Cake and Anxiety

  • Stories
February 19th, 2020
Photo of a cupcake, present, and birthday hat

Kristine submitted this story after overcoming extreme anxiety at a birthday party. This experience left her wanting to model change and is a great example for all the parents out there struggling with their own party plans.

Thanks for sharing your story Kristine!


We raced around the house, throwing on a dress, brushing hair, getting the present ready, coat on, out the door, into the car. Deep breath. As we made our way to the birthday party and I recalibrated, my daughter was beaming with excitement and I found myself looking forward to meeting the other parents.

We knocked on the door and after a few chilly moments on the porch, the door opened with a burst of warm air and we were welcomed by the birthday boy’s parents. As I was offered coffee, my eyes were drawn to a refreshment table piled high with single-use water bottles, juice boxes, and disposable coffee cups, complete with single serving packets of sugar and cream. A lump formed in my throat, but I figured they were after convenience.

But each time I saw a parent take a water bottle or make a coffee I felt a small pang of panic.

While the kids were happily enjoying the party’s activities, I chatted with a few of the other parents and found myself relaxing for a moment. But each time I saw a parent take a water bottle or make a coffee I felt a small pang of panic. Normally I am quite vocal about single-use water bottles but I bit my tongue. When it came time for cake, I watched with dread as each child was handed a paper plate, napkin, plastic fork, and juice-box. Within moments there was a mountain of single-use, non-recyclable plastic on the table. I was stunned at the amount of waste produced at this one birthday party.

There was no recycling bin available, so everything went into the garbage. I steadied myself as I anticipated the moment where the abundance would reach its apex: the gifts. I had already noticed that our gift, two books wrapped in leftover winter-themed wrapping paper with a homemade card, stood out from the gifts in giant bags with loads of tissue paper.

I didn’t let on, but I was on the verge of a panic attack.

As the birthday boy tore into the gifts, I felt my heart pump faster and blood rush to my cheeks. Everyone was standing around smiling and taking pictures as plastic toy after plastic toy, each housed in superfluous packaging, was unwrapped.

I didn’t let on, but I was on the verge of a panic attack. I was facing three upcoming birthday parties, including my own daughter’s. I took a few deep breaths as the parade of presents ended and the kids went back to playing. I felt relieved as we collected the gift bag with a few treats and toys inside, and said our thank you’s and goodbye’s.

Back at home with my husband, we talked about my physical reaction to the waste and my feelings of isolation in a setting that was meant to be joyous. I told him I was anxious about our daughter's upcoming birthday. I was so overwhelmed that I contemplated canceling the party, but we reflected and decided to make specific choices and be as environmentally conscious as possible. Starting with the invitations, we explained, “Gifts are not expected! If you intend to bring one, we would ask that you avoid toys made of plastic in favour of books, crafts or toys made from environmentally friendly alternatives.”

Preparing for the party was stressful and I worried that our “no plastic” declaration would attract scrutiny from other parents. We carefully made decisions to reduce our waste and the party was a success. My daughter loved the alternatives we chose and all the kids had fun; I even had a few conversations with parents about the challenges of juggling the expectations of a party and being sustainable and rather than scrutiny I felt curiosity and support.

I learned many ways that I could cut waste for this party and where we could take it further in the future. I am hopeful that with each passing year, the wasteful norms associated with these parties will shift, and throwing a zero-waste party will become less a rebellious act and more the new normal.

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  • By Kristine Hunter

In Closing

I can relate to Kristine's story.

As a parent it is often hard to find the balance between cultural norms and courageous acts. Birthday parties exemplify this. While we want to break old norms and pioneer new ways of celebrating that don't come at the cost of our childrens' futures, we also don't want to shame other parents or kids, and ultimately, we want the party to be, well, a party. If you are looking at ways to reduce the footprint at your next bash consider these tips that have been tested in the field by yours truly (with the help of my favourite discerning 5 year old).

- KG

Tips for throwing a sustainable birthday party

Enroll other parents

Rather than feeling like a monster hell bent on snuffing out any fun in the name of reducing your party’s footprint, lean into the idea as an opportunity to create excitement over what is possible. Be honest with parents that this is something you are trying out and let them know why it is important to you and your family. Use an evite to send your invitations and messaging and be sure to clearly define the key elements such as gifts, food, etc.

Get your child excited about the idea

Help them understand the goals of the party and your commitment to making sure it is a blast. Let them help find more sustainable alternatives and come up with a reward that you can all enjoy together after you have achieved your goals. For instance, if you decide that gifts aren’t going to be part of the equation, book a day to go to the movies, splurge on snacks, and go to the bookstore to buy a special book as a celebration of reducing waste.

Skip the gifts and goodie bags

While these elements of a party have come to be expected, they're not actually central to having a good time with friends. Cutting out gifts and goodie bags or finding less wasteful alternatives will make your party more sustainable.

Find sustainable alternatives

If you decide that you’d like the party to include gifts, throw a toonie party (that's 2 dollars for those non-Canucks), asking guests to contribute $2 that your child can spend a portion of and donate the rest to a charity of their choice. If the ritual of opening a present is too hard to pass up, ask your child what they would spend their half of the toonies on and get it before the party so that they have one gift to open with their friends. If goodie bags are a must for you, find something that points the kids outdoors and into nature. Flower seeds, bulbs or a seedling are a great way to let the little munchkins have a take-away that promotes everything you are trying to achieve. Be sure to write a little note with planting and care details.

Repurpose decorations

Rather than going to the dollar store and buying decorations that will undoubtedly end up in a landfill, pull out some christmas lights, easter decorations, and halloween trinkets. Your kids will be excited to see these decorations and will want to help you use them around your house. As fun as they are, balloons are terrible for the environment so avoid them at all cost.

Let them play

Kids want to play; let them. Don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you need to facilitate the “fun” at your party. Get them in the room together, make the space conducive to some shenanigans, and get out of their way. Not only will this take the pressure off of you but it will eliminate the extravagance that often comes with crafts, activities, and games that parents feel inclined to include in the party agenda. If you are afraid that your house isn’t the right spot, book a gym, field etc. I can’t tell you how many times I have been at a birthday party where the level of excitement grinds to a halt as parents interrupt the kids at play to try and explain an elaborate activity they have planned.

Limit the food

When kids are ripping around, they don’t eat much. Plan your party away from mealtimes (9am, 3pm) so that the kids won’t rely on your party for a meal. Choose a few healthy finger food snacks and then let them eat cake (or better yet, cupcakes). Aim for foods that don’t require plates and cutlery. Have water and reusable cups on hand. Posh the party up with linen napkins. Think through quantities in terms of attendees: have 2-3 snack items per kid plus cake. Not only will you limit your waste but you’ll avoid gorging on leftover goldfish crackers and cupcakes later that night.

End with a thank you

Thank parents and their kids for participating in reducing waste. Quantify the amount of waste you estimate you avoided (“with your help we avoided the equivalent of three blue box containers of waste”) and let them know you really appreciate their help. Tell them what charity and gift your child chose. Finally, offer to give tips to any parents that are hoping to try something similar for their own kid and encourage them to follow your lead.

Good luck with your parties!