THE WASHINGTON POST – On the day of my daughter’s first birthday party, my husband and I hung up streamers and draped a mermaid-inspired banner with a glittery “one” across her high chair.
I placed the sea creature-themed cake by the wrapped presents and dressed my daughter in a pink frock.
Everything was going according to the plan I had drawn up months earlier, except at 1pm, the doorbell wouldn’t ring and guests wouldn’t pour into my house. Instead, I made sure to set the laptop on the dining room table and to email a Zoom link to friends and family so they could sing happy birthday virtually.
Despite the fact that there’s a pandemic, I’m a firm believer that birthday celebrations still matter.
Experts agree. Birthdays and other milestones allow children to feel connected to their community, they say. At a time when communities aren’t able to physically come together, it’s especially important to remind children they still have a network that cares for them.
“Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” said Graziella Simonetti, a parenting coach on Long Island. “Even though this gathering is happening remotely, it helps everyone feel like they’re in it together. We’re together, even if we’re not together.”
It’s why some families are organising social distance-friendly “walk-by” parades for young ones, in which a limited number of participants march in front of the birthday celebrant’s house with signs. Or they decorate cars and drive by the house. In doing so, the birthday child is reminded they’re part of a community, and so are the other children and adults who are participating.
Celebrations also give families a chance to break up the monotony of quarantine life. Aside from my phone’s pings of the latest covid-19 news, the quarantined days blur together – it could be a Tuesday, it could be a Saturday, who’s to say?
“Celebrating is injecting something joyful into a time that is tough,” Simonetti said. “We’re so inundated with negative news, a birthday is something positive to celebrate.” The coronavirus is causing unprecedented devastation, and it’s okay to cherish a moment of brightness.
It probably would have been easier to cancel my daughter’s birthday celebrations, and friends even asked whether I was going to reschedule, but I relished the opportunity to dress up and create a festive atmosphere. And I wasn’t going to miss watching my daughter smear frosting on her face (an important rite of passage).
My daughter won’t remember her pandemic birthday party, and she doesn’t know what a pandemic is, but the experts I spoke with agree older children celebrating a birthday will probably be disappointed their plans have changed, on top of the sadness they may be experiencing from missing school and friends. This is all the more reason to make the day special, while also explaining to them that loved ones are staying home to stay safe and healthy.
How you create a pandemic-friendly celebration depends on your child. Some children may want the hullabaloo of a walk-by parade, while others would hate the attention and would rather just FaceTime with family. It’s important to have conversations with them and to help manage their expectations. Florida-based child psychologist Roseanne Lesack suggests laying out parameters and being forthcoming: “In their mind they probably already made plans. These plans may not be compatible with what reality may be.”
Parents are encouraged to manage their own expectations, as well. They’re under enough stress – from economic hardships, jobs that take them out of the house or adjusting to working from home while also home-schooling – and need to give themselves grace.
To parents struggling with birthday-related guilt, Lesack advised, “Be thankful that your child reached this milestone, be thankful that you’re able to be there to reach this milestone with your child. . . . In your own mind reframe those important things in life right now. And then think about what can be done in a few months or virtually that can help that parent also be proud of that milestone that was met.”
I didn’t host the birthday soiree I hoped for, but it was still a joyful occasion. The room fell silent after the Zoom call ended, but my heart was full. I know that for years to come we’ll be telling my daughter about the time she turned one during a pandemic and how we made the most of it.
Here are some ideas to help create a memorable birthday celebration while staying at home:
ORGANISE A VIRTUAL PARTY
There are several free ways to throw a virtual party using video conferencing services such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. Lesack suggests gathering a few friends at a time to keep it from being overwhelming, and then each guest can share a poem or memory about the birthday celebrant.
Some families have asked guests to wear costumes made with items from around the house. You may also consider dropping off a cupcake to nearby friends’ doorsteps to be enjoyed during the virtual party. There are also services available for hire. For instance, DC-based petting zoo company Squeals on Wheels offers age-appropriate virtual birthday parties with their animals, including bunnies, chickens and goats.
For USD65, the celebrant gets a 30-minute virtual session that might include accompanying worksheets, “feeding” the animals and singalongs. Other ideas include at-home painting parties, music classes, or even hiring Princess Anna from Frozen to FaceTime your child.
DO SOMETHING SPECIAL AT HOME
The best gift you can give a child is your presence, so talk to them about how they want to spend the day. Cook their favourite dishes with them (cake decorating and build-your-own pizzas are always winners) or go camping in the backyard (or the living room depending on the weather). You can also do some over-the-top decorations while they’re sleeping so they have something special to wake up to (for example, fill the room with balloons). You can also add some structure to the day by creating an at-home scavenger hunt – there are plenty of examples on Pinterest. An at-home field day complete with pillowcase races and water balloon fights is also fun and budget-friendly. Or consider a spa day with manicures, pedicures and face masks.
STAY CONNECTED TO YOUR COMMUNITY
Ahead of your child’s birthday, schedule times for family and friends to call or video chat throughout the day. Keep the call times short (five to 10 minutes). Staggering them ensures the child doesn’t get overwhelmed and gives them something to look forward to throughout the day.
Family members can also record videos of themselves sharing a message with the celebrant. In addition to drive-by parades, parents may be able to ask the fire department to come by and wish the child a happy birthday. It’s usually as simple as calling or emailing the fire department. If your child loves the excitement of firetrucks, sirens and everything, then this will be a thrill. Also, don’t underestimate the power of an old-school greeting card. Getting a bunch of mail on your birthday, Lesack said, “could be really fun and also just really thoughtful.”