Recently we celebrated N’s 6th birthday. Like we do every year, we threw a little party at home with a few of her friends. And as always, the party planning drove me crazy.
Every year, in the midst of trips to the party store, baking the cake, wrapping presents, planning party games and cleaning the house for company, I announce that “I AM NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN,” yet somehow I always wind up doing exactly that. Throwing an at-home party, even for only a few kids, requires a lot of work, and there is much to do at the last minute. This year, I woke up at 4:00am on the day of the party, thinking through my final to-do list. (Yes, I am that obsessive.)
When I plan a kiddo birthday party, I don’t hire the entertainment like a sane, normal person. Instead, I read parenting websites and come up with crafty activities that sound like fun, but in reality are just experiments. Some ideas work brilliantly, like our pumpkin painting this year. Others pose unexpected challenges, like the “paper bag piñata” activity that sounded terrific but wound up causing a scrum of 6-year-old girls piling on top of each other to grab the candy, scraping their knees, having crying fits, etc. (Handy tip: when doing paper bag piñatas at a party, make sure there is a bag for every guest – then let the kiddo who whacks at it have the whole bag, rather than allowing a free-for-all candy grab.)
Even though hosting a birthday party is a pain in the you-know-what, I do it. Twice each year, once for each kid. Additionally, we usually have a few families over for our summertime block party. And like a crazy person, I’m actually thinking about adding more celebrations to the annual calendar.
The really, really nice thing about these gatherings – and every year, I remind myself of this – is that inviting people into our home is our way of helping to foster a sense of community with other families.
I never really valued the concept of community until I became a parent. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, where everybody knew everybody else. In fact, everybody knew everybody’s parents, and in my case, grandparents. Our family had generations-deep roots in that place, as well as a family business – the local Christmas tree farm – which meant that we were well-known in town, and that we knew practically everyone. I was surrounded by community without even realizing it.
But then I moved far away from home, to Brooklyn, New York, looking for career opportunities and a better life. I found what I was looking for, but along the way I lost that sense of community. I realized this loss on a visit back to Oklahoma, when my granny hosted my bridal shower at her home. The guests at my shower were our longtime neighbors and family friends – people we had known for decades, and who had seen me grow up. As I opened gifts from these people, I realized that they were irreplaceable in my life. I wanted my future children to have people like that around them in Brooklyn – a community of people who would watch them grow up, who would be their extended “family” in New York; people who would watch out for them, who would care about them.
G and I spent years building our network of friends and acquaintances in New York. Then seven years ago, we bought a house in a working-class neighborhood in the outskirts of Brooklyn. We weren’t familiar with the block, but we got incredibly lucky: it’s just about the most family-friendly block you could imagine. There are a couple dozen kids who live on our block, most in elementary and middle school. Our kids all know each other and play together, and we all watch out for each other.
Our next-door-neighbor is older, and she has become a grandmother-figure to our girls, having watched them grow up from the time they were born. She and her extended family invite us over for holiday meals and late-night talks in the back yard, and we all help each other out on a daily basis. We feel so lucky to know them all.
We’d love to have a slightly newer house – ours was built in the 1920s and wasn’t maintained over the years as well as we would have liked, and it can feel a little cramped at times. However, I would be extremely reluctant to move away from this block. The people on this block have become N’s and S’s “New York family” that I always hoped they would have.
We’re starting to build relationships with our community beyond the block, too – the families of N’s and S’s friends. However, this isn’t easy to do; it take effort, and it’s a matter of scheduling and priorities.
When I was growing up in a small town, our family had many opportunities to get to know other families, because outside of school, we saw each other regularly at church, dance class, the Post Office, the hair salon, the grocery store, the gas station. My mom belonged to the local chapter of the “Young Homemakers of Oklahoma,” and I saw the girls from school at Girl Scouts. We interacted with entire families in many different ways, on a near-daily basis.
But in Brooklyn, our family’s social network is very spread out. N has her different friends from school, soccer and dance; S has her pals at day care; and G and I have longtime relationships from our lives “B.C.” (before children), who now have their own families. It takes a real effort to bring all these disparate pieces of our social network together – which is why I make such a determined effort to have people over for birthday parties, block parties, play dates, etc. Since we don’t have extended family in New York, we have to rely on our network of relationships that we have built from scratch.
Over time I’ve come to appreciate the importance of community and how greatly those bonds improve our quality of life, and I realize now that investing time and energy into strengthening one’s community is one of the best things we can do for our family.
Of course, hosting at-home parties is only one way of helping to build our community. We know people who teach Sunday School, coach soccer, and volunteer to clean our parks, all of which are community-strengthening activities.
Unfortunately, in today’s modern world there are so many other competing priorities. Sometimes when I ride the subway, I look around at all the strangers sitting next to each other, not saying a word – people commuting to spend long hours at work instead of being at home with their families and investing in their communities. Of course there are weekends and holidays, but overall people in our society have less time to devote to family and community than they did in previous generations.
(And we wonder why so many unhinged individuals today “slip through the cracks” of our society and commit senseless, inexplicable violence. There are many reasons that we don’t effectively prevent more tragedies from occurring, but I think the erosion of tight-knit communities in this country at least one major contributing factor.)
As I was writing this post, N wanted to help me, so I asked her to write down things that she thinks of when she hears the word “community.” She came up with a long and impressive list, which included:
Which I thought pretty much said it all. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that we non-native-New-Yorkers have to put so much effort into building our sense of community; maybe N and S will recognize its value even more than I did.
So I guess that’s what I’ll remind myself next time I wake up at 4:00am the day of our next at-home party!! Perhaps a festive holiday party?? Hmmm….