Sweat trickles down my back as I nod and force my dry lips to peel back from my teeth in some semblance of a smile. She’s talking. I’m not really listening, but I’m nodding, smiling, maintaining eye contact, and complimenting her in all the right places, as if I were trying to pick her up at the local lesbian bar.
She’s the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. It’s my daughter’s sixth birthday party, and I’m making small talk with a couple of moms. We’re standing along the periphery of one of those Chuck E. Cheese-type joints that charge a million dollars to throw your kid a birthday party in one of their “special” rooms. Not only am I hosting a party and dealing with all the nonsense that comes along with coordinating activities, food, cake, ice cream, and presents, but I am also faced with many of the parents who have chosen to remain at the party instead of just dropping off their six-year-olds for the allotted two-hour party time, despite the fact that I expressly wrote “feel free to drop off your kids!!” on the invitation—double exclamation points included.
Attention please, parents of kids attending birthday parties! Why you gotta torture party hosts with your presence? As if throwing a party for a bunch of unruly six-year-olds isn’t bad enough, you’ve got to loiter, forcing already stressed-out parents to engage you in sporadic small talk in addition to regulating party shenanigans? When I was a kid, you dropped your kid off for a 14-hour sleepover and were glad to do it, so WHY ARE YOU TORMENTING ME WITH YOUR PRESENCE FOR THIS TWO-HOUR PIZZA PARTY?
Being a parent is hell on introverts. When you’re single, you can hole up in your house with a bag of Doritos and a bottle of red wine (everyone knows red wine goes better with Doritos) and bliss out to whatever Netflix series is your current jam. Then you get married, and if you marry right, you can do the same thing with a partner. Sure, you have to venture out for occasional mandatory work-party hullabaloo, and there are the obligatory holidays with extended family, but those are few and far between.
Then you two crazy kids cave to society and peer or religious pressure and ruin everything by procreating. You fool! You were eating Doritos for dinner and watching seven episodes of Breaking Bad at a clip! Now you’re lucky if you get through 10 minutes before either falling asleep or being interrupted, depending on whether you’re dealing with a newborn or a toddler.
Kids ruin everything: now your Netflix routine is wrecked, and you are having to get together with other parents for supervised playdates, playground get-togethers, and, eventually, school functions—all inevitably accompanied by small talk. All that forced interaction in the name of good parenting creates a constant low-grade panic that ratchets up when the bane of all parent-introverts rears its ugly head: the birthday party.
Your child’s birthday party is at the top of this horror, followed closely by invitations to the birthday parties of other children…
…because no one drops off their kids anymore and revels in the freedom.
The children’s party has become a full-on family affair.
When I was a kid, parents dumped their kids at your house, leaving burnt rubber in the driveway in their excitement over a few hours of kidless freedom. Now, nobody knows what to do. Do you just drop off your kids, or do you stay and hover awkwardly around the party perimeter? Will the parents of the kids I invite to my daughter’s party know to just drop off their kids? Do they think I’m not capable of manning the battleship for two hours? Or, much like not leaving a soldier behind during war, are they taking pity and not wanting to subject me to the horror of dealing with ten six-year-olds for two hours? And what about when they tell me to leave my kid? Do they really want me to, or are they just saying that? I need to know! Am I required to plan food and drinks for parents too?
My daughter’s sixth birthday party was as intense as any adult party I’ve ever attended where I felt awkward. Not only did I have to endure hours of forced small talk, but I also had to socialize with people who weren’t my friends or even friends of friends—just parents of kids in my child’s classroom. So when Johnny’s dad blasted to the playland at large that “we keep letting these illegal aliens into the country and he’ll be gladly taking his AK-47 to the border and guard the fence himself,” I faced the monumental-seeming decision of deflecting and changing the subject or risking an epic scene on my kid’s special day.
Meanwhile, I machine-gunned compliments in every direction, as I tend to do when nervous. “You’re Elizabeth’s mom? Elizabeth. IS. ADORABLE. Violet talks about her all the time. I LOVE your earrings.” After I exhausted all possible compliments, I launched into borderline-inappropriate sharing. It’s my special way of avoiding lulls in the conversation. I’d rather share the fact that I’m battling an epic yeast infection in a misguided attempt to bond with you than experience an awkward pause in the conversation. Because I’m so acutely aware of the awkwardness I’m desperately trying to hide, I can never be certain if folks are startled by my forced effervescence and the eventual inappropriate sharing or if the subterfuge is working and they think I am charming.
I go into conversation overdrive when I’m at my most uncomfortable because I need to make sure you’re having a nice time. Sometimes when I’m talking I’m so hyper-aware of the mechanics of maintaining the conversation that I completely detach and begin to watch and comment on my behavior as if I’m watching myself in a reality show. I float above my own body and wonder, what the hell is the poor person down there saying? Then I’m back in my body and words are flowing like Niagara, and I have no idea what I’m babbling about. Am I even making sense? I just don’t know. The person I’m talking to is smiling and nodding like I’m making sense, but everyone knows smiling and nodding are hallmarks of small talk. And all the smiling and nodding required for small talk is enough to kill even the strongest among us.
After the party, my kid passed out in the back seat, drool trickling from her sweet face, and I felt much the same way. Exhausted. In a post-small-talk daze, after stress-eating four pieces of greasy leftover pizza in the span of five minutes because my body was shutting down after being ON for two straight hours, I took to bed with a bottle of wine. I didn’t move until the next morning when I felt sufficiently recovered to face the world—and the possibility of a kindergarten backpack bearing someone else’s party invite…again.
This summer we found ourselves hosting a teenage party for our 18-year-old son. We had vaguely promised Ben a birthday party at some misty, indeterminate time in the future and for years we had had an endless series of good reasons for postponement: Wait till your GCSEs are over. Wait till we’ve moved house. Wait till the weather is better.
But this summer his GCSEs were over and so were his AS levels and A levels. We had renovated our house and moved back in. The weather was glorious, and the forecasts were good. We had run out of excuses.
Ben got the bit between his teeth. He and a friend started making playlists and rigging up lighting in the garage. He made a party invitation page on Facebook, “date still undecided”. Every day he was on to us. “How about Friday the 8th? The 9th? No? Then the 15th? The 16th. Hey, the summer will be over soon! You promised …”
Eventually we caved in. How could we say no? Ben hadn’t had a party since he was nine. And he was a boy who had had difficulty in the past making friends – though now, of course, everybody was his friend.
“You must be mad,” said my sister. “You’ve done up your house. Now you’re having a party so his friends can trash it.”
In my mind were other, even more hellish scenarios: teams of aggressive gatecrashers, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, fights in the garden (we back on to a sheltered housing complex for senior citizens). Most of all I feared the drinking – today’s teenagers binge on vodka like Russians. I didn’t want a corpse on my hands.
So what did we do? My husband Lewis and I gritted our teeth. Ben’s party was something we were just going to have to get through, like childbirth or a Victorian illness. And if we were going to survive, we needed to take a tactical approach. We prepared a battle plan and ordered supplies, then we tied ourselves to the mast and entered the high seas.
In the event, we survived. The party was a roaring success. The neighbours shut their windows and claim to have slept through all of it (except one long wolf howl at 2am). Nobody ended up in A&E, though I did spend a worrying half hour trying to rouse an unconscious boy in the bathroom. And there was only minor damage to the garden – plants trodden on and a plum tree annoyingly stripped of unripe plums.
We emerged older and wiser, and probably greyer. Here is my survival guide to teenage parties. Obviously if your child plays the cello and likes to curl up with the Iliad then it may not be much use. But if you are the owner of a run of the mill feckless teenager, this is what you need to know:
This sounds blindingly obvious, but you would be amazed by how many parents let their teenagers have parties in their absence.
It’s a mistake. Teenagers don’t go to parties just to drink, talk and dance and pick up new partners. Of course they do all of that – and to excess. But a party is also an opportunity to experiment, a quest for new experiences, a license to do everything they have never dared to attempt at home.
They are brimming with energy, curiosity and untapped athleticism. So they will hang off your scaffolding and have sword fights with your curtain poles and slide head first down your banisters. Their Gollum-like little fingers will be everywhere, stealing pills in the bathroom, tipping out spice jars, melting plastic spoons over your cooker and rifling your search engines for pornography.
Don’t think of your teenager as a mini adult. Think lab rat on Ritalin.
In fact, you should be at home all the time. If you leave your teenagers alone for a weekend, they will take it as tacit consent to hold a Facebook party. About six months ago, when we were still living in a rented house, we went to Wales leaving Ben and his younger brother Matt alone for two nights. They were 18 and 16 – we thought old enough to look after each other. I worried that Matt might be lonely. I kept calling on the Saturday to see that he was OK. I got no answer.
I returned on Sunday evening. The house was bizarrely tidy. There were some new scuff marks on the staircase and the kitchen floor felt sticky under foot – it was sticky, of course, from spilled chasers.
Matt, hang-dog expression, love bite the size of Iceland on his neck, said “Uuh, A few people came round.”
“About 35. And my phone has gone.”
You will always know
I doubt any teenager can hold a sneaky party without you finding out. They’ll always leave something. Matt had forgotten an empty bottle of Malibu under the sofa. And someone had slept in my bed and left lemon drops stuck to the sheets.
Even highly housetrained teenagers will miss something. A friend of a friend came back from a weekend away. Her house was suspiciously tidy. She looked everywhere, but still couldn’t fault her teenage daughter. She just knew there had been a party.
In the evening the woman turned on her electric blanket. Later when she went to bed, she peeled back the duvet to find a pool of vomit steaming gently in the heat.
Don’t host it alone
You cannot single handedly patrol and host a teenage party. Have at least one other adult present. If there is an emergency – eg, you need to take a child to hospital – you will need a spare guard.
If your child is going to have a party page on Facebook insist that the privacy setting is on Invite Only. Do not allow them to click Open Invitation or Public – that is how you end up with 2,000 people on your doorstep. Also prohibit the Guests and Friends setting which means that the guests are at liberty to send on the invitation to their own friends. That is how you get 500 on your doorstep.
Even with Invite Only you still have to pray the invitation doesn’t go viral.
Another no-brainer. Guest lists are like builders’ estimates, so allow for a 50 to 100% increase on any limit that you set. I said 35 max. After special pleading, Lewis agreed to 50. Somewhere between 85 and 90 came.
Insist on plenty of girls
Mostly girls are a civilising influence, as well as less foul-mouthed. But they will also be the ones bringing in most of the spirits, and their heels can do savage damage. Girls also tend to come underdressed – I handed out lots of blankets.
One advantage is that girls can be quite tender-hearted towards the drunks. In the end it was a ravishing girl who coaxed the boy in the bathroom back to consciousness.
Safety and security
If you are supplying beer and cider (as we did) keep them within sight, otherwise the drink may be stolen and taken on to another party.
Put out ashtrays, bins for the cans, bowls for the vomit. Avoid glass and provide paper plates and plastic cups. If you have a cellar, lock it. Ditto filing cabinets, attic hatches, manhole covers etcetera.
Try to remember what you were like at 17. Lewis, having once upon a time been an eager placer of traffic cones on statues, had a good eye for dangerous, fun things they could do. He insisted we moved piles of building rubble from the back of the house and we picked up stray nails and any sharp bits of metal that they might lurch into. We lit slippery steps with plastic LED fake rocks (three for £10 from B&Q).
Keep party-goers out of your house
Ideally hire a village hall or community centre. That way you won’t have to spend the evening patrolling bedrooms and then fork out to have the carpets steam-cleaned. Also, the party will end at a more defined, determined time that you can claim is outside your control.
Regrettably we didn’t do this. We held Ben’s party at home – we have a big garden and a garage and, in addition, a friend lent us a marquee. But we had to let the guests in to use the downstairs toilet – and that was our undoing. We tried to barricade the rest of the house – we even put up No Entry signs. But the downstairs loo queue grew enormous and it seemed ungracious not to let kids I’ve known since they were at primary school into my kitchen. And once you’ve let one in, they all come.
Now I know better. If you want to keep them outside, get a Portaloo. Better still, two Portaloos. There also has to be somewhere – a tent? Garage? – where the girls can leave their bags. The bags contain their personal supplies of spirits and possibly a pair of shoes that they can walk in. If you let their bags into the house, you’ll have them traipsing back and forth all night.
Feed them. It is much harder to get dangerously drunk or high on a full stomach. I recommend the bulk baking of cheese and tomato pizzas that you cut up very quickly with a roller and take out on trays. This gives you an excuse for patrolling the darker recesses of your party (in our case, the bottom of the garden).
Also, giving food to the guests makes them more beholden to you. You are no longer a faceless, hostile parent and they may be slightly less inclined to damage your property.
I think pizzas are the best option. We also bought several kilos of bratwurst and fried them and stuffed them into rolls. This was less successful. You can only fry a score of sizzling bratwurst before your hand is brown as a kipper and the smell has penetrated every hair follicle. Also the teenagers start requesting ketchup and mustard; both are very staining.
Avoid food with projectile possibilities. I stupidly put out a big bowl of tangerines. One was thrown into the toilet and caused a blockage. A month on I’m still finding flattened tangerines in the garden.
Consider a mixologist
Friends hired a mixologist for their son’s 18th birthday. He was German and very glamorous. He made showy cocktails with a shaker and added paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries, salt rims, slivers of lime etcetera. The teenagers loved it all. As they got drunker, the mixologist gradually reduced the alcohol content in their drinks. Conclusion: pricey but worth it.
Expect some of the damage to be quite unexpected. I was baffled as to why the lower leaves of a rhododendron had been pulled off and carefully piled up to make a little tower. And one guest had unpicked the side seam of one of the sitting room curtains. What was that about?
The morning after
You want the guests to go away feeling good about the party so provide a vast fried breakfast and industrial quantities of cheap croissants. To the hungover, distribute coffee, sugary tea, Alka Seltzer, sympathy.
Set up a table for lost belongings. Ease the party-goers out of your house by providing lifts. By teatime you should have emptied the house.
Now you will be on your knees. Have a hot bath and retire to bed.
In two days’ time you will once again feel human. And your teenager will be asking when they can have their next party.
Anna Selleck is a pseudonym