You know you're a mother when even a birthday party comes wrapped in guilt.
Big E's first real party, when she turned 3, was a direct result of my guilt about the baby that was about to shatter her attention-soaked little world. She had some friends over to do craft projects, eat pizza, ransack our home and force their hovering parent to make awkward introductions and small talk. This was nice and all, but it couldn't quite offset having to share a bedroom, so she we threw her another party with the family. Then we sent her to school with cupakes. Then we had a smaller, more intimate party for the three of us. And I still felt guilty.
By the time her fourth birthday rolled around, I realized that all that baby guilt was unnecessary. Big E had taken easily to big sisterhood and was proud to have Little E at her party, held in the gymnastics center at the local Y. Kids bounced on the trampoline, parents walked the balance beam, and I very nearly escaped any feelings of guilt. I would have called the whole thing a success had it not been for the one little boy who clung to his mother's leg and covered his ears at every loud noise. I felt bad for the boy, but, having been there myself at many a party, I felt worse for his mother. And so I fretted for days about whether I'd appropriately communicated my sympathy.
The year she turned five was rough. Her closest friends had left daycare for kindergarten, but, because of her December birthday, Big E was still there and not too happy about it. Determined to make sure that she had high attendance at her party, I invited all of the girls in her class and all of her old friends to a party at Build-a-Bear, followed by a restaurant lunch. It was great, until, as I led a line of teddy bear-toting little girls through the mall, I remembered that not only were there starving children in Africa, but possibly within spitting distance of the mall. And my daughter was dressed in a tiara and tutu.
Last year's pool party at the Y was fine, and still I woke at 2 a.m. consumed with guilt. Despite spending the rest of my pre-work sleeping time replaying every minute of the party, I couldn't pinpoint the source of my self-reproach. Apparently, at that point it was simply habit.
This year Big E has asked to have her party at home. There will be a craft, pizza and a movie. The only extravagance, assuming I can pull it off, will be the from-scratch cake decorated to look like a puppy. I should feel okay about this year's party; I'm fulfilling her wishes while maintaining a reasonable scale.
My guilt this year comes from doing for one child what I'm not doing for the other. I am not having a full-blown party for Little E. There are various reasons for this, chief among them the fact that I just don't think she would enjoy it. Instead, we'll spend the night at a local hotel with an indoor water park and have a family party, where both sets of grandparents can make awkward small talk and I will again attempt the puppy cake. So as not to deny her the spotlight that I suspect would ruin a party for her, I'm also going to send her to school with goody bags and cake.
I think I'm doing the right thing, and yet I worry that Little E will see it as inequity and that it may breed resentment for her sister, become fodder for a therapy session down the road, or, worse, make her feel less loved. Here's the truth: I love them both to a degree so unmeasureable as to make it impossible to compare my love for one to that for the other, yet I love them as individuals.
And I really hope that I'm right to treat them as the individuals that I know them to be.