I woke up on Saturday with the image already in my head. It was my daughter’s second birthday, and the first time in my life I would be hosting any sort of actual official party. Enter here: me trying to keep my expectations low. Me telling myself to keep a strong eye out for my control-freak perfectionist side and telling her to STAY THE HELL AWAY today. Me with images of a perfectly casual, laid back, cozy little party. And of course, the cherry on top of a perfect day – a perfect photo to commemorate. Before my toes even touched the floor that morning, I was envisioning the picture I would post to Facebook.
It was going to be me, my husband and my daughter. She would be in her adorable hot pink dress, with perfect pigtails and one of her big, eye crinkling smiles. We would be standing in front of one of two focal points: her perfectly wrapped present pile or the kitchen Frozen wonderland I had created while she was napping.
And I hadn’t peeked outside yet that morning, but I was saying a silent prayer that our brand new tulips had picked my daughter’s birthday to bloom for the first time. I mean, how poetic, right?
Yep, this was going to be quite a day, particularly for photo documentation. A big day for showing the world how lucky we were. A big day for me being perfectly calm, cool, collected, and rewarded with the perfect photo.
Before we begin, let us go back and count how many times I used the word “perfect” in describing what the party would look like.
Perfectionism dies hard. Even my chill, laid-back party had to be “perfectly casual”. Sigh.
Lets fast forward to party time.
First we can have a chat about tulips. Spoiler alert, they did not bloom. Not really even close, actually.
Gia woke up approximately three minutes before her grandparents arrived. She was crabby and still groggy and screaming through being changed into her party dress. Mentioning the word “pigtails” sent her into full-on banshee mode, so that was quickly dropped from the birthday picture imagery. I was dashing around the kitchen back and forth making sure everything was set just right, making sure all the food was out and presented beautifully and preparing myself for all the compliments I envisioned myself receiving on the transformation and yumminess and insight to the perfect birthday snacks. As I hustled around I practiced saying “Please fill up your plates! We have so much food!” Because that seemed like a good, hostess-y thing to say. But more than I cared about the adult’s reactions I cared about my daughter’s. I stood with my camera inside the kitchen to capture Gia’s reaction as she walked into the room for the first time.
The reaction was: oh cool, Frozen stuff. Lets go in the living room. I mean she is two, you guys. I’m not sure what I expected. For her to clasp her little hands to her mouth and gasp, “Oh my gosh! This is amazing mom! How did you do this? While I was napping?? Are you kidding me!? You are some kind of party genius! I am so lucky to have you as a mommy!”
Before this party was to begin, before I could sink into my role of cool, chill hostess, I was going to need to get one thing out of the way first: that perfect picture. I asked my mom to take it. Gia had just received her first tricycle and she was pretty dang excited. It was perfect. My husband and I would just crouch down next to her and boom, perfect smiling, cloud-nine second birthday picture.
We crouched into place and my mom held up the camera. “Smile!” grandparents encouraged from across the room. And she did, a big ‘ol perfect birthday grin. I kept waiting to hear the shutter click or see a flash but nothing was happening. My mom began to panic, looking at the camera in confusion, “Why isn’t it taking the picture?” she asked, a hint of terror in her voice. A hint of “oh hell no, I am not going to be responsible for not getting Ashley’s perfect birthday picture…” I bounced up to help her and that was all it took – the moment was over. Once we had the camera fixed, Gia was hysterical. “NO PICTURE!” she yelled as tears poured down her cheeks, “NO PICTURE!!” My mom looked like she suddenly believed she had ruined all of my birthdays, her granddaughter’s birthdays and other holidays combined at her technological poor luck resulting in losing that split second of false perfection.
We tried to get a picture of the three of us during presents, we tried during eating. I had to have that damn picture so I could relax, you know? Will brought out a cupcake with two candles for her to blow and she was thrilled, until we suggested she stand in between us for a photo op. Until we started singing “happy birthday” and she screamed ‘NOOOOOOOO! NO SINGING!!! NOOOOO SIIIINNNNGGGGIIIIINNNNGGGGG’ and shot us all death glares. And we lit those damn candles four times so she could blow them out so we could try and get that FUCKING PICTURE I NEEDED TO HAVE.
Spoiler alert: tulips and toddlers don’t give a single solitary fuck what you had planned for Facebook today.
That photo was going to show that all my work was not in vain. It was going to provide me a flood of feel-good memories when I looked back on it in 18 years. It was going to be one of only a tiny handful of pictures of the three of us together not taken in selfie mode. It was going to be a picture I was actually in for once. It was going to provide me the opportunity to freeze just one of those genuinely happy moments forever in a little square box that I could come back to over and over when things aren’t so amazing.
My daughter’s party wasn’t amazing. It was a toddler party. I don’t have a lot of experience in this area but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that everything doesn’t always go as planned in these situations. I’m going to go out on a limb here again and guess not many people leave a toddler birthday party going, “Now THAT was a PARTY!” or “I can’t wait to do that again!” Or maybe I’m just giving you a little window into my own feelings regarding children’s birthday parties.
I tried hard and did my very best. It’s a little silly and a little heartbreaking. A little ridiculous I expected it to be so perfect (it’s a freaking toddler birthday, for CRYING OUT LOUD), and a little sad that I felt like in some way I failed. I wanted tulips and toothy grins and magic pictures of faces lit up by candles and one of my perfectly imperfect little family with love in our eyes. Instead I got a toddler, who was being a completely normal, healthy toddler. Instead I got a room full of family that was a little cramped, a kitchen full of decorations that lasted two hours.
After 30,000 pictures, I finally decided on this one to post on Facebook:
It’s pretty perfect, right? I caught a split second of pure joy on her birthday. I felt a little like a fraud posting it. It certainly wasn’t representative of the entire party. But her little face is lit up and she is having some serious joy. Maybe in toddler time those five minutes of sheer joy felt like hours.
As I was scrolling past all the other pictures from that day, I ran across one my husband accidentally took (see below). I didn’t know a camera was catching this moment, but I can tell you when I look at it, I look legitimately happy, showing my daughter all the work I put in to her little birthday party. Maybe in parent of a toddler time, that split second is enough to fill my heart with all those good feels. Kind of like parenting in general. You think before you really get into it, yeah, this will probably be a lot of work. But a lot of fun, too, right? Except when you actually get into it you are like “wait a second, I thought this much pastrami would be enough but its not even CLOSE to enough” [insert any parenting metaphor in the place of pastrami].
I don’t know what I will remember about this party 20 years from now. Maybe I will laugh about it, about how determined I was to get this mythical perfect picture. Maybe I will cry because I will wish I could go back to this moment, where we are surrounded by such love and blessings. Maybe I will cry because I wish I would have been more in the moment and less concerned about photographic proof of it. Maybe I will turn to these pictures in a book years down the road and feel like my heart is going to burst because I will see how far we have come from this day.
The tulips will bloom and the babies will grow. And maybe moments are always a little sweeter with time.