Tales of a Fourth-Grade Party

From a few years ago, when my oldest child was in kindergarten:

I’ve seen the future, and the parents are AWOL.

Last week, I took our six-year-old son, William, to a fourth grader’s birthday party. The fourth grader is William’s school-appointed older “buddy,” and the party was at a bowling alley. It was late afternoon, and I’d been searching for a drive-thru coffee spot while William napped in his car seat, so we were the last ones to arrive. The first thing I noticed was the dearth of parents. I scanned the place and quickly realized that nearly everyone had dropped off their kids and run. The only parents remaining were me, the birthday boy’s mother, and a dad who’d brought his son’s younger brother in tow.

It was the first time I’d been to a kid’s birthday party where no adults stood around the whole time jawing about the little ones’ latest antics or tending hurt feelings or scraped body parts. In fact, the three of us didn’t even talk about our children or steal a glance at them. For the rest of the party, I stood chatting without interruption. I even sat alone for a while and made a few phone calls. I barely noticed William, though I had a vague sense of him safely ensconced on a faraway shore, among the older boys.

Having slogged my way through untold numbers of children’s birthday bashes, the drop-off party was nothing short of a revelation. I felt the way you do when your plane lands in Florida in mid-February. You walk outside squinting into the bright sun and realize you don’t need your winter coat anymore. You’re plunged into a feeling of warmth and happiness, yet simultaneously struck by the wretchedness of the life you left behind. You ask yourself, “How did we ever get through January?” Of course, by the time your vacation is over and you’re sleeping in your own bed again, you think maybe home isn’t so bad after all.

Toward the end of the party, the sea of older boys moved into the game room, a darkened lair abuzz with the sounds of war. I stood in the entryway near the smattering of grown-ups who’d arrived to pick up their kids. While they gabbed effortlessly, I was back on high alert, watching William trying to make sense of it all. The other boys cradled the butts of machine guns in their armpits and took aim at bright moving figures. Or, they stuffed tokens into their pockets and bolted to the air hockey table. William, for the first time during the party, looked lost. He stood dead-center, a foot shorter than the rest, his hand in a tight fist around the four tokens I’d given him. After a few minutes he saw me and ran over.

“Mama, will you play Foosball with me?” he asked.

For the previous two hours I’d tasted the warm glow of freedom. I’d luxuriated in physical and mental abandon. I’d gone to Florida.

But this was sweeter.

“Of course,” I said, and, his hand in mine, we strode across the room. This, I thought, is how you get through January.