From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The Birthday Party

“Moms! Bring your child to Aaron’s Fifth Birthday Party at Romp ’n’ Roam this Saturday at noon! There will be pizza and cake for the kids and plenty of fun for everyone!”

“See?” I told my wife, holding out the invitation decorated with bright blue racing cars so she could read it. “This clearly says ‘moms.’ Not ‘dads.’ ‘Moms.’ I’m not invited.”

Raising her head weakly from her pillow, my wife squinted at the invitation. “Jane just put down ‘moms’ because we’re usually the ones who bring the kids to parties. But she won’t mind if you take Joe. I called her and told her that I have the flu. She says it will be nice to have a dad at Romp ’n’ Roam for a change.”

Nice? I had my doubts about that. Romp ’n’ Roam is a huge indoor playground in our town, filled with tunnels, slides, and colorful plastic balls kids love to jump into. I’d visited Romp ’n’ Roam before but always with my wife at my side so that she could follow the kids around while I drank coffee and read the newspaper. “Does Joe mind if I take him?” I asked, looking for another way out of Daddy Duty.

“Why would Joe mind?”

“Well, he’s used to going places with you. Maybe it would upset him if I took him to the party.”

Shutting her eyes, my wife rolled onto her side. “It’s just a birthday party for a five-year-old,” she reminded me. “I’m not missing his high school graduation or his wedding. Besides, it’s about time you took him somewhere alone.”

She had a point. In the five years since Joe’s birth, my wife had been his chief caregiver, a role she delighted in. And to be completely honest, that was just fine with me. While I loved my son from the moment I first saw him, he also mystified me with his variety of cries and demands that I couldn’t interpret, but which my wife was able to immediately identify as pleas for a clean diaper, food, or a nap. He also wiggled so much that I was almost afraid to hold him—suppose he leaped out of my arms like a puppy or squirmed his way through my hands like a freshly caught fish? Not that I didn’t do many things with him: cuddling, playing, reading at bedtime, even changing diapers. But social life? That I hadn’t yet tackled. Later, I told myself as the years passed, when Joe’s older I’ll do more things with him. Father and son things, like working on the car and shoveling the driveway.

Not like taking him to a birthday party at Romp ’n’ Roam, however. That particular activity was never one I would have picked out on my own.

The day of Aaron’s birthday party was bright and cold. Joe and I arrived at Romp ’n’ Roam precisely at noon, and we were greeted by Jane and what seemed like ten thousand moms, all talking about things like the best place to get highlights for their hair, their favorite recipes for pasta, and breastfeeding. A wave of shyness swept over me. As novel as the idea was to be the only man in all that female company, it was more than a touch daunting.

Joe tugged on my hand. “Want to play with me, Dad?” he asked. Like a chip off the old block, he seemed to be having an attack of timidity, too.

“All right,” I readily agreed, “what shall we do?”

“Follow me,” Joe suggested.

And so I did. Up ladders and down slides. Through tunnels and mazes. Into pits filled with balls, where Joe and I happily pelted each other. This is fun, I realized as I crawled after my son, ignoring my aching knees and occasional feelings of claustrophobia. A lot more fun than I’d thought it would be.

The party ended with the promised pizza and cake for the kids and coffee for the grown-ups. “It’s wonderful to see a dad playing with his son,” one of the moms remarked to me. “I can tell that the two of you have a good time together.”

Smiling down at my son, I agreed. “He’s just about the best company I know,” I told her, happy that I’d learned I didn’t need to wait until my son was old enough to hold a screwdriver or shovel to spend some quality time with him. Quality time is where you find it, even at an indoor playground in the middle of winter.

Mark Musolf

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