Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I began planning my daughter’s second birthday party just hours before it was scheduled to start (of course!). I knew from my crazy blog habit that I should have ordered gorgeous personalized party invitations, lemonade bottles and goodie bags adorned with elegant fonts, photography and tiara imagery from Pinhole Press weeks before.

But I’m a lover, not a planner.  Or at least, that was my response to my mother, who asked about the party relentlessly in the two weeks leading up to it.

If putting together an extravagant birthday celebration for Zora was a priority, I could have planned a hell of a party.  But she’s two and there’s a large part of me that thinks anything beyond close friends, close family and some cupcakes is doing too much.

For her first birthday, we kept things simple and she survived—thrived actually.  I don’t even remember what we gave her beyond a decorated high chair, overzealous singing and a diminutive cupcake.  In photos I was wearing a pink cardboard hat and crutches.  After major knee surgery, I was in no condition to go all Martha Stewart on the occasion.

So what did I end up doing on Zora’s second birthday?  First, I woke up at six, ate some steel-cut oatmeal, biked and lifted at the gym, and did some writing.  Then at about 10 a.m., I started planning the party, scheduled to start in less than three hours. 

I sent a text to invite Z’s best friend (one of my friends that Z stole at birth) and the friend’s newborn baby. I asked my mom to pick up a dozen cupcakes in Carytown. Then I ran to a local camera shop to print out copies of favorite photos from Zora’s first two years that had been idling in Dropbox and my cell phone.  Last, I sprinted to the store for gifts, cards, decorations and salad for the adults.

Ultimately, I went with my gut and made the whole shebang cupcake-themed.  Z loves them. Besides, I’m not feeling princesses, and she’s not quite ready for the Doc McStuffins medical gear I was initially leaning toward.  For her third birthday, though, I can definitely get behind the Disney Jr. show starring a little black girl with pigtails who diagnoses and treats her toys with great skill and compassion.

Parkinson’s Law, which observes that things take as long to do as you give them, was definitely in effect.  I experienced what Timothy Ferriss calls “the magic of the imminent deadline.”  (Of course, this law doesn’t apply to more complex matters, say passing the bar or prepping for space flight.)

“If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials,” he writes in The 4-Hour Workweek.  “If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill.  If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster.  The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to great focus.”

Zora agrees.  She ate a very balanced meal of chicken, mandarin oranges and cake—her favorites — and had an absolute blast.  When her dad walked into the party, which was timed to an hour-long gap in his crazy work schedule, he shook his head at the food, the glut of gifts (the grandmas went there) and decorations and said, “This is excessive.”  Imagine his response if I’d gone all out. 

Questions: When it comes to toddler birthdays, how much is too much?  What truly makes a birthday memorable at any age?

Please scroll down and post your thoughts below in the comments section.  Thanks!