Staff Columnist

How to have a birthday in a pandemic

The aftermath of a party.
The aftermath of a party.

For the entirety of my children’s lives, I have been able to muster together the powers of glitter and imagination to build a fortress between them and the onslaught of the real world. Make a tragedy into an adventure. Turn cleaning up into a game of picking toys off the floor before the alligators eat them. Finding a magical unicorn necklace to remind my daughter she has power in her. But I couldn’t make birthday magic in a quarantine.

My daughter turned 9 in the global pandemic. We had to cancel her birthday party, which was supposed to be a themed sleepover with all the girls in her class, Harry Potter decorations and a cat-themed cake.

We were going to have a karaoke dance party, we were going to throw balloons and yell and paint our nails and laugh and go to bed too late, then wake up too early and have cinnamon rolls, bacon and orange juice.

Children don’t need to forget that the pandemic exists, they know it’s here, they feel it’s shapeless terror.


But in the week before the party, Iowa’s governor declared a statewide emergency and I emailed all the parents, the party was off. We picked a new date, one in May, which seemed possible then, but more and more impossible as the days go on.

I struggled to pull together something different, but just as fun. I ordered all her favorite things and enough decorations to fill a house twice as large. We got balloons and a disco light. We got cupcakes from our favorite cupcake place, That One Cupcake Place. We planned to videoconference in the family. Her little brother planned a present scavenger hunt. We got a fiesta box from Carlos O’Kelly’s which, full disclosure, was given to us by a friend who works there and knows how much my children love nachos. And I bought a pitcher of margaritas from El Bajio. There was a piñata! A friend of mine who lives in California had her son make my daughter a birthday video. Friends sent in emails and cards.

The morning came and we did our best to make the day perfect. Showering her in balloons and love and special activities. And it was fun. Nachos and Just Dance. And the present scavenger hunt, organized by the well-meaning Kindergartner was a little haphazard but still wonderful. But that night, after we cleaned everything up and turned the disco light off. She was sad. She didn’t understand really what was happening or why her life had changed in what felt like less than a week.

She was disappointed. She sobbed, but she knew how hard everyone worked. I told her I was disappointed too. I told her how many grown-ups are confused and frustrated and crying.


When she fell asleep, I realized my mistake. I had tried to ignore the looming threat and minimize it with smiles and “carry on as usual” nonsense. But nothing about this is usual and to pretend like it is is to live in denial. Children don’t need to forget that the pandemic exists, they know it’s here, they feel it’s shapeless terror. The next morning, we stopped pretending and I told her everything I knew. I told her about my fear. And I told her that what we were doing was powerful and necessary. And then I told her about all the people who’d helped make her day magic — all the gifts and well wishes from strangers, all the videos and notes, and love. And I told her that all of those things are evidence that there is something in the universe more mystical than this weird quarantine, and something stronger than our strong fear.; (319) 368-8513

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