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When Did Birthday Parties Start Feeling Like a Competition?

I'm a competitive person by nature, but today I concede to all birthday-party-planning parents. My planning days are over. You're better than me, and I'm okay with that.
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As kids our birthdays were celebrated, but not on any grand scale. My mom usually made a cake, the family sang "Happy Birthday" and I tore the paper off a present or two. Whether it was my birthday or my sister's, it was a happy occasion without any oversized, chaotic gathering of friends. Once in high school, I recall having classmates over to eat cake, but there was no big bash and party favors were not yet part of birthday protocol.

Fast forward to the 2000s. It kicked into gear when our daughter turned four. Until that point, we'd held the annual family party complete with cake, balloons and presents. It all changed when the party invitations from her daycare "friends" started trickling in, eventually turning into an all-out flood. By the time we held her fourth birthday party, I'd sat through a number of celebrations at the homes of daycare parents who were mostly strangers. There were games, party favors, more games, lots of sugar, usually some tears and always a reluctance to leave.

Following the lead of the parties that had come before, I held our daughter's fourth birthday party at our house. It was a princess-themed affair. Her three little friends came dressed in princess wear and played games I'd organized. Of no surprise, the most popular game was Go Fish set up in the garage. The girls each tossed the fishing pole line over the sheet/sea and the fish, aka my husband, hooked prizes onto their lines. If only the simplicity of that party and those games could have lasted.

Instead, the stakes got higher each year, whether it was perceived or real. We attended pony parties, Chuck E Cheese parties, manicure/pedicure parties, bouncy house parties, gymnastics/trampoline parties, craft parties, ice skating parties, movie and ice cream parties, indoor skydiving parties, face painting parties. I could keep listing, but you get the idea.

Annually I felt a growing pressure to please our child and not appear like the lame parent who failed at being thoughtful, creative or duplicative of past party themes. What would I do next? Elephant rides with circus performers and jugglers, snow cones and popcorn, a beanbag toss with silver dollars as prizes, and a cake adorned with a flaming hoop and an edible lion tamer on top.

My memory is one big birthday party overload blur, but I distinctly remember one year hiring a theater company that came to our house and put on a murder mystery party. To make it age appropriate and not mortify any parents, they modified it so the mystery was a disappearance rather than a murder. It was a happy hit, and possibly my one unique, unduplicated party idea.

Fast forward to this year, when our daughter turned 14. I thought big parties were winding down and being replaced with lower-key events, like dinner and a movie with a few friends. But our girl is a social girl, and isn't ready to give up the big gathering. As luck would have it our neighbors own a party bus business and with a single reservation, the party was planned.

Nineteen young teens contained on a bus with lights and music. Sounds stress-free and easy, right? Wrong. To appease and instill confidence in the more protective parents, I trailed the bus through a large city for three hours, stopping at every stop on the pre-planned and approved itinerary, making sure the girls made their way back on the bus. I felt more like a stalker, darting in and out of traffic, searching for parking spaces, lurking around corners, trying not to interfere with their fun.

I'm a competitive person by nature, but here, today I concede to all birthday-party planning parents. My planning days are over. You're better than me, and I'm okay with that. But, if you want to engage in a game of Scrabble, I'm in. Strap down your letters and let the game begin!