31 Days of Birthdays

Welcome to 31 Days of Birthdays. If you're looking for an index of all the posts in the series, it's at the bottom of this post. And it grows every day.

If you're just joining the party, let’s start with a little Q&A, shall we?

You aren’t exactly a daily blogger, right? And now you’re going to post something every day for the entire month of October? Are you insane?

Right. Yes. And most likely certifiable.

But this is how it works: Each fall, The Nester invites bloggers to post about one topic, everyday, for the entire month of October. It's like a marathon of writing. This year, I'm joining up. My writing needs some discipline, and I'm equal parts super excited and throw-up nervous.

So we’re in for it then. 31 Days of Birthdays. What does this mean, exactly?

It means that I love birthdays; I believe they are miniature, personalized holidays. I especially love kids birthdays, because I think kids are fed in a deep way when the people who love them most concentrate all their attention and joy on them for just one day. Life is a reason to celebrate!

Are you going to talk The Pi of Birthdays the whole month?

No. Although I can’t promise I won’t mention the pie of birthdays at some point.


I know. Sorry. No, I don’t intend to pontificate for 31 days on the meaning of birthdays. I mostly want to talk parties and cake and themes and what you can do to make the day special for the people you cherish most.

You’re not one of those moms who throw insane birthday parties, are you? The kind that involve limousine rides and tickets backstage to meet Taylor Swift for their three-year-old?

What? Is that over-the-top?

In a word: No. I’m not a crazy birthday mom. I’m a normal birthday mom, a mom who believes the best parties don’t involve stress or whopping credit card bills. Creativity, whimsy and focusing on what makes you and your child happy - those are the keys. Maybe that’s baking a homemade cake. Maybe it’s ordering a cake from Costco so you can go crazy with decor. Maybe decor means three balloons and a limp streamer but the surprise guest list is killer. Play to your strengths and the interests of your child. Don’t try to keep up with the Jones; they aren’t that great anyway.

Are you sure you’re qualified for this? 

I did the math a few days ago. I have four kids, ages 3 to 12. (One of them will even have a birthday this month. Whee!) I’ve thrown a birthday party for each of them every year, mostly because I want to, and partly because we don’t have extended family nearby waiting to descend on us for every occasion. So if I want my child to feel special, I have to throw a party. That means I’ve racked up close to 30 kid birthday parties so far. That’s a lot of parties.

Where do you stand on gift bags?

Hmmmm. I might need to save that answer for another post. I’ve got 31, after all.

You’re right. That’s a lot of posts. Do you have enough material?

Could we not trigger a panic attack the very first day? 

I did a 31 Days series a few years ago. (It turned out to be a little more like 21 Days, but whatever. It was on Sabbath, and I had to rest, man. It’s Biblical.) I learned a lot writing that - mostly, there are many ways to look at a subject.

So this month, yes, I plan to show you some of my kids birthday parties from days of yore, and write about themes and how to expand on an idea. I also might do a few recipe posts, because I have the secret to the best chocolate cake on the planet. I might also talk about invitations and birthday traditions and how to host a boy party without wanting to stab yourself in the eyeball by the time it’s over. If I can learn how to do that before the end of the month.

I'm also scheming a few collaborative posts, because I know my readers have wisdom to share about birthdays too. If you haven’t already, I'd love for you to click over to my Facebook page and like my blog so you can join in on the conversation. I plan to post my group-think questions there.

But mostly, I'm not sure what happens tomorrow. I just know it promises to be a party. Birthdays always are.

