassy playground with tents, tables and chairs, customized batik birthday tablecloths and food galore for DB 2’s third birthday for less than the cost of renting a park pavilion and ordering a cake in Northern Virginia for his fourth.
Finally, expat mommies tend to be the trailing spouse, and let’s face it – mommies are in charge of the birthday parties. A lot of us are type-A, educated, women who stay at home, and would be bored off our kiester if we didn’t have something to channel our energies into. Like a party. No, like an over-the-top-only-in-your-wildest-dreams-party. Over the years, I have honed my party skills the way a U.S. attorney hones her opening statements, a computer programmer hones her code skills, or the way a 7th grade teacher hones her sarcastic and witty comments to move discussion back to Shakespeare.
When DB2 told me he wanted a pirate party for his 7th birthday, I thought I was in the clear – DB1 had a pirate party for his 6th birthday, so I figured this was autopilot. What I didn’t count on was the Second Child Malaise setting in. You know what that is, right? It’s the condition where your second (or third, or fourth) child doesn’t quite get the attention, detail, and intensity as your first. This is why the baby book for the first is finished and the one for the second has five pages done and you give up finishing it when you realize you didn’t track the dates each of his teeth came in. Or when he took his first steps. Oops.
Early on, I ordered the stuff for the party: ring pops, candy necklaces, pirate tattoos, and foam swords. Designed the cake in my head. Got stuff for the cake. Made a list of kids to invite, food to serve, games to play. And put off all preparations until two days prior, save the invitations, which went out mostly on time.
Two days before the party, I asked my helper, V, to get out the castle pan. Plan was to make a cake of pirate ships attacking a castle on a beach. Kind of like this:
But we couldn’t find that castle pan. I swear it was in my HHE. I know I’ve seen it since we moved in. But one of my helpers has moved it and now we won’t find it until we move out. Or arrive at our next duty station. Even after I told V to scour the house and find it (because she is the one who plays pot and pan hide-and-seek the most often), we couldn’t find it. So back to the Internet to figure out a pirate cake. Finally, I decided on a map cake. So V and I set about baking it. We got one layer baked and decided that we needed a second, so I left V alone to bake it. I am not sure what she did, but the second layer was much thinner than the first and pretty dense and chewy. My money is on her forgetting the baking powder.
Later that night, DiploDad and I made decorations for the top of the cake out of fondant. He was SO thrilled to help.
“Does this skull look OK?”
“Skull teeth are supposed to be squarish looking, not round.”
“It looks FINE.”
After the fondant fun, DD set about making a pirate treasure chest for treat bags and the treasure hunt and I packed up things for the party. Halfway through packing up stuff, I realized a few things were missing.
“Have you seen the foam swords?”
“What foam swords?”
“The ones I ordered off of amazon.com. The ones delivered to the Consulate mail room. Did you bring them back from the office?”
“I never got any.”
“You said you had all the party stuff!!!!”
Panic ensued. Foam swords were part of my Party Plan. After unreasonably snapping at DD for not reading my mind and telling me the foam swords had not arrived in a timely manner (“Seriously?!” – DD), I sat down, fired up the laptop and discovered that I had not actually ordered them. Argh. The next day would involve some birthday runabout I hadn’t planned. I gave up and went to sleep, with visions of swashbucklers dancing in my head.
The next morning, V and I put the cake together. I have never waited that long or cut it that close. The thing about having a helper with you is that they want to do as much as possible, but it’s often beyond their skill set. V is OK at icing, but writing isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and making borders and stars will require some practice. This is probably the time to say again that I miss Gifty, my helper from Accra (who now likely lives in Georgia, dodging INS). After four years tutelage, she could level a cake like a master (and much better than I can), do tip #16 stars until her arm fell off, and ice like a pro. I’ll eventually train V as well, but this morning, I had no time to do that. We finished off the cake on time and it was a masterpiece.
I was also happy that I didn’t do a “cake repeat” for my overlooked DB2.
After a quick de-icinging, I headed over to the local toy store to try and find foam swords. I walked about and found nothing. I asked an employee and was led off to a corner where there was ONE. ONE. After he verified that there were no other foam swords anywhere in the city, I panicked and walked around the store trying to find a substitute. I found some balls that bounce on water (Cannonballs!) and mini Nerf guns. As I handed over my credit card at the register, I was painfully aware that my favors/leaving gifts were going to cost more than everything else otherwise, including cake, food, crafts, and drinks. (I wasn’t wrong. The favors came to $209 and all the food (5 orders chicken nuggets, 3 orders of samosas, 2 orders chili cheese toast, 10 Sprites, 10 Fantas, 10 bottles of water, 8 orders of French fries, 4 fruit plates) was $53.75. Do NOT tell DD the cost of the favors. I lied about it. Yes, yes, I did.)
When D and I arrived to Breach Candy Club where we were holding the party, DD was waiting to help out. We set up the party area, had lunch, got the cake off to a cooler place, and then I set out to pick the kids up from school for the party.
We had a blast. The kids played in the water in the kiddie spray area, had a cannonball battle and ran around trying to find the treasure chest in a treasure hunt. They colored in pirate bandanas. Drank too much soda, ate too many fries, and ignored the fruit. I felt like I’d pulled it off, even if earlier I’d wallowed in Mommy Second Child Guilt.
Finally, the kids all began to go home. I handed out our leaving gifts, which were the Nerf guns.
“Interesting choice,” said one of the parents, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Hey, we’re ‘murican. That’s how we roll.”
Happy Birthday DiploBoy 2.