I am always terrified in the run-up to birthday parties. I worry about whether I have cooked enough food: whether anyone will turn up: and how much damage will be caused to the guests by our annual tradition of the pinata. Today I worried about all three. Yes, my eldest turned seven in January, but at the time we only knew our GP and an estate agent, and even I could not think of a way in which I could persuade him that either were suitable party guests. We therefore promised that he'd have a party when we were more settled and he "had friends." A week ago, I sent out invitations - to the whole class, all 25 of them, his friendships are quite tenuous and changeable so I decided to cast the net as widely as possible - and then spent six and a half days in growing, anxious horror, as I realised that we had only one reply. A friend reassured me that this was normal, that New Zealand parents are terrible at RSVPs, but I struggled to contain my terror that we would have no one, no one at all, to fill the large softplay room that the local disability trust centre had offered us free of charge. I mean, he loves his siblings, but not THAT much.
When we got there my apprehension increased. The room was empty except for a large play parachute on the floor. We unlocked the kitchen, then went back to the car to start fetching stuff inside. When we returned, there were three kids in wheelchairs with head and arm support, clearly quadraplegic. They were about to start having fun with the parachutes. "Aargh," said one of their carers, "have you booked this room?" I confirmed that we had. "Never mind," she said, gathering up the parachute determinedly and wheeling her charge out. "We can do something else." "We'll be out by one," I said forlornly to their retreating backs. Way to go, Mum. Stop the quadraplegic kids using this space so your perfectly able-bodied children can run around instead. As if I didn't have enough complexes around the "are they really disabled enough that we deserve this support" theme already.
But then things improved. People started turning up. We had a decent showing from school - eight or nine children, which was a relief and stopped my growing panic that he was being shunned by his peers. We also had several mums who I knew independently, who brought a selection of tots: everyone from a breastfed newborn to a rather cool twelve-year-old who hung out by the table football and pretended he didn't want any cake. There was - just - enough food to go around. And I felt a huge sense of satisfaction as I looked at the happy chaos - there were several kids there with developmental "isshoes" and it felt wonderful that they were all able to be together having fun.
I have always been the sort of parent who preferred home-based parties: not just for the significant financial saving, but because I think it is nice to teach children the traditional party games, pass the parcel, dead lions, that kind of thing. But actually, looking at the group today, that wouldn't have worked so well. Softplay and trampolines was easier, all the different ages and abilities could muck in together. I felt deeply grateful to the Trust for letting us have the opportunity to use the space. I also stopped worrying about the wheelchair-using kids we'd displaced. These kids, too, I thought, looking at the crowded hall, need entertainment, and some of these kids would not have managed as well if we'd done a structured party at home. The softplay hall wasn't just about an easier time for the parents, in this case it was about inclusion.
So a successful party all round, then. And no one lost an eye on the pinata. Given the way they were waving those sticks around, I'm still quite surprised about that.