One mom learned the hard way that simpler is better for her family.

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Remember that scene in The Lion King when Simba is born and Rafiki introduces him to the rest of the animals on the African Plain? He stands on a cliff, holds up the newborn prince, and the entire animal kingdom bows their heads in reverence. Ah, it’s the Circle of Life!

That was the perfect embodiment for what I envisioned for my daughter’s first birthday party. If you hadn’t met her yet, well... Here. She. Was! And look—she can walk! She has teeth! She can point and sort of say “Mama!” Can you even believe it? And wait, wait, don’t stop there. No, please—now take a look at me—Queen Mama of this miracle child. Look at how together I am with a baby on my hip, effortlessly entertaining our 75 closest friends and family.

A bit much, right? I realize now I fell for the perfect-party hype partly by falling down the Pinterest wormhole and partly by seeing so many Facebook and Instagram photos of extravagant parties. I couldn’t help be caught up in all the options: Should I do a Disney character motif—or keep the vibe more traditional with all the décor related to the alphabet, the circus, or the zoo? Maybe I should do a Western theme and hire a pony like my friend, Jen, did for her kid. I mean, Charlotte can’t even ride a pony but hey, you only turn one once!

Of course, such an occasion called for adorable invitations, catered food for adults as well as kiddie-friendly fare, a custom egg-free cake (Charlotte suffered from an egg allergy that she has since outgrown), a pink and purple motif that included a handmade embroidered dress and matching bow, a gazillion helium-filled balloons, streamers and swirly things that hung from the ceiling, and a clown that morphed into Elmo halfway through the party.

But from the arrival of the first guest, Charlotte made it very clear that she was dubious of the entire affair. She ripped out the matching hair bow over and over. She shrieked in fear of the clown. She cried every time a balloon popped. And worst of all, she refused to blow out her candle or even try her cake. In fact, she simply fell asleep in my arms while all 75 of her guests sang to her—a move that I couldn’t help but take as a sign that she was completely over this birthday party. And frankly, so was I.

As I kicked off my heels and scraped half-eaten pieces of cake into the garbage, I realized, Boy, was I a sucker. I couldn’t believe that I fell for all the pomp and circumstance that currently plagues first birthdays. I knew my daughter would never remember the party. I realized that I had actually thrown the party for myself. It had become a reflection of the kind of perfect mother I wanted to be perceived as by my friends and family. Not only had I wasted a lot of money on this shindig, but I had also wasted my time planning the party. I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t feel like supermom after my over-the-top birthday party—I just felt utterly exhausted.

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Four years later, my son turned one. By then, I was pretty drained with the daily care of two small children and I had learned an important lesson: If I was relaxed and happy, so were my kids. This time, instead of going big, I simply went home. On a hot July afternoon (after a snuggly family nap), I set up the sprinkler and water table for George and his sister to splash in. I smiled—and exhaled—as I watched my kids play in the summer sun, relieved that I wasn’t worrying about tipping an entertainer or if my goodie bags were the same color of blue as the balloons. To my surprise, none of my friends seemed to ask why I wasn’t hosting a big blowout, and simply offered genuine wishes on my Facebook page.

Surrounded by only my parents and in-laws in my backyard, I blew out the candle on a supermarket cake for George while he wriggled in my arms. I felt a deep gratitude for my little family—for how far we’d come, for how much I’d learned. On my son’s first birthday, I wished for a life that was filled with healthy children, love, simplicity, and above all else, more sleep. Funny thing about first birthday wishes—sometimes they come true.

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