Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Dear Marjo,

Now that my kids (ages 5 and 7) are in school, birthday parties are getting more complicated. When they were younger they hardly noticed who was there or what we did. But now they care. How many kids do you invite, and who? Do we have a cake and ice cream party at home, or a pizza and game party at Chuck E. Cheese? Small gifts from your friends, or a honking big gift from Mom and Dad? All of that negotiating takes time and patience, but I think my kids are learning a lot from it.

My problem is what happens after all those decisions are made and the invitations go out. That problem is RSVPs. Can I say it again? RSVPs!!! I’m not asking for a handwritten note on formal stationary, or even a phone call. I use an online site to invite people, so all it takes is one click to say yes or no. Just one click! Then if you change your mind, just click again. It’s not that hard.

On my son’s last birthday he wanted to invite school friends to his party. We don’t know the parents very well, so we rounded up their email addresses, sent online invitations, and . . . crickets. So then I emailed each family individually, said (nicely, I hope) that we were just trying to get a head count so we knew how much food to buy. Then most of those people said yes, they’d come. So we reserved the local pizza place, bought a huge cake and goodie bags, decorated chairs with balloons, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally two kids showed up. The pizza was cold and I was so, so irritated, but my son did seem happy and had a great time with those two friends. Thank goodness.

Now my daughter’s birthday is coming up and I’m afraid we’ll have the same problem all over again. She’s older and more socially tuned in, so if this happens again she’ll be devastated. How can I make sure people 1) send an RSVP, and 2) actually do what they say they’re going to do?


Party Pooped


Dear Party Pooped,

Wow. I am so sorry that happened to your son. Almost nothing makes me cry more quickly than my kid being excluded or socially dissed. It doesn’t matter that the other kids are so young. It’s actually worse because it’s the other parents who are acting like juveniles. They should know better! There’s a reason manners are called “common courtesy”–they’re courtesy, and they’re common, or at least they should be.

When my niece turned six, her mother–my sister–had a similar experience. She invited kids from her daughter’s school, received a handful of RSVPs, bought food and balloons and cake for that number of people, then spent the afternoon sitting in an empty kitchen waiting for the doorbell to ring. Not one person showed up. Not one. No mother should have to console her sobbing kid trying to explain why no one came to her birthday party. And no child should have to go to school the next day and stare at the ground, wondering who her friends are.

My sister didn’t know what to do besides call me and the other aunties to show up and sing “Happy Birthday.” We tried to make it festive, but there’s only so much a bunch of grownups can do to save a little girl’s feelings.

As infuriating as it might be, you can’t teach other adults manners or expect them to act like, oh I don’t know, adults. So having a Plan B for your daughter’s party might be your best bet. To pull this off, remember first that it’s about your daughter, not you. (I know–I feel furious just writing that! But your goal needs to be a fun party for your daughter. You can deal with the adults later.)

As if party planning wasn’t hard enough, Plan B always requires a little more thinking ahead. You could do what my sister did the following year for her daughter’s seventh birthday and enlist cousins, her younger brother, maybe even a friend of her brother’s to fill out the guest list and make it a party. Or plan something that will make your child feel special: “It’s even more fun if only a couple of people (or no one) show up because then we can do (something unbelievably amazing).” What would amaze your daughter? A video arcade, a movie theater, or a zoo leaves you the option of doing the activity anyway, no matter how many guests you have.

Finally, you mention in your letter that you sent online invitations, so consider using a website like ECHOage. It pings people who haven’t RSVPd so at least you’ll get an answer out of them. It won’t help with people who RSVP and don’t show up, but it does nag those who are stone cold silent.

I am not as upstanding as my sister, so you could be like me and just LIE. Tell your daughter that all her friends are sick. I know I am a terrible human being, but I am not above sacrificing a teachable moment for my kid’s happy birthday. It’s not about my thoughts or feelings, no matter how right I am. It’s about my kid, and for that for one day a year he should feel special.



Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.

Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.

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wow, I have some mixed feelings relating to birthday parties. I would go with the first idea, enlarge your focus. Cousings, siblings your friends kids, they will show up no matter what. And they will probably be life long companions too (at least would last more than school friends), good luck!
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