From Zoom parties to socially distant games: How my family coped with a year of pandemic birthdays

A year ago, we celebrated my daughter’s 12th birthday.

We had a Captain Marvel theme. A nacho bar. An ice cream cake.

She had her friends over for a sleepover. Actually two sleepovers because one of her very best friends had another party to attend on the original party day.

You probably know where this story is going: That was the last “normal” birthday we celebrated last year.

Now it’s Wendy’s 13th birthday. We have a Mandalorian theme. And everything is different. We still had two parties for her friends. But that’s to keep the number of guests in the Zoom room to a manageable level.

We invited only our closest family members over to allow for social distancing. We were masked. We had individual desserts because blowing out candles on a communal cake? Not COVID-friendly.

Happy Birthday.

With the arrival of Wendy’s birthday, each member of our family has now celebrated a pandemic birthday. Two have been during lockdown. Two have been milestone birthdays (Wendy’s first year as a teenager, Alex’s sweet 16). All have been different than normal. Here’s how we’ve adjusted, coped and even changed a few things for the better.

Letting go of things that don’t work and giving gifts to encourage newfound hobbies

My husband and I had the first birthdays of the pandemic — during the safer-at-home order.

We tried to replicate a few of the ways we would normally celebrate. Some just didn’t work. Instead of having my sisters-in-law over to watch movies, we tried to sync up what we were watching and talk to them over Zoom at the same time. Nobody was really in sync, and things kept glitching. It was just kind of frustrating.

Pandemic gift-giving was more successful.

Usually, my mom takes me clothes shopping for my birthday gift. Since that wasn’t possible this year — and I didn’t really feel a need for new clothes in my work-from-home wardrobe of sweats and slippers — my parents bought me a bag of books instead, which they gave me as we chatted on my porch. Those books have been a sanity savior as reading has been one of my most reliable stress reducers during the pandemic.

My husband decided to buy himself a birthday gift this year — an ax. That sounds weird. Let me explain. We have a slightly wooded area in our backyard. Two years ago, we had to have several dead trees cut down and chopped into large, unwieldy stumps — where they stayed because we never had the time (or frankly the desire) to cut them into more manageable firewood. Enter the lockdown, several furlough days and nothing else to do. My husband has discovered a new relaxing hobby in clearing out our “forest” and burning the wood in our firepit.

Outdoor celebrations and socially distant game hacks

My daughter, Alex, has a July birthday. By that time the lockdown was over. Stores were open — which meant her annual Barnes & Noble shopping spree and Baskin Robbins outing were doable, with masks and plenty of hand sanitizer.

But large gatherings were still discouraged, and health experts advised that socially distant, outdoor activities were safer.

She had to bypass the usual sleepover she has with her friends in favor of a shorter outdoor party — which got moved to the garage with the door open because a rainstorm turned our lawn into a soggy mess. The bright spot was it forced me to clean our garage.

Alex and her guests sat at chairs spaced six feet apart and snacked on individually wrapped snacks. I even gave each guest a dinosaur grabber so they could take a snack from the table without touching it. (This was a bit of overkill; it was mostly just for fun.)

I placed a Ziploc bag filled with game supplies on each guest’s chair. There were Pictionary cards and a headband and Headbands cards. To play Pictionary, each guest just had to read something from their card and go to the whiteboard to draw while everyone else guessed. Nobody had to be too close to each other, and each person used hand sanitizer after using the whiteboard marker.

Headbands is another great socially distant game. Each player places a card inside a plastic headband on their head. Everyone else can see the person, place or thing the player is supposed to guess. They ask yes or no questions until they guess what’s on their head.

When our families came over for a backyard birthday party, we had picnic food. Following recommendations to avoid buffet serving techniques, I used individual takeout containers to serve hamburgers, french fries, pickles and fruit. I even used tiny containers for ketchup and mustard, and we had individual bags of chips too. My kids enjoyed this serving style so much that they asked for it to continue once things get back to normal.

Embracing technology and respecting people’s boundaries

When we had Alex’s birthday party, I knew her friends and their parents would be comfortable with the idea of an outside, socially distant gathering.

But Wendy’s birthday is in February, and we were just coming out of a COVID surge. So Wendy’s friends joined her in a Zoom room for a party. Alex made up a trivia game for them, and the rest of the time, they just enjoyed seeing each other’s unmasked faces and talking for a few hours. I also sent out packages with snacks to each of her friends so they could all enjoy the same treats during the party. And a few of her friends even surprised her with contactless birthday gift dropoffs to our house.

I’m happy we were able to celebrate each of our birthdays this year even though our parties were different. And now we have a few months before the next round of family birthdays begins. Maybe those parties will be a bit more normal. If they won’t, I guess we can adjust again. Fingers crossed.

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or amy.schwabe@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.

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