Having worked in events for several years before embarking upon my journalistic career, I thought I knew everything there was to be known about planning a party. Where to hold it, what to serve, who to invite and how to entertain them. But then came children... Nothing had prepared me for the pressure you feel as a mum to put on the perfect party for your offspring. Pressure not only from the little angels themselves, but from family, friends, and most importantly other kids' mums. Do it wrong and your ranking in the mum of the year stakes at the local school falls faster than a flamingo on a unicycle. I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty.
Up until now my son's birthday celebrations have been quiet affairs - just a meal with the grandparents. But as he approached the big four we realised we couldn't hold out much longer and agreed to a party. So, almost two months before the actual event took place, preparation began in earnest. I consulted books, emailed friends and Googled into the early hours.
Finally, the day came. Some bits went well, some not so well, and this is what I learnt:
1) Choose the right venue
Make sure you have the right space for the amount of kids you are inviting - a massive hall with just a few kids looks odd, just as too many kids in a small front room is asking for trouble. And try to allocate a separate area where parents can stand and chat without interrupting the party. We decided to serve a drinks through the kitchen hatch of the hall we hired, so the grown-ups could hover around it and catch up while the kids ran riot.
2) Pick a theme
Kids love to dress up, and a theme keeps things interesting, but keep it generic. If your child is a Batman fan - pick heroes and villains. Don't do anything too gender specific. Not all girls want to be princesses, and some boys do! Our son is Solar System obsessed, so we had a Space Party. Give guests the option of dressing up, but don't make it compulsory.
Picture writer's own
When choosing an entertainer, the most important factors are: Are they reputable? Do they carry the relevant insurance? What experience do they have? We were recommended Captain Fantastic by several friends and were delighted. Two hours of varied entertainment, including a break in the middle for food, worked perfectly. A bouncy castle for before and after gave an opportunity to stretch little legs and burn off the sugar!
4) What do I feed them?
Check whether any guests have specific allergies or dietary requirements, or separate food and clearly label it vegan, halal, kosher etc. Lunch boxes are great as it keeps mess, and leftovers, to a minimum.
5) The cake
Order a cake online, buy a branded one from a supermarket, or make it yourself. Just make sure it's big enough. Kids don't care what it tastes like, it just has to look right. I managed to rope in my husband to create baby boy's masterpiece - a Solar System cake, of course.
Photo writer's own
6) Who to invite
Ask your child who they want to invite. Much as you want to see your friends who also happen to have kids, if they're not who the birthday boy or girl wants to see, just leave it for a later date. For older kids, discreet invitations after school, or emails, can avoid hurt feelings if you're not inviting the whole class.
Invite at least a month in advance to ensure you have a good idea of numbers, but allow for a few no shows on the day, as well as last-minute extras when siblings may come along too.
7) Wrapping it up
Getting everyone out so you can clear up can be tricky! An entertainer can wind things down for you, otherwise just start turning off the music, deflating the bouncy castle and clearing up the mess - people soon get the hint! Have party bags ready and initiate a queue at the door.
8) Have a good time!
Serve beer for adults if you want to, get dressed up if you want to, or take a back seat and let someone else do it all for you. At the end of the day, if you've done all you can to make sure birthday boy or girl is having fun, there's not much else you can do. And if they see you enjoying their party, chances are they'll be smiling too.