Day 1: Q&A (you are here)
Day 2: Shamu Birthday Party
Day 3: Breakfast Pajama Party
Day 4: The Best Chocolate Cake Ever
Day 5: The Cow Cake That Wasn't
Day 6: Make Your Own Colored Sugar
Day 7: Horse Birthday Party
Day 8: Spy/Secret Agent Birthday Party
Day 9: Let's Talk Goody Bags
Day 10: Faux Sleepover Stuffed Animal Party
Day 11: Homemade Pizza Crust for Make-Your-Own-Pizza Parties
Day 12: Tween Girl Gift Guide
Day 13: Farm Animal Birthday Party
Day 14: Summer Treats Birthday Party
Day 15: Put Your Cake on a (Flawless) Pedestal
Day 16: Red Bird Birthday Party (guest post by Megan from SortaCrunchy)
Day 17: Luau Birthday Party
Day 18: Luau Punch
Day 19: Wii Birthday Party
Day 20: Get Out! When NOT to Host The Party at Home
Day 21: Surprise Party 101 (guest post by Leigh Kramer)
Day 22: Super Hero Birthday Party
Day 23: Photo Booth Birthday Party (guest post by JJ from The Blah Blah Blahger)
Day 24: Art Birthday Party
Day 25: Silver White Cake with White Mountain Frosting
Day 26: Tween Birthday Idea: Day of Surprises
Day 27: Lego Birthday Party
Day 28: Rock Star Birthday Party (guest post by Megan from Fried Okra)
Day 29: Rainbow Birthday Party
Day 30: Birthdays in Large Families (guest post from Lora Lynn from Vitafamiliae)
Day 31: Princess Birthday Party

Here, Taste This : Zucchini Banana Flax Mufins

Meet my new addiction: Zucchini Banana Flax Muffins.

Why do I love them? To wit:
1. They use a lot of zucchini, and since I have a zucchini plant in my garden - the rabbits of the vegetable world - I now have a lot of zucchini in my fridge. A LOT. Like, some are the size of small clubs.
2. These muffins use flaxseed meal instead of oil or butter to keep the mixture cohesive. Flaxseed in anything equals 50 grown-up points.
3. Because they contain cinnamon, the whole house smells like fall when you bake them.
4. This recipe also uses bananas. The ones that are too brown and squishy to eat. Using food that would normally go to waste earns you even more grown-up points.
5. Last but certainly not least, they are scrumtious. None of of that other stuff would matter if this tasted like little hockey pucks. The banans and brown sugar lend sweetness, the zucchini adds moisture, the flax makes them tender and keeps them low in fat. Hashtag win-win-win.

Zucchini Banana Flax Muffins
adapted from Everyday Food

1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup flaxseed meal
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1-1/2 cups coarsely grated zucchini (1 small zucchini or 1/10 of one of mine)
1/3 cup mashed ripe banana (about 1 banana)
3/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350. Lightly coat 12-18 standard muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: both flours, flaxseed meal, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, egg and vanilla. Add mashed banana and zucchini and stir to combine.
4. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir just until combined; don't overmix or you'll end up with tough muffins.
5. Divide batter among muffing cups, filling them no more than 3/4 full. Bake until springy on top and golden, about 20-25 minutes.

1. My batter always makes more than 12 muffins, but the actual number varies - probably depending on how much extra zucchini I try to sneak in. One tip: spray the muffin tins as you go once you get past a dozen, so you don't have to clean the oil out of empty tins.
2. Best breakfast in the world: two of these muffins, topped with a shmear of all-natural peanut butter, accompanied by a fruit punch smoothie. Veggies + fruit + protein for breakfast. I'm telling you, it's like a shot of virtuosity.
3. Use your grown-up points wisely. I recommend chocolate zucchini cake.

The Most Important Part of my Day

The most important part of my day usually comes at the very end.

It's after I supervise homework and play another game of Go Fish, after I make dinner and clean up the kitchen, after I give the little kids baths and wave the big kids to the showers, after I supervise teeth brushing and story reading and bedtime snuggles for Kieran and Teyla.

It's when the house is dark and quiet (finally!) and I'm so bone-weary, I'm tempted to grab my iPad and fall into a stupor on the couch.

It's then that I go to say good night to my big kids.

At 9 and 12, Connor and Natalie don't need my help to get ready for bed anymore. When I walk to their rooms at night, they are washed, brushed and snuggled under the covers without my assistance.

But they still need me. That's what I need to remember.

Now, more than ever, they need me to ask about their day and to listen to their stories. They need me to ask them about the book they are reading, the comic they just drew, the story that came up at dinner about the new kid in class and "how did that make you feel?"

