Birthdays are not canceled. Parties? Yes. Travel? Definitely. But birthdays are not canceled. I celebrated my son’s second birthday in the last week of March, just days after our state called for everyone to stay home. We had originally planned to travel and celebrate with the rest of my family. That trip had already been canceled, and now it was clear that we would be celebrating without friends around us as well. What I learned that week is that simplicity can be amazingly memorable, a good party theme goes a long way, and with fewer people there is delightfully more birthday cake leftover to enjoy after bedtime.
I don’t know about you but these days my mind feels a bit numb to creative thoughts. Within a week of canceling our flight, I had transitioned my full-time office job to a remote setup, frantically transformed our “guest room” (i.e. where I pile things that need to be organized or put away later) into a home office, and tried to figure out some semblance of routine now that my nearly 2-year-old was no longer in daycare. And his birthday was days away at that point. So I asked myself a few key questions:
- What does my child love? What is one thing that will thrill him and make a memory?
- What do I need to feel like I’m celebrating? What is one thing that will note birthday?
- What do I need to grieve and let go of?
For my son? The answer was firetrucks. Right now he’s really into firetrucks. Identify that thing for your child and let that be your muse.
For me to be able to party? I was serious about the cake. I am not a regular baker and I decided that if nothing else happened, we would have a birthday cake. A cake with two candles. That is what I needed to feel like we “had a birthday” and it was a day marked by something out of the ordinary.
I had to grieve both my Plan A and my Plan B before I could really get ready to enjoy the uniqueness of this year’s birthday. I was sad thinking about my parents who had been planning the family party for my son. And I was really bummed that we wouldn’t even be able to do pizza and cake with our son’s best friend and her family down the street. There were details of those plans that I couldn’t recreate, and had to just let go. Name the things that won’t be … so you are ready to lean into what will be special this year.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Pick a theme that’s accessible (and affordable!) and build on that.
I fell in love with the firetruck idea for my son because I knew he would love a special walk to the fire station to see the fire trucks. We didn’t buy him a ton of presents but the new pajamas and book he received from us. Yup. Firetrucks. Add a toy firetruck on the top of the cake made from a boxed mix and voila: “firetruck birthday.” What can you build on? Something in your neighborhood you can walk to? A favorite toy or book of interest? Pick 1 or 2 other things to tie in (food, game, decoration, present, costume/outfit) and you’ve got yourself a theme to rally around. Trust me, it will be memorable.
- Create opportunities for your kiddo to choose his joy.
All of us moms are weary of reminding our kids of the things they can’t do right now. Can’t go to the park, can’t go to the swimming pool, can’t go to a friend’s house. As much as you can, let your child’s birthday be a day when they can make requests you can say yes to. In our house it was waffles for breakfast. Yes. Play trucks with you for-e-ver? Yes. Hang “dreamers” (streamers) from the ceiling fan and leave it on all day? Yes. A ceiling fan has never been so magical.
- Use technology however it can connect your loved ones – and capture the moment.
We managed to coordinate 3 video calls so both sets of grandparents, an aunt and cousin could sing “Happy Birthday” with us. This meant tearing apart my newly organized “home office” moments before the candles were lit to find my 2012 hand-held digital camera. My phone was in use for a video call and my son was staring at three screens propped up around his cake. And I wanted a photo of this moment.
This moment. Not the Plan A or the Plan B moment. This weird, disjointed, beautiful, moment. The moment when it didn’t matter if our friends and family were down the street or across the country. We were there to celebrate. There was cake, there were 2 candles, and there were people who loved my son and were marking his special moment. Photo or not, I guarantee you that the moment is captured in my mind in a way that I’ll never forget.
Bethany Ramse is a toddler mom, former MOPS Outreach Representative, and Graduate Admissions Counselor for George Fox University in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not rescuing lost trucks from under the couch, or helping people take their first step toward earning a master’s degree in counseling, she’s picking out a favorite teapot and tea to enjoy … and rummaging the pantry for chocolate.