Monday, November 25, 2013

When Parties Aren't For You

Early birthday cake with grandparents
Earlier this month, blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post about how marriage wasn't for him, and it went crazy viral. Many people loved Smith's father's advice: "You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy." Others, however, hated it and pointed out that, among other things, such a belief is toxic when told to someone in an abusive relationship. As is so often the case, what is a curative for some is poison for another. 

I was thinking about this when debating discussing with my husband this weekend how to celebrate our daughter's 2nd birthday, which is just a few days away. My husband and I are deeply ambivalent about hosting parties. We didn't have a party for her last year, but considering how many she has now attended, it seems as if social reciprocity requires it--that a birthday party for a toddler isn't really for the child (who won't understand what is happening or remember it anyway); it is for the community. 

I used to love having parties. That is, I used to love it when friends came over and we had some laughs and there was minimal prep and clean-up work on my part. These parties weren't simply fun; they were reassurance that doggonit, people liked me. The only catch was that I wasn't allowed to consciously exclude anyone. If I invited girls from school, we invited all the girls in my class. If I invited friends from church, the youth group came. We took our Methodist rhetoric about the open table seriously; all are welcome.

This theology was hardwired into my operating system, and it confused and grieved me when I realized that others didn't share it. Mom would try to soothe my pain by making excuses for classmates who bragged about their parties that didn't include me: "Don't take it personally; it was probably just that their parents only invited families that they knew; maybe they all belong to the same club or something." I did take it as rejection, though, and it increased my desire to avoid inflicting on others the same feeling.

The 'ya'll come' approach worked well for me into my mid-20s. College parties were spontaneous and required little work. (When your furniture includes cardboard boxes draped with scarves and the meal consists of splitting a Papa John's pizza order, there is no pressure to keep up appearances)

That all changed the year Stuart bought a house, and we began hosting 'grown-up' parties--inviting his State Department colleagues and such. Suddenly, 'ya'll come' meant rooms so crowded with acquaintances that many guests never sat down, several hours of cleaning and cooking, and considerable thought and expense put into what to serve and how to serve it (since apparently it is gauche host a grown-up party and ask folks to pitch-in). By the end of the party, I'd be wiped out from my catering and small-talk duties and near tears at the sight of the mess in the kitchen. Parties weren't fun for me anymore; they were hard work. While we still fantasized about our party ideas (rooftop dances, antique sheet music sing-along, caroling, brunch & croquet, etc), we'd sometimes go a year between having one.
Now I'm sure some of you are thinking that the obvious solution for introverts like me is to eschew such parties and invite over a few close friends instead. Yes, that can work sometimes, but I think that assumes that a party is for the happiness of the one hosting it, which I'm not sure is true.  The big Denyer Christmas party, for example, has a been an opportunity to show all our friends in town that we care about them--to make sure they get to carol around a piano at least once that season, have festive foods 'neath holiday decorations, and renew and expand friendships. Yes, it's a lot of work for us, but when we consider trimming the invite list, the guilt of crossing out anyone's name is too great.

The added complication, of course, is that I am now married to a foreign service officer and switch countries every couple years. Have I told you about that terrifying book they provide to spouses that has several pages on party protocol in the foreign service (including seating rules so complex that they suggest investing in round tables)? Yes, I know I'm overreacting; most of those rules are generally ignored, but there definitely is a rather high bar in this world I now live in when it comes to what/how one serves guests--including the small gatherings--such that it is often hard to tell when you are at an actual party or a work function. After all, the guest list is going to be about the same regardless.

This brings hubby and me back full circle in our debate discussion. If parties are for the strengthening of the community, we should have them more frequently and invite all of our American embassy colleagues* to anything that's larger than having just a few friends over. Yes, this can mean quite a large crowd with many children running about.  This is partly why those in our community who believe that parties are for their happiness have trimmed their lists. We often don't make their cut (because we haven't invited them to anything this year?), and I confess I get a momentary flashback to teenage insecurities each time I see pictures on my newsfeed of what we missed.  I don't want to do that to others.  But, then again, considering how rarely I host anything these days, perhaps others assume that I already did!

What do you think? Should parties be for your happiness, and, if so, when?

*and this isn't even addressing the Pandora's box about how very few of the locally employed embassy staff (i.e. non-Americans) ever get invited to after-hours social events hosted by Americans.

1 comment:

  1. For those who stumble across this post, I've since found an article that responds to some of my questions raised it in: