My daughter studied Hebrew for four years, giving up free time after school and many weekend slumber parties in pursuit of Jewish knowledge. After all that effort, she wanted a fabulous party to mark the occasion of finally being called to the bimah as a bat mitzvah.
And I wanted to give her one. She’d worked hard for it. But I didn’t have a savings account marked “bat mitzvah” set aside, nor did I have tens of thousands of dollars open on credit cards. I’m sure that many parents must save for this from the moment they get a positive pregnancy test, but I was a very young parent, a single one until she was in elementary school, and for most of her life I had been struggling to finish college and pay the bills. I wanted my daughter to have a Jewish education. But I couldn’t take out a mortgage to do it.
I was supposed to be excited about this milestone, but as it drew ever closer, all I felt was dread. It became a chore, an obligation, a source of massive anxiety, not a joy. I wanted nothing to do with the words “bat mitzvah” anymore. And that broke my heart.
So after months of agonizing, I made a decision. I was not going to spend a lot on this bat mitzvah. And I was not going to feel guilty about it either.
B’nai mitzvah celebrations are synonymous with overspending, which often worked against me when I began looking for a place to host hers. The moment the words “bat mitzvah” slipped from my lips, vendors thought (probably from past experience) that this was going to be a free-for-all.
I watched their faces turn from eagerness to annoyance when I declined all the extras they threw at us–did we need a team of trapeze artists to provide entertainment between courses? Perhaps the London Symphony Orchestra could perform entrance music? Would our teenage guests prefer the $150 organic free range chicken or beef in their heirloom mushroom sauce? Or we could have a separate buffet that would serve chicken nuggets for the bargain price of $75 each kid. We could add an ice cream bar for an additional $10 a head and unlimited soda refills for another $8. We could bring our own cake from an outside bakery for dessert but it would be $3 a slice to cut it, even if it’s already cut, and if we want the cake they provide instead, it would also cost $3 a slice.
Their ugly chairs were on the house but if we wanted anything that didn’t look like it came from bingo night at the VFW Hall we could spend $5 or more per chair to cover them with fabric in the shape of the seat to match the 15 layers of tablecloths and napkins we were already supposed to spend an exorbitant amount of money on. And that didn’t even begin to cover it–there were invitations, a DJ, and all sorts of other things to pay for too. The more I spent, the more unique my child’s party could be, within the pre-set parameters of a cookie-cutter banquet event, of course. All we had to do was provide a theme and her favorite colors and they would spend all the money for me, no sweat off my back.
So I started looking into more creative venues. A lock-in for 100 kids at the park district with access to an indoor pool was one possibility we explored, but it was clear my daughter had visions of pretty dresses, so the decision was quickly made that this would have to be a semi-formal evening party. Doing something in the backyard at home sounded like a good deal, but by the time I priced renting and hiring and cleaning and fixing up my landscaping, we may as well go back to the hotel with the ice cream bar and the circus acts.
Wedding boards suggested looking into park district properties, as some can be incredibly lovely and incredibly cheap. I found a beautiful site owned by a suburban park district that came complete with a catering kitchen, tables and chairs, and gorgeous stone outdoor space, which was a bonus for summer. Someone recommended a caterer that prepared food on site which both the kids and adults would enjoy and wasn’t marked up 1000%. I hired a father and son DJ service that charged a fraction of what the big companies were charging, and they did as wonderful a job playing Top 40 and taking requests as those that wanted $1500-$2000 or more. I ordered balloons and tons of party supplies online and at the local party store.
And I did the unthinkable–rather than limit her invite list, I limited mine. I kept the adult list to close family and a few friends and allowed her to invite as many of her peers as she wanted. That was a tough pill to swallow, but it satisfied a long list of conflicts, and ultimately I thought of it as her party, not mine, so it made sense for us.
But considering the image of the extravagant party is so pervasive, I struggled with feeling that I’d let her down. That she was disappointed. That I wasn’t giving her the party she deserved.
It was this word I kept coming back to—deserved. She deserves a big party. Then I started pulling it apart. When did we start accepting, or rather, expecting this? Why do we think our 13-year-old kids deserve a party that costs as much or more than many peoples’ weddings?
Still, I understand why we do it. Here they are, on the cusp of adulthood, barreling into unknown territory. They are still our babies but so grown-up too. And how can we tell them how proud we are of them? How much we love them? They don’t cuddle in our laps anymore, or listen to Goodnight Moon, or hold our hand in the store. They’re wrapped up entirely in things, and themselves, and their newly independent world. They’re just beginning to pull away. And we want to show them, and the world, how much we love them. How much we’d sacrifice for them.
But is pushing ourselves to the brink of financial ruin an appropriate way of showing our kids how much we love them? If so, do they even get that message? What are we really saying when we spend what amounts to a year’s salary on a 13-year-old’s party? Even if we can easily afford to?
A year later they’re in high school and that rite of passage looks babyish in hindsight anyway. They’re onto bigger and better things. The sports theme? Over it. Hello Kitty ice sculpture? Stupid. That party is ancient history and we’re paying the bill until their college tuition comes due.
I’m going to channel Susan Powter for a moment and say: stop the insanity! My version of the cheap (or pared down, however you want to look at it) bat mitzvah isn’t going to work for everyone, but we would do ourselves, and our kids, a huge favor if we took an honest look at what’s really necessary and how to achieve the emotional impact we’re seeking without trying to fulfill it through our checkbooks. I felt just as proud of my daughter as I would have at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and I didn’t overshadow every other accomplishment of her life by maxing out on her 13th birthday. My only regret is that I’ll probably never find out what $75 chicken nuggets taste like.