By Stephanie Sprenger
I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.
After months of begging, I finally caved. Eight years old seemed like a fine age to host our first birthday sleepover party; it seemed almost cozy, a pleasant contrast to larger birthday party adventures of years past. Maybe I was eager to re-live my own popcorn-eating, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”-watching, truth-or-dare-playing slumber party days.
My daughter was elated. Being the ultra-organized, hyper-planning apple from my Type-A tree, her sleepover party would not be a “go with the flow” type of event. Hours before the girls came over, she had fashioned sleeping stations in her bedroom, carefully mapped out with colorful blankets spread around her floor. On each station was a BFF necklace and an itinerary listing the sleepover’s events. Yes, an itinerary.
Four girls were attending, including the one child who rightfully claimed the official BFF title. The other three were girls from her class whom I didn’t know well. When I sent out the invitation, I offered parents the option of not committing to the overnight portion of the party—they were free to pick up their kids before bedtime. Only one family took me up on it—the parents of a shy child who was new to school.
The first half of the party was like an advertisement for “Girls’ World Magazine.” There was whispering, shrieking, dancing, Karaoke, pizza, cake, and nail-painting. For a group of 3rd graders, it was idyllic.
My mother and I cleaned up the kitchen to a soundtrack of laughter pealing from my daughter’s bedroom. Raucous dance moves shook the ceiling above me, and the girls’ singing nearly (sadly, not completely) drowned out the Kidz Bop CD that was blaring. My daughter was having a fantastic time. It was just what she’d hoped for, and as such, all that I hoped for as her mother.
After pajamas were donned and sleeping bags unrolled, I carried a tray of popcorn and M&Ms upstairs and tiptoed into the dark bedroom where the pre-bedtime movie played.
“Lindsay, your mom will be here in about half an hour,” I whispered, hoping she wouldn’t feel too badly about missing the rest of the fun.
At 9:30, the girls paused the movie and came outside to bid farewell to their departing friend. Lindsay’s parents pulled into the driveway as the girls hollered and swung from the tree swing, the porch light illuminating their grinning faces, nightgowns, and bare feet.
Returning to the movie, the mood was only slightly dampened by the decimated ranks. I sat in the kitchen, finally daring to pour myself a glass of wine, and de-briefed with my mom. “I think Izzy’s having a great time,” I said. A foreboding gong of doom may as well have sounded at that moment.
I heard a clatter of footsteps on the stairs. My daughter’s chagrined face poked around the corner. “Taylor wants to leave,” she whispered tearfully. I hastily rose to intervene, my premature glass of celebratory wine forgotten.
“Honey, we knew that was a possibility,” I reminded her gently. “She hasn’t had a sleepover before—neither have you. It’s hard for kids to be away from their parents all night. We can’t make her feel bad.”
It was after ten by now, and Taylor’s mom quickly arrived at our house after I called her. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” I assured her, waving off her apologies and discomfort.
“OK, girls, it’s time to get in your sleeping bags,” I announced cheerfully, trying to ignore the dark mood that had descended. The three remaining girls dutifully arranged themselves and their stuffed animals on the carpet.
“Mommy, will you sing us a lullaby?” my daughter requested quietly. “I think it will help us sleep.”
I of course agreed, snuggling next to my daughter and singing a few of her old favorites. The girls smiled and listened, and as I crept out of her bedroom, I felt downright smug. I was the best sleepover mom ever.
Ten short minutes later the next round of wails began. Another casualty was imminent—the girls were dropping like flies. But this time it was bad: It was Jessie, the best friend, who wanted to go home. Her slight frame was shaking as she sobbed, “I just—want—my mom. I want to go home!”
My daughter was borderline hysterical. “Jessie can’t go! She was supposed to stay all night! I was counting on it!” Her tone was frantic and I quickly ushered her downstairs before she said something that would hurt the feelings of the only guest still standing, something like, “Jessie was the only one who really mattered!” Which was, of course, what we were both thinking.
I handed my devastated child off to my mother while I hurriedly dialed Jessie’s mom and let her speak to her hyperventilating child. Meanwhile, the lone friend stood somberly by. There was no way she was going home. With a 20-year-old sister and 17-year-old brother, I got the feeling Abigail would probably spend the night at anyone’s house. She watched us impassively, knowing full well she was here to stay.
As Jessie packed up her belongings, sniffing quietly, my daughter sat in my lap and sobbed. My mom snuck downstairs to text my brother, a psychotherapist, to fill him in on our vicarious devastation and to perhaps beg for clinical reassurance that this event would not ruin her granddaughter for life. He was undoubtedly delighted to be included in the unraveling drama.
I consoled my bereft child, reassuring her that I knew how sad this was, how disappointing. I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.
And there it was—that one sentiment expressed all of my darkest thoughts and fears about raising children. I cannot bear the knowledge that they will ultimately be hurt over and over. It was my daughter’s first real taste of the disappointment that accompanies epic unmet expectations. It was her introduction to celebration let-down, and not just the Clark W. Griswold variety of mishaps and disasters, but the deeper, darker kind, the variety that leaves you feeling small, unimportant, and unloved. I knew it wouldn’t be the last time she cried on her birthday.
As a Gen X parent hell-bent on not succumbing to helicopter parent status, I am mindful that it is counterintuitive and harmful to shield our children from disappointment and failure. But on that one night, on her birthday, at the party she’d worked so hard to create, I wanted to. I wanted to make it perfect for her.
We dealt with the fallout as best we could. My daughter and her emotionally stout companion fell asleep, enjoyed a pancake breakfast, and swung in the sunshine waiting for the girl’s mother to pick her up. She was nearly a half hour late.
We spoke of it wryly, we persevered. Truth be told, the failed sleepover will go down in family lore as a story we will likely giggle about over shared bottles of wine in decades to come.
And although it was perhaps a valuable learning experience, I still offer this precautionary advice to mothers considering hosting sleepover parties for their eight-year-olds: Don’t do it.
Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.