Sweat trickles down my back as I nod and force my dry lips to peel back from my teeth in some semblance of a smile. She’s talking. I’m not really listening, but I’m nodding, smiling, maintaining eye contact, and complimenting her in all the right places, as if I were trying to pick her up at the local lesbian bar.
She’s the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. It’s my daughter’s sixth birthday party, and I’m making small talk with a couple of moms. We’re standing along the periphery of one of those Chuck E. Cheese-type joints that charge a million dollars to throw your kid a birthday party in one of their “special” rooms. Not only am I hosting a party and dealing with all the nonsense that comes along with coordinating activities, food, cake, ice cream, and presents, but I am also faced with many of the parents who have chosen to remain at the party instead of just dropping off their six-year-olds for the allotted two-hour party time, despite the fact that I expressly wrote “feel free to drop off your kids!!” on the invitation—double exclamation points included.
Attention please, parents of kids attending birthday parties! Why you gotta torture party hosts with your presence? As if throwing a party for a bunch of unruly six-year-olds isn’t bad enough, you’ve got to loiter, forcing already stressed-out parents to engage you in sporadic small talk in addition to regulating party shenanigans? When I was a kid, you dropped your kid off for a 14-hour sleepover and were glad to do it, so WHY ARE YOU TORMENTING ME WITH YOUR PRESENCE FOR THIS TWO-HOUR PIZZA PARTY?
Being a parent is hell on introverts. When you’re single, you can hole up in your house with a bag of Doritos and a bottle of red wine (everyone knows red wine goes better with Doritos) and bliss out to whatever Netflix series is your current jam. Then you get married, and if you marry right, you can do the same thing with a partner. Sure, you have to venture out for occasional mandatory work-party hullabaloo, and there are the obligatory holidays with extended family, but those are few and far between.
Then you two crazy kids cave to society and peer or religious pressure and ruin everything by procreating. You fool! You were eating Doritos for dinner and watching seven episodes of Breaking Bad at a clip! Now you’re lucky if you get through 10 minutes before either falling asleep or being interrupted, depending on whether you’re dealing with a newborn or a toddler.
Kids ruin everything: now your Netflix routine is wrecked, and you are having to get together with other parents for supervised playdates, playground get-togethers, and, eventually, school functions—all inevitably accompanied by small talk. All that forced interaction in the name of good parenting creates a constant low-grade panic that ratchets up when the bane of all parent-introverts rears its ugly head: the birthday party.
Your child’s birthday party is at the top of this horror, followed closely by invitations to the birthday parties of other children…
…because no one drops off their kids anymore and revels in the freedom.
The children’s party has become a full-on family affair.
When I was a kid, parents dumped their kids at your house, leaving burnt rubber in the driveway in their excitement over a few hours of kidless freedom. Now, nobody knows what to do. Do you just drop off your kids, or do you stay and hover awkwardly around the party perimeter? Will the parents of the kids I invite to my daughter’s party know to just drop off their kids? Do they think I’m not capable of manning the battleship for two hours? Or, much like not leaving a soldier behind during war, are they taking pity and not wanting to subject me to the horror of dealing with ten six-year-olds for two hours? And what about when they tell me to leave my kid? Do they really want me to, or are they just saying that? I need to know! Am I required to plan food and drinks for parents too?
My daughter’s sixth birthday party was as intense as any adult party I’ve ever attended where I felt awkward. Not only did I have to endure hours of forced small talk, but I also had to socialize with people who weren’t my friends or even friends of friends—just parents of kids in my child’s classroom. So when Johnny’s dad blasted to the playland at large that “we keep letting these illegal aliens into the country and he’ll be gladly taking his AK-47 to the border and guard the fence himself,” I faced the monumental-seeming decision of deflecting and changing the subject or risking an epic scene on my kid’s special day.
Meanwhile, I machine-gunned compliments in every direction, as I tend to do when nervous. “You’re Elizabeth’s mom? Elizabeth. IS. ADORABLE. Violet talks about her all the time. I LOVE your earrings.” After I exhausted all possible compliments, I launched into borderline-inappropriate sharing. It’s my special way of avoiding lulls in the conversation. I’d rather share the fact that I’m battling an epic yeast infection in a misguided attempt to bond with you than experience an awkward pause in the conversation. Because I’m so acutely aware of the awkwardness I’m desperately trying to hide, I can never be certain if folks are startled by my forced effervescence and the eventual inappropriate sharing or if the subterfuge is working and they think I am charming.
I go into conversation overdrive when I’m at my most uncomfortable because I need to make sure you’re having a nice time. Sometimes when I’m talking I’m so hyper-aware of the mechanics of maintaining the conversation that I completely detach and begin to watch and comment on my behavior as if I’m watching myself in a reality show. I float above my own body and wonder, what the hell is the poor person down there saying? Then I’m back in my body and words are flowing like Niagara, and I have no idea what I’m babbling about. Am I even making sense? I just don’t know. The person I’m talking to is smiling and nodding like I’m making sense, but everyone knows smiling and nodding are hallmarks of small talk. And all the smiling and nodding required for small talk is enough to kill even the strongest among us.
After the party, my kid passed out in the back seat, drool trickling from her sweet face, and I felt much the same way. Exhausted. In a post-small-talk daze, after stress-eating four pieces of greasy leftover pizza in the span of five minutes because my body was shutting down after being ON for two straight hours, I took to bed with a bottle of wine. I didn’t move until the next morning when I felt sufficiently recovered to face the world—and the possibility of a kindergarten backpack bearing someone else’s party invite…again.