Taking He'en to birthday parties now is akin to taking our barely-subclinical hound to the dog park. Socialization is important. You want to be a responsible parent. You start with the best of intentions. But, before you know it, somebody has a punctured ear and you're apologizing all over the place.*
On a recent sunny Sunday, I loaded both kids into the car for the New Best Friend's birthday party. I like the New Best Friend a lot. She is a sweet cheerful little girl. Her parents are gracious and mellow. I really wanted to further this relationship. I was carefully pressed and dressed in my best Mom Jeans. He'en was sporting a freshly washed dress. She had wrapped the present three days in advance. We happily drove though the spring afternoon and arrived at the house awash with glittery anticipation.
All was sweetness and light as He'en disappeared to play with the birthday girl and her preschool friends. I plopped Dragon Girl on the floor of the great room, where she set about charming every mother present by cooing and giggling over a huge purple balloon. Eventually the parents announced "Games!" and a flock of delicious little girls swirled in from the other room. We were off to a great start, I swear.
Then came Hot Potato Dress-Up. The music plays and the kids pass a ball. When the music stops, the person holding the ball has to close his/her eyes and draw a dress-up item from a giant flour sack. The game continues until everyone is wearing something goofy. Sounds great. And it was great. Until the kid next to He'en drew a plastic alligator head.
The next thing I know, He'en had broken from her place in the circle and was literally crawling toward me, wildly sobbing. I was so nonplussed that I think I mouthed the words, "What the ... ?" to another mom over my kid's head as I wordlessly patted Helen's back, trying to figure out if she'd sat on a thumbtack or something.
After riding out some intense gasping and hacking, I finally ferreted out the words, "I wanted the alligator head!" (Try this with a sob between each syllable and no letters "t," "r," or "l," and you will see why it took me so long to decipher.)
I sent her back into the ring with gentle words but scant sympathy.
By this time, the game had moved along. When she finally got her turn to draw an item, I sighed with relief . . . briefly. She dove headfirst into the flour sack like a released gamecock and thumped about in there until the other kids started to shout "Don't look! You aren't supposed to LOOK! Come on, pick!"
She stonily ignored their cries and emerged in her own good time with a very fancy purple-and-silver Hawaiian lei. On any other day, this would have delighted her, but not today. She wore it with white-lipped resignation for the rest of the game. I saw her twice try to negotiate a trade for the alligator head. But she didn't come back to my lap, and as Hot Potato Dress-Up mercifully drew to a close, I had hopes for a full recovery.
Well, the parents were no rookies, so they moved the games right along with bright cheer into a "freeze dancing" round. He'en tried a couple dance moves but then came to bury her head in my lap, clearly still smarting from the dress-up trauma.
I sent her back into the ring again. She was none too pleased with me but willing to be distracted by a third game that we'll call Paper Plate Prizes.
This is a cute little game where numbered paper plates were strewn about the floor. Music plays, and the kids hop from plate to plate. When the music ends, everyone puts one foot on a plate. (The smart parents had provided one plate for each child). A winning number is drawn from a hat, and the person whose foot is on the matching plate gets a small gift. The game continues until everyone has a gift. Good stuff, right? Yes, you would think so.
He'en couldn't even make it onto the dance floor. She melted down so hard -- I never did catch the reason -- that I had to usher her out of the room. Another mom kindly watched Dragon Girl while He'en and I had A Little Talk.
"I'm just TYE-uhd [tired]," He'en sobbed.
"Well, you don't have to play games, that's fine. But you may not cry and make scenes at somebody else's party."
"I want to yie [lie] DOWN," she pleaded.
"Absolutely not. If you're too tired to sit quietly, you are too tired to be at the party and we will leave."
She could tell I was serious. "Don' WANT to yeeve [leave]."
"Then woman up and get back in there with your game face on. One more meltdown and we're leaving. We will say we are sorry, and we will say goodbye, and we will get into our car, and we will go. Is that very clear?"
Our hostess (the birthday girl's mother) came in during the tail end of my little pep talk. God only knows what she thought. I apologized and she said it was fine, really, and led Helen off to get a little face-painting. As I glared from the doorway, He'en was an angel. But as soon as the mother finished painting a cute unicorn on Helen's tearstained cheek, Helen was right back at my side, tugging on my jeans pocket.
"I want to dance," she insisted, pointing to the Paper Plate game that was still in progress.
"Great," I agreed, "go and dance!"
"I want to dance with YOU," she insisted, lower lip quivering again.
"No, there are no other mommies on the dance floor. You need to get out there if you want to participate."
We had officially crossed the event horizon for this particular party.
So I marched Helen back to the other room again and sat her down with Very Clear instructions to sit Right There while I collect our things.
"Noooo! I wan' to DANCE!" She tried to tear away from me and stagger, tear-blinded, back to the dance floor.
I caught her in a straitjacket hug. "You're in no shape to dance. You're crying too hard."
Then . . . "Oh. I get it. You want to dance so you can get a gift."
She nodded, wordlessly sobbing.
"Helen . . . no. I am very sorry for you. But I am not sending you back out there. You are not going to be the kid who ruins your friend's party by crying the whole time."
I gave additional Very Clear instructions along the lines of Sitting Right There. Then -- trying to act simultaneously grateful and sheepish -- I collected Dragon Girl from the mother who had been holding her. As she graciously smiled and handed over my baby, I recalled that Helen had also had a meltdown at her child's party a scant three months ago. Yeah, dammit, great, now we're that kid.
I am honestly getting pretty angry myself at this moment. But how much is me, and how much is He'en? Even as I force-buckled a hysterical Helen's shoes while trying with the other hand to keep the baby from eating the birthday girl's coloring books, I had to wonder. Am I overly cranky about this? Isn't this just a tired four-year-old being a tired four-year-old? Is it really a reflection on my parenting? Am I mad at my kid because I think she just made me look bad? Gosh, I hope not. I mean, we've all been there, right?
But these are questions for another day. No amount of self-doubt or Momguilt was going to persuade me to allow Helen back into that room. I left her in a complete hysterical puddle, tucked Dragon Girl onto my hip, and went to find our hostess to make apologies.
"Are you sure?" she said, kindly handing me a My Little Pony gift bag brimming with party favors.
"Very sure," I groaned, and thanked our hostess for a lovely afternoon.
Total party time: 40 minutes.
And if you think He'en cheerfully trotted out to the car and obediently climbed into her carseat, I want to come live in your reality. But we made it, and nobody hit anybody else (although some of us certainly thought about it). I crammed down the urge to launch nine versions of the "How Could You?" lecture and contented myself with driving, with only some white knuckles on the steering wheel to belie my truly staggering self-control.
After an impressive amount of sobbing, kicking, and hiccuping, He'en fell silent for a while.
. . . "Yes?"
"I diddun' effen get any CAKE."
*Apropos of watching our neighbors' five (5) dogs play together, He'en and I were discussing the different "talents" of dogs. "Some dogs are bred to stand guard," I explained, "and that's their talent. Some dogs are bred to run around and keep cows or sheep in a group. That's their talent."
He'en: (delighted by this idea) "Dogs haff TAL-ents?! Yike faeries?!"
Mom: "That's right! Now, what do you think our dog's talent might be?"
He'en: (long pause)
Mom: (prodding) "What is Kira really good at?"
He'en: "Um . . . fighting?"