Most years, my mother, Leslie, and I go all out in planning a birthday extravaganza for my daughters Blair, 8, and Harper, 6. Growing up, “Nana,” as the girls call her, never missed a beat, and she’s still in a perfect rhythm now. In the early ’90s when most of my birthday parties took place, there was no expense spared. I often find myself questioning where she found the time and energy as a single mother to plan it all. In my eight-plus years of motherhood—baby showers included—I’ve subconsciously competed with that early-’90s version of my mother.
This year’s challenge, when my daughter, Harper, turned 6 on May 16, was merely finding the energy to get out of bed to shower after a week’s worth of intense distance-learning, work-related calls, and not nearly enough wine amidst the COVID-19 lockdown.
We kept it simple, but I did miss all the fuss. (Don’t tell my mom.) The overachiever and arts organizer in me wanted to phone in a last-minute call to shut down a full city block in celebration of Harper’s sixth birthday.
But, this year, I’ve lived vicariously through badass creative moms like Rebecca Teaff, founder and chief creative officer of Baltimore-based marketing firm Redstart Creative, and Raina Tyson Smallwood, co-founder of Cedar and Cotton in Southwest Baltimore—who have both gotten creative in making their little ones’ special days memorable despite the restrictions of the pandemic.
Teaff’s son, Liam, who is an only child aside from his furry brother, Edward, recently turned 8. Smallwood’s son, Noah, turned 10 this year and is one of three boys alongside his brother, Jonah, and their family’s newest addition, Maximus—who was born just days after Governor Hogan declared a State of Emergency in mid-March.
“We were a little nervous about how everything was going to be with the lockdown starting up,” Smallwood says about giving birth shortly after stay-home orders went into effect. “We got to St. Joseph’s Hospital and my partner, George, jokingly says, ‘They can take me to jail, I’m coming with you.’”
These powerhouse Balti-moms have found time to work from home while planning epic birthday parties, parades, and puppet shows. They’re tenacious, just like my mom in her early-’90s birthday party planning prime. Here are four valuable lessons I learned from speaking with them about making kids feel special on their solar return under these circumstances:
Go Big, But Stay Home
Invite your family or friends to a socially distanced fête, but add your own tried-and-true traditions for added nostalgia.
“The idea of family and friends gathering was always a big thing for me—I like to keep that up for Liam,” Teaff says. “My mom would always put the china out. We have a family tradition where you get to eat what you want on your birthday. Over the years, I picked things like steak or tacos, which I’m sure at a younger age was pizza.”
Smallwood remembers similar traditions on her special day—all of which can be recreated at a small celebration at home.
“I remember turning four and getting a rainbow-bright birthday cake and some friends coming over,” she remembers. “We did birthday gifts. We’d play pin the tail on the donkey. There weren’t a lot of decorations, but just cake, candles, and everyone singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ that sort of thing. I loved it. Each birthday reminds me that I’m gifted with another year, another lesson, and another chance. That’s the true gift.”
Party Favors or Bust
Use your favorite online sites to deck your home out with your favorite streamers and party favors. Decorate like it’s Christmas in July (or any other month leading up to the winter holidays). You may have to come up with something crafty to occupy the kids while you set up, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
“This year, pre-coronavirus, my husband, Rob, goes, ‘Let’s have him do like a fun, bouncy house,’” Teaff shares. “We had it all booked and we were really excited. Then we realized a lot of disappointments were going to come in pretty quick succession. We thought, ‘How can we make this an amazing weekend for Liam?’ So I ordered a bunch of swag and we threw up decorations in every room. For Liam, it was like coming down on Christmas morning. I made a Facebook post about how different this b-day would be for him and asked that folks send cards. We got cards from current friends, my old college friends, family, Liam’s sports teams, and he had a lot of stuff to open during the day.”
Go With the Flow
If you’re not feeling a big party this year (I know I wasn’t) that’s more than okay. If you’re expecting or just brought a new child into the world, like Smallwood, err on the side of caution using video conferencing for visits and celebrations.
“I gave birth two and a half weeks before Noah’s birthday,” Smallwood shares. “And my follow-ups with the doctor after delivery have been virtual, which is interesting—most of the baby’s visits are him being held up to the phone. My mom has taken some time off of work to be isolated and has since been able to visit, as well as my partner’s mom, and my best friend, of course.”
Gather From a Safe Distance
Virtual ideas are your friend! Zoom calls and drive-by’s are fun ways to celebrate with loved ones without physically being in the same room.
“Initially we told Noah that everything was closed, so there wasn’t going to be a birthday party,” Smallwood shares. “We told him that maybe in the summertime he could celebrate his birthday with his brother. Noah did not like that! He was really upset. I felt a little bit bad, but it paid off in the end because we snuck around and got gifts and cupcakes. George and I told him that we had a meeting so we sent them all upstairs so that we could bring out the gifts and set up a Zoom. And then once we had everything set up, we called him down. He was so surprised it was totally worth it. We had everyone he knows on the Zoom call waiting for him!”
Teaff went the parade route for Liam: “A friend of ours organized the whole thing for Liam and all we had to do is get him outside,” she says. “But he wanted to play in the backyard and didn’t want to come out. After a few minutes we started to hear the horn-honking from the parade. Liam was saying, ‘What’s happening?!’ He legit had no idea. It was adorable. It was a bunch of school friends, family, his indoor soccer team, and the coach.”
What’s more? Teaff’s father-in-law, an amateur ventriloquist, put on a private puppet show for Liam via Zoom. “You just want your kid to be excited and happy even though it’s kind of crazy circumstances right now,” she says. “So if you can do that, I say mission accomplished.”