Why the First Birthday Party Matters

The first birthday party is not about the baby, really. It's about the two people – and the family that surrounds those people – that helped the baby grow happy and healthy.

Earlier this month, my daughter Genevieve celebrated her first birthday. We rented out the back room of the bar we frequent, invited about 25 people, and had a small but fun party. She “opened” presents and “ate” her first sugary cake wearing nothing but a diaper. Being one year old is something else.

Now, I always felt that the first birthday party was unusually dumb. The baby has no idea why everyone is congregating for this party because of course it doesn’t: the baby has no concept of parties or birthdays, let alone time. Sure, the baby knows the people assembled, and she can discern that there is something unusual happening. But you can’t tell me a one-year-old child understands that this collection of people gathered to celebrate her.

Well, that’s partly true. The first birthday celebration isn’t really for the baby.

Rewind 15 hours before the big event. My wife and I put Genevieve to bed and groaned at the messy house in front of us; it had to be spotless in advance of my in-laws’ arrival that next morning. But before any scrubbing, we popped open one of the stashed bottles of beer from our collection and drank. Sure, drinking beer is standard for us, but this was a stash bottle. This was an occasion, and the occasion was that in one year, we didn’t screw it up. We made it.

A lot of things happened along the way. My wife and I fought a bunch. We dealt with our budget more than a million times. We had to pull out of one daycare situation and find another on the fly. We grew frustrated and antsy and needed a break. But we did it. Our baby was happy, healthy, and soaring through all of her checkpoints like we’d been playing Mario Kart for years. Some of that is luck, some of that is experience and the fact that I didn’t have a child in my 20s (no way was I ready), and some of that is just being thoughtful and measured. But anything can happen at any time to anyone, and in one year nothing major happened. In fact, it was a great year. We made it. So we poured ourselves a drink.

The next morning, the in-laws showed and showered Genevieve with kisses and gifts. Our friends all came out and gave their own gifts, posed for pictures, and expressed excitement about Genevieve’s nutty character — her walking, her talking, her joking and grinning, all of it. But while she got all the toys and ate the cake, we got a lot of hugs, smiles, encouragement, and praise. It made us realize that the couple dozen people assembled at the party were instrumental in helping us make it through the year and keeping Genevieve happy and healthy.

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That’s what was so remarkable about this party. Traditional family members don’t live near us, so, especially in those crazy first three months, it became easy to shelter ourselves in our cocoons and grow paranoid over every crying outburst or bottle rejection. Our friends didn’t allow that to happen. They visited us and provided a break from the worries. They listened to our frustrations and, when asked, provided advice or assurance. In their own ways, they became parents, building an umbrella over our heads that kept us safe and dry when times grew uncertain. And while they lived far away, our traditional family members visited when they could, helped us through tougher times and rejoiced in our successes.

There’s a cliche: When a couple becomes parents, they stop hanging out with their friends. But I found that some of the people closest to us grew even closer during this first year. We saw some of our friends more than ever. Friends who had babies at the same time became support group friends; we’d toss around our experiences, and while many were unique, we’d learn that none of us was doing anything alone. Friends without children actually became more involved in our lives, as if our struggles and successes were their own. It made us feel ever more loved.

When the party ended the in-laws took Genevieve home, and our friends left, one by one. It was around this time that my wife began crying and deliriously thanking everyone. Until I met my wife I never realized how important it was to tell people you love them, but now it’s expected, and I’m glad for that reality. She reminded our friends of the crucial role they play in our lives, then as we left, we accepted a complimentary shot from the bartenders. That’s when I told the bartenders how important they were to me (and, trust me, they are).

That’s when I realized why the first birthday party matters. It’s not about the baby, really. It’s about the two people – and the family that surrounds those people – that helped the baby grow happy and healthy.

This article was syndicated from Medium.