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Illustration by Wenting Li

In a “normal” year, we celebrate my daughter’s birthday in January. With her special day coinciding with the December break, we’ve always felt compelled to throw her a big bash to compensate for the bad timing.

Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, did you plan to have a Christmas baby?” To which I like to reply, “Yes, we took her out of the freezer just in time.”

It’s actually not that far from the truth, because when you’re on the desperate, painful and expensive roller-coaster ride widely known as fertility treatment, the last thing you’re thinking about is the eventual birthdate of your frozen embryo. Mostly, the refrain is something like, “Please, please, please let this work.”

Anyway – our daughter was born two days before Christmas and her birthday parties up till this year have been the overblown affairs you might expect of a long-awaited only child. You name it, we’ve done it – with 10 of her closest friends.

Children’s birthdays have become mini corporate-style events complete with unpredictable, overwrought guests and price tags to match. I’ve been sucked into the bigger is better vortex time and again, and I’m rather chagrined by my own lack of restraint.

The evidence is scattered around our house.

Not long ago, I stepped on a tiny, clear plastic shoe belonging to a bear my daughter stuffed at her third, or possibly her fourth birthday. We booked that place two years in a row. The straggly looking thing is wearing a Cinderella dress over matted blue fur – and appropriately, only one slipper. Her compatriot, a purple Princess Anna, has exchanged her ball gown for a doll-sized tie-dye T-shirt and baseball cap. Like the rest of us, she’s embracing pandemic couture.

Last week, when I was rummaging in the freezer for an easy boxed meal after a day of virtual school and work, I stumbled on a beautifully preserved, individually wrapped, hand-painted Elsa cookie – an iced relic from a long-ago Frozen-themed fifth birthday party. Time to “let it go,” no?

Then there’s the paint-your-own-ceramic Tinkerbell jewellery box that sits at a safe distance from my daughter’s bed. I remember her newly six-year-old hand imprecisely applying kohl eyeshadow that ran down Tinker’s face. Later it was baked indelibly into place, echoing shades of Salvador Dali’s melted clocks. After my daughter brought her masterpiece home from the event, she displayed the fairy box on her bookshelf, face turned to the wall, explaining, “She’ll give me nightmares.”

The list goes on.

Our junk drawer is full of “token cards” from bowling alleys and indoor amusement parks. Two years ago we paid extra for a roller coaster experience. There were tears from birthday partygoers upon discovery that the ride was broken. And more tears from my daughter when it was working again as it looked “loud and scary.” Afterward, the frozen yogurt machine spurted its imitation dairy for two-thirds of the guests, then gave out with a groan. The kids who missed out got to fill cups entirely with candy topping. By the time parents arrived to collect their charges, they were high on sugar and laser tag, poised to throw up or pass out. You’re welcome.

Last year, we vowed to scale back.

But even a “quiet” at home homage to Harry Potter took on a life of its own. I’m not crafty or an accomplished baker, and my self-esteem took a serious hit as I scrolled Pinterest. The extravagantly themed buffets and hand-sewn costumes created by “regular moms” made me realize I might belong in the subpar “regular mom” category. Prior to burrowing down this deadly rabbit hole, I would have told you I was doing a decent job. Ignorance is bliss.

Instead of reminding myself that I’m good at other things, I stubbornly insisted I, too, could recreate Hogwarts, while swearing under my breath as I cut out and affixed tiny white wings to Ferrero Rocher chocolates, approximating the elusive golden snitch. My fingertips were singed from glittery hot glue and not a single child noticed my artistry. The cleanup was epic, and I was collecting cupcake sprinkles and ketchup-chip crumbs for weeks.

But this year, given no alternative, we went old school. To prep my daughter, I told her about my favourite birthday party growing up. Three friends and I sat on a picnic table bench while my mom’s cousin cranked homemade vanilla ice cream. Then we ate it with Smarties and caramel sauce. The end.

We agreed that a quiet celebration was the only option.

We traded in fancy bakery cakes for homemade chocolate cupcakes – which doubled as a life lesson. “Let’s do them from scratch,” I said. To which my daughter replied, “Okay! Where’s the mix?” Her discovery that we didn’t need Betty Crocker’s help was akin to a birthday miracle.

Later, several good friends delivered thoughtful gifts, which were opened and exclaimed upon on the porch, at a distance, while wearing masks. At previous parties, we’d brought gifts home to open, recognizing that the spectacle of a child unwrapping a dozen presents can be tiresome for the captive audience. But what I didn’t realize was how much, given the opportunity, children are excited by the chance to watch a friend open a carefully chosen gift one-on-one, with plenty of time to examine the item. (A beautiful, handmade Harry Potter keepsake box! A video-game gift card! A glittery decorate-your-own llama journal!)

For the first time in living memory, my daughter’s birthday party didn’t end with a credit-card bill, a pounding migraine and an empty vow to “never do it again.” The day wrapped with a movie, a bowl of popcorn and a promise to repeat next year, and beyond.

In every way that matters, less really is more.

Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.