They need my questions and my laughter and my attention. They need my blessing. They need my hands on their heads as I pray for favor and growth and a heart that hungers for God. They need to know that I love them more with every passing day, that no amount of exhaustion or solo-parenting or stress can stand between them and me.

If they needed to hear it when they were babies, they need to hear it even more now that they are tweens.

So this week, I started to treat 9:30 each night as the pinnacle of my day, instead of the final box I check before I get some time alone.

Because it is.

I Remember

I remember being woken by a phone call. The sky outside my window was still dark. My mother in law, slightly incoherent and completely hysterical, demanded I turn on the TV. I tried to shake off the grogginess as a I staggered down the stairs with six-week-old Natalie in my arms. I had to wake Carolyn, a dear friend living with us at the time, because the only TV in the house was right next to where she was sleeping in our living room.

And even though it was early morning, we turned on the news and fell headfirst into a nightmare.

I remember how Katie Couric stumbled over her words. Two tall buildings, hemorrhaging smoke against a deep blue sky. A plane had hit them? One? Both? A small plane? We don't know. We can't get answers. And then I remember a building disappearing in a belch of debris. Utter shock. Disbelief. The anchors saying, "I think it just fell."

I remember the horror: true, quaking, nauseating horror. The images of people throwing themselves out of windows to escape the flames. The reporters running with the crowds when the second building fell, the clouds of dust billowing around them like a hellish plume. The ash-covered faces. The fences covered with posters of the missing. The desperate plea for someone, anyone, to be found alive.

None were.

I remember all we did the rest of that week was watch TV, cry, sleep and pray. I remember, vividly, waking in my bed near San Francisco to hear a low plane rumbling over my house, just two day after 9-11, when all the planes were still grounded. I bolted upright and sat listening for what seemed like hours, waiting for the explosion that surely most follow. I learned the next day it was a military plane, patrolling. But the terror of that moment, the new reality, it marked me.

I also remember little Natalie. Sweet, baby Natalie who knew nothing of pain or terror. I remember studying her face as she looked at me with complete trust and joy.

Unlike some of my friends, I didn't suddenly brim with regret for bringing a child into this world. Just the opposite. Her innocence brought me peace. It grounded me. I nursed my new baby that week and cried into her head for all the mamas who lost their babies that day, all the families torn, and her little body tucked into mine was a healing balm.

I remember it all. And this morning, as we drove down streets filled with flags flying at half mast, I shared these memories with Natalie. She's 12 now, and her hand covered her mouth as she grasped the evil of that day. When I told her many of the people killed were firefighters running into a flaming building, intent on rescue, she turned a bowed head and let the tears fall.

She is growing up in a post-9-11 world. She might not feel her stomach knot at the pictures of the buildings imploding, the way we older ones do. Because she didn't live it. She's only heard the stories, and there's a vividness that marks those of us who were witnesses.

But I remember, and today, my heart remembers.

Even as morning dawns outside my window.

Do Hard Things

The refrigerated air from the ice rink hit my nostrils before it hit my skin. I steered Connor inside, him carrying two hockey sticks, me carting the bag. A line of eager young hockey players, already suited up and ready to go, stood wrapped around the glass. A friend from baseball saw Connor and waved.

It wasn't exactly an intimidating setting, but I felt my pulse quicken. I helped Connor sit down on the bench and lace up his skates. He pulled on his new helmet and gloves. He looked impossibly small inside all that equipment. I smiled and said, "Go get 'em! Have fun!"

But inside, I felt like I was sending him to fight lions with his bare hands.

Earlier this year, Connor decided he wants to play hockey. Part of me clapped my hands with delight at his announcement. Hockey is my favorite sport, a passion I share with most Minnesotans (and all of Canada). But he's 9. And he just learned to skate last winter. This is not a good-thing in our hockey-obsessed state, where a lot of kids are born in blades. (Not really, because ouch. But you know what I mean.) Kids skate year-round here, and many are on teams before first grade. All that to say: He's way behind the curve, and if he really wants to play, he's facing a lot of hard work, a fair amount of embarrassment and lots of initial failure.

Aye, there's the rub.


Growing up, I did many things well. I got straight A's in school. I was a fast reader. I wrote poetry, I was a good friend, a perfect student and I could clap a round of "say, say oh playmate" wicked fast. Those things came easy. I didn't even have to try.

Other things weren't so easy. Sports. Jump rope at recess. Failure.

In a twist of irony that's not unique with me, the more I excelled, the less I wanted to risk making a mistake. I liked the feeling of succeeding on my first try; I could get a perfect score on an essay test, even if I knew nothing about my subject, because I could make BS sound pretty. But I despised the feeling of trying and failing; math class, anyone? It was uncomfortable and humiliating and it made my face burn red.

So I started to live by an unspoken rule: I avoided hard things and stuck to activities where success was guaranteed. No risk? No failure.

As I got older, my strategy started to wear thin. I married Corey, a jock and extreme risk taker. I accompanied him on his adventures - keeping book at the softball games, waiting on the ground while he parachuted from planes - but I never participated, even when he begged me to join him. (In one infamous episode, his coed softball team needed a female player to avoid a forfeit, and I stubbornly, desperately, refused to bat even once, wildly choosing social exile over looking like an idiot at home plate.)

It wasn't just sports. I didn't ask for help at the TV station when I was behind deadline, because I didn't want to admit I was going under. I didn't learn to surf, even though I worked one block from the ocean, because I didn't want to struggle in public. I didn't introduce myself to new people who might have been friends because I didn't want to risk rejection.

I missed out on a lot of life. A lot.

Finally, sometime in my 30s, I decided: this is no way to live. I refuse to be hemmed in by fear of failure. I'm tired of giving up before I even start.

So I started to do hard things. I got certified to teach a fitness class. (Me! Doing sports!) I intentionally sought relationships with people different than me. (Me! Inviting uncomfortableness!) I had four kids. (Me! Losing my mind!)

I began to value effort more than ease. And I grew.

I don't fear failure anymore. I fear living inside of a box of my own making.

But that morning in the ice rink, I remembered its smell (and the smell of unwashed hockey equipment). It's one thing to no longer fear failure for myself. It's another thing entirely to watch my kids struggle. I fight hard against my instinct to rescue, to comfort, to gently steer my children toward those things that will come easy. I don't want to watch them fail.

But if I got my wish, how would they grow?

So that morning in the hockey rink, I sat on my hands as I watched Connor finish each drill a full 30 seconds after every other player. I watched him fight to stay upright when kids younger than him were skating laps around him, backwards. I gave the thumbs up when he fell down and I sighed with relief when the coaches divided the kids into skill levels. I cheered when he gained confidence in his hockey stop. I gave the thumbs up when he shot me those tentative, "I think I'm getting it" looks. And I smiled big when he walked off the ice after 90 minutes of solid skating and said, "That was so much fun. I can't wait to come back."

My heart swelled with gratitude and my eyes swelled with tears.

"You are doing a hard thing, Connor," I said as I tugged off his skates. "Don't give up."

We're getting there. We're getting there.

Here, Taste This : Slow Cooker Salsa Chicken

Wow. The first week of school is no joke, n'est pas? My butt is officially whipped. Getting up early after a summer of sleeping in, agonizing over still-too-late bedtimes, squeezing in football practices and gymnastics lessons, keeping track of new schedules, new start times, new teachers, new, new, new. It's a lot. It's possible at this point I have more adrenaline pulsating through my body than blood. I need to grab an energy drink to calm down.

Corey was home this week (thank you Jesus) so I originally intended to cook dinner every night. Then the real world walked up to me, slapped me across the face and said, "Bwhahahahahaha!" And lo, the real world speaks truth. I wasn't even home at the dinner hour most nights this week, much less have energy to invest in a from-scratch meal.

Time to dig out the slow cooker from its summer home behind the ice cream maker and ice crusher. I resisted the Crock-Pot for years, because as a SAHM, I can make most slow cooker meals in my oven. Braising is braising is braising. And in the winter, it's nice to have my oven on low for half the day, making the kitchen warm and toasty and filling the house with good smells. But I will admit: the slow cooker is a wonderful tool, especially for days when the schedule is jammed. And it's especially wonderful in the