My Super Sweet Six

Sarah Donnelly isn't having a great day. It's her seventh birthday, and she's surrounded by all her best friends. And a clown. And a pony. And a magician and a guy dressed like a cowboy and two women in suspenders with bright red yarn for hair and big hearts drawn around their eyes, who keep handing people balloons and asking who they like best, Hannah Montana or Dora the Explorer.

Everyone's here to make sure that Sarah has the best birthday in the world, but she's kind of having a shitty time. What Sarah really wants to do is take off her scratchy party dress and go out front and watch the guy who's blowing up the balloons that the raggedy girls are handing out. But her mommy says she has to stay in her seat and eat birthday cake and stop whining, because she's the guest of honor and leaving wouldn't be nice, would it?

Sarah is tired of being nice. She sets her white plastic fork down on the frilly pink vinyl tablecloth and whispers to her mother, "Mom, when is it not going to be my birthday any more?"

A friend gives Sarah's mother, Sherry, a reassuring, it's-almost-over pat on the shoulder. "I know," Mom hisses through clenched teeth. "But her brother's turning four in six weeks. I have to go through this all over again!"

Poor Sarah. Poor Sarah's mom. Today, in their giant backyard, draped in 40 pounds of streamers and encircled by thousands of dollars worth of merriment, neither is taking much pleasure in knowing that they're at the best birthday party in the great, big gated Paradise Valley community where they live. It seems unlikely that either would care at this point — as the merry-go-round starts up for the hundredth time and the pony takes an unexpected dump on Raggedy Andy's shoe — that they're merely the latest in a long line of mother-daughter duos who are feeding the current trend in over-the-top, over-produced kiddy birthday parties. Neither Sarah (because she's too young) nor her mom (because she's too, well, frazzled at the moment) has given any thought to how they've been feeding the multimillion-dollar industry that's sprung up around Sarah's desire for everything she sees on TV and, just maybe, Mom's inability to "connect intimately" with her daughter.

It's no surprise that experts are horrified by this burgeoning business in ridiculously opulent birthday parties, this newish industry that's busting at the seams with more and more lavish ways to acknowledge the first day of Little Johnny's fourth year. It's a trend forwarded not just by maniacal moms with disposable incomes and no extra time, but by moms in every income bracket who feel guilty because their busy lives keep them away from their kids. It's a trend that the super-est Super Moms support, even though many of them would like to give a permanent time-out to the guy who invented the chains of "grown-up" (some say downright sleazy) party places they're hiring for the day, places that pour their tiny daughters into glittery cat suits and glop them with enough eyeliner and blush to choke a birthday clown.

Nutso birthday bashes for little kids aren't just a local trend, but they certainly are thriving in the Valley. Phoenix is home to both a monthly magazine and an annual guide devoted to planning prepubescent parties, and to both chain shops like the Lolita-esque Club Libby Lu (where your daughter goes in a kid and comes out a Pussycat Doll) and locally owned companies that are busily preparing to franchise.

There are: Valley-based Frills to Fairytales and its sister company, Cuddle Bear Creations, both about to launch as national chains; A Child's Joy, which can provide everything from a petting zoo to inflatable "bouncy houses" and carnival-size mechanical rides; Star of My Party, which will send a film crew to your home and pop out a special-effects-laden, scripted movie featuring your wee thespian; and Girly Girlz, another local business that's about to franchise its ersatz tea parties, where the tarts being served are 4-year-old girls.

Michelle Hoffman, who's lived in Fountain Hills for the past seven years, says that the parties where she takes her kids — 9-year-old Paige and 6-year-old Drew — are more opulent than any she's seen. "We've lived in San Francisco and London," she says, "and still I haven't seen anything like the parties moms put on here. It took me a while to get used to catered playdates, too. With me, it's crackers and juice boxes, not finger sandwiches and Libby Lu."

There's nothing wrong with a catered playdate, says stay-at-home mom Donna Kurtz. She spent most of February planning her daughter Daphne's fourth birthday party. She supervised the assembly of 18 handmade invitations, ordered a designer cake shaped like a trio of balloons, and has already started stuffing the gift bags that each party guest will take home with them a week from Saturday. Headquartered at the kitchen island of her Fountain Hills home, she's making a list of finger foods for the separate party she'll throw for the parents of her guests that same day. Each hors d'oeuvres option is lobbed to Daphne, who's seated nearby, coloring.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela