Birthday Chicago Parenting Uncategorized

How to organize a birthday party (or two) during a pandemic

April is a busy month in our household. I call the third week of April birthdaypalooza, because my two oldest kids have birthdays two days apart. Birthdays are important for me, since I was little. Back then, they meant staying home from school (yes, I had that kind of mom, the kind I will never be), and having the other kids in the area drop off from the bus at my house, where we would have a merendola, a party with snacks as scrumptious as Nutella sandwiches and potato chips, and a chocolate cake made out of galletas María which was all the rage back then. It was a big deal, because we all lived in tiny villages, so getting together out of school was a rare treat.

So, when I was overdue with my second, and approaching his brother’s birthday, I started to be concerned enough that, when my OB recommended an induction, I eagerly said yes, only after she promised me that she would let me get a voluntary discharge if needed so I could be home for my son’s fourth birthday. This was a big concession on my part, because since I was trying for a VBAC, an induction was the last thing I wanted, as I had emphatically repeated in every page of my birth plan.

Since that first year, when, after getting both my VBAC and my voluntary discharge, we showed up at home on my oldest’s fourth birthday with balloons, cake, presents and a baby brother, and I showed up to Pump it Up two days later (not a good idea), I have made a big deal of their individual birthdays, to compensate both for how close they are, and the fact that normally we have no family nearby to celebrate with.

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That was one of the two occasions when my kids got to have their beloved cousins here for their birthday, and because of that, it is the celebrations they remember the most.

In normal years, in years before the pandemic, the organizing would have started a couple of months prior, calling places like the Menomenee club or the Notebaert Museum to book a space, figuring out the theme, and ordering cakes, invitations and goodie bags. I always make a point of inviting the whole class. One year I only invited a few kids and felt terrible during the whole “party” about the ones I hadn’t invited. It didn’t feel like a party at all.

Our parties are big, boisterous, and probably a bit over the top, but with no grandparents near to spoil the kids, I rather overdo it than fall short.

My first thought when I realized that this year there would be no parties was “Oh, the money I will save…”. The second thought was more on the line of “Crap, how will I make it up so they don’t have sucky birthdays on top of an already sucky few weeks?”.

Like I always do when I am out of ideas, I went to my bullet journal. For some reason a blank page always throws me into action, so I started jotting down what I needed: a cake, presents, donuts, decorations, friends.

As it happens way too often lately, my first instinct was to run to Amazon. But I am proud to say that I was able to obtain most of the above from local, independent vendors, with the exception of an incursion in Nike (but that feels a bit more socially responsible since they hired Colin Kaepernick) and another one at Happy Socks (which honored their name, and made my kids weirdly happy).

Here are some tips on how I did it:

  1. img_8023
    The birthday donut from Firecakes will last at least a couple of days. 

    CAKE: I was able to order one of the cakes from the bakery we use every year, Bittersweet. They are still open for business, and if you call, you can place an order for either delivery or pick up. As a bonus you can order their tiramisu, which is among the best I have tried, only topped by the one made by my friend Anto. The now teenager preferred frozen cake from his favorite ice cream shop, Oberweis, and since he had requested to only celebrate with one friend, on top of his cake we bought a second one and dropped it off, contactless, at his friends’ house so they could eat it “together”. As for donuts, Chicago is quite rich in options for donut connoisseurs, which the men in my house claim to be. But as much as we like Do-Rite and Stan’s, for their birthdays they always want the massive Birthday Donut from Firecakes, which they never, ever finish. Not even the teenager. Maybe next year, when he turns 14? But I get the appeal: it is made by two towering donuts, with white glaze, sprinkles, pearls, chocolate drizzles and some gold. What’s not to want?

  2. DECORATIONS: Since it was going to be just the six of us, plates and cups seemed a
    img_8211
    Look at the detail in that custom Pokemon banner. Meanwhile, ignore the mess, please. 

    little bit pointless, so I passed on those. Instead, I geared my decoration budget towards ordering banners with their name. My beloved friend Lilia makes amazing ones, and sells them through her Etsy shop, Craftophologie. I normally order our invitations and goodie bags from her, and despite the fact that I always place weird custom orders, she always delivers beautiful work, timely, and with a smile.

  3. PRESENTS: I truly, truly wanted to avoid Amazon for this one. One of the things I love to do is walking around my neighborhood, stopping in all the little stores. Since my first son was born, we have always preferred to go to little toy stores, which know their products better, are welcoming, and normally beautiful. I fear that by the end of this pandemic the make up of our streets will have changed for the worse, as it will be the case if the little independent shops close. So, although I had
    img_8178
    The stores I mention are local to us, but wherever you are located, there is a little shop looking forward to do business with you. Just call them.

    to go to Nike for shoes because one of my kids is going through a strong basketball stage, I was able to buy all the other presents in local vendors. The toys came from Building Blocks, in a contactless exchange that didn’t have anything to envy from spy movies, the board games came from Good Games, and the books from Unabridged Bookstore, which has been shipping all along. I am still waiting from some merchandising that I ordered from Jerome ASF, a You Tube gamer who has become the only “god” that my teenager worships right now. Early on this crisis, I offered to send birthday cards to any kid or adult who wants one, since lonely birthdays can be a bit sad. I have had steady requests, and I have also been ordering from independent shops for that. My last shopping walk before everything closed was to The Inkling, a delightful local store that just reopened for pick ups, and after that I ordered online from independent vendors like Yeppie Paper or Turtle Soup.

  4. FOOD: That was fairly easy. Donuts for breakfast, cake, and Domino’s pizza was the choice by both of them. We offered them to choose any restaurant in the city, and
    img_8115
    There is no link for these, you just have to come over to our house to try them. 

    we would be happy to order, but Domino’s it was. Their other request were croquetas, a Spanish staple that takes some time to cook and I hadn’t made all pregnancy long.

  5. FRIENDS: This was the hardest thing to come by. Because we couldn’t have any in the house. With a newborn here, we have been pretty radical in our isolation. One kid chose to videoconference with his classmates. We tried Evite for that, but it didn’t work out well, so we had to switch to Zoom. It was also a bit weird, because there is not much you can do virtually. But I commend the parents of my second grader’s classmates for trying, because I am sure that, after working all day long and juggling the endless zoom calls that come with remote learning and remote working, the last thing they wanted was to have one more call at 5 pm. The teenager (I keep repeating it because I still can’t believe I have a teenager) chose to have a virtual playdate with just one friend to play videogames. Although I guess that, in a way, Jerome was there too. At least for the sounds coming from Definitely not Little anymore L’s room, it looks like Jerome is the seventh member of our family. Any day I am going to bring him a plate of food and a blanket.

All in all, we pulled it off. It was not spectacular, but it wasn’t sad either. Both boys had their special days, with special presents, and got to blow their candles “with” their friends. And I am fairly sure that they will never forget their Coronavirus birthdays. As for me, I will just keep hoping that it remains that, a one year oddity, and that by next February, I will get to complain again about organizing back to back birthday parties.

NOTE: The shops I mention are mostly local to Chicago. But wherever you are, NY, LA, Florida or Nebraska, London, Dublin or Sydney, you will find local businesses wanting to work with you, whether your state is still closed or not. Do not forget them.

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Dinosaurs, and soccer, and zooming in the patio, all while wearing his favorite present in years: a Space Jam shirt that will forever help him remember the beloved cousin he just lost. 

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