Entering the children's birthday arms race with fear, anxiety and extreme jealousy

For my 13th birthday, 10 or so of my friends met me at a restaurant, where we gorged on sundaes at our own table, no parents allowed. We were all sugared up for the sleepover back at my house, but there was one problem: There were too many of us to fit in my parents' cars.

So my parents suggested we walk. Even though we were only a mile away, you would have thought we were being asked to walk home on hot coals. When we told the story later, it was always raining the whole way.

As a child, my birthday parties were always duds, to the point where all I remember about most of them is the increasing anxiety I felt as the date approached. It usually was just another opportunity to underwhelm my friends. There is no one more judgmental than a tween girl.

I recently asked my mom about the parties of my youth. Her recollection, perhaps not surprisingly, was a little different from mine. My mom remembers giving me the “freedom” to plan whatever party I wanted as a child. This is similar to how I also had the “freedom” to pack whatever I wanted for lunch, because neither parent ever did it for me.

My parents will happily cop to being aged hippies who made their own yogurt, recycled before it was cool and rarely did anything for me and my brother that we could do ourselves. We washed and dried the dishes every night for a decade because our dishwasher was broken. It wasn't until years later that I realized my parents could have had it fixed but chose not to so we'd be forced to interact and help out. Dishpan hands build character.

When my younger brother said he wanted to have a parade for his fourth birthday, my mom lined up stuffed animals and let him tromp around the house with a drum—vision, realized. But what works for a 4-year-old with no standards didn't work for me in later years. I needed inspiration, or guidance, something—anything—to kick-start my inner party planner. I wanted memories made for me.

The Birthday Industrial Complex

Now, with my daughter turning 4 in March, I have the opportunity to continue the family tradition and disappoint her for her birthday.

In years past we've been able to get away with family-only parties and a balloon or two, secure in the knowledge that she wouldn't remember feeling let down. But she'll be old enough to hold things against me for life any day now, so it's time to start making plans to outdo her friends—because isn't that what children's birthdays are all about anyway?

Parents now have party options that mine never had, as my mom will say if she's feeling defensive on the subject—never mind that she never would have shelled out a dime at Party City had one existed then.

But these days, I have dozens of choices among businesses that will do anything from making invitations to preparing party favors and creating themed activities. Each venue has party “hosts”—invariably some poor teenager who will go through the motions in a shell-shocked state of forced exuberance—creating the bona fide Birthday Experience I always wanted, if only I'd known about it.

You've got to spend money to make these all-inclusive memories, but these parties were made for parents like me. My default state as a parent is overwhelmed inadequacy. I am the mom who forgets Pajama Day at school or the critical back-up diaper on a walk in the park. My kid is the one with no Valentine's Day cards to pass out to her classmates. I once joined a mom's group, paid the dues and never showed up.

On a day-to-day basis, I genuinely feel as if all the other parents have a playbook someone forgot to give me. I'm a loving mother; I'm just not organized. But I take solace in the thought that these birthday factories are in business because there must be a whole bunch of parents out there just like me.

My daughter has been fortunate to be invited to several parties for friends at daycare, so the bar has been set. Homemade cake from Grandma (my mother-in-law, not my mother—don't be ridiculous) just isn't going to cut it anymore.

The first time my daughter was invited to a 3-year-old's birthday party more than a year ago, she'd only been in daycare a few months. I didn't recognize the name on the invitation, but my daughter said the girl was nice, so we went. (The invites always show up in the cubbies at school, because none of us parents know each other's names, much less addresses.)

It was right around Halloween, at a pumpkin patch farm with a barn maze and corn kernel pit and general outdoor pandemonium. My inner child was full of envy. My outer child was full of cake.

That same girl had her party this year at The Glass Slipper in Powell, which is a children's tea party house, down to the china cups (for pink lemonade) and full closet of dress-up. The 3- and 4-year-old girls all let loose their inner princesses, as long as we deem screaming, bouncing up and down and shoveling cake to be princess-like. The lone boy was a trooper—and by that I mean he brought his Storm Trooper toy. It was delightful.

We recently attended a party at Buckeye Gymnastics, which did not, thankfully, put the kids through routines on the pommel horse and uneven bars, but instead unleashed them in a foam pit, bounce house and on a trampoline, each activity more fun than the last. The birthday girl's mom debated whether to open presents after cake, then decided to get her money's worth and sent the kids to play some more, the only sane choice when trying to drain a 3- or 4-year-old of all possible cake energy before bedtime.

The tradition of oohing over gifts works much better at bridal and baby showers than at little kids' parties, when there's always the chance the guest of honor will have an unfiltered reaction to a present while the other kids struggle to understand why they don't get to open anything. We went to one party where pack mentality kicked in and the guests descended on the presents like wild animals, “helping” to rip them open in a feral display of toddler gift lust. Taking the haul home to judge in private is safer for all involved.

Rocky Horror Birthday Show

If I need incentive to pony up and leave making memories to the professionals, I need only remember my 16th birthday. It was the one year my parents actually had a suggestion: They took me and my friends to an interactive midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The only warning they gave us was to bring toast to throw. In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.

At the beginning of the movie, the performers asked who had never been to “Rocky Horror”before and my parents urged me to raise my hand. And that is how I ended up on a stage in a theater full of strangers and my parents and friends, getting ridiculed for being a “virgin,” the single most embarrassing word to apply to a 16-year-old in front of a crowd.

Sweet 16, it was not.

My annual birthday disappointment was heightened by the fact that my best friend Katy's August birthdays were legendary. Each year, from about the age of 6 until we were too embarrassed to put on bathing suits, Katy's mom organized an outdoor shaving cream fight. It was epic (and, one year, menthol, when her mom bought the wrong Barbasol). It ranged around the neighborhood and into the night.

The first step was to doctor the cans by melting the tip around a needle to create a narrow stream that would shoot five or six feet. There was an eye-washing station to clear up foamy battlefield injuries and piles of towels waiting for when the last can was spent. We chased each other around blocks, siblings got involved, there was an unofficial contest for fashion foam sculpting (shaving cream boobs!), and we talked about it for months after. It's no wonder my birthdays sucked in comparison.

I cannot wait until my kids are old enough to steal this tradition.

And So It Begins

My parents come to town each year from Portland, Oregon, for my daughter's birthday, wanting to enjoy the festivities—because, after all, letting someone else do the planning is their M.O. My daughter's birthday is six days before mine, which is convenient for my parents, but probably not for her. Like mine, her birthday will often fall during spring break, so she will miss out on in-class celebrations and getting to bring cupcakes to share (I can only imagine what my mom would have let me make on my own—people might have gotten hurt).

My son's birthday is 12 days after mine—18 days after his sister's. As a family, we are in for a lifetime of logistical nightmares, trying to avoid scheduling them together to rob either one. Now, instead of worrying about creating my own memories, my feelings of parental inadequacy will bloom fresh each spring as I stress about creating magical—and distinct—birthday memories for each of my kids. (But not this year; the boy's still too young to care.)

I want to raise independent, creative children who can make their own magic, but they won't have to make their own invitations. We already booked a bounce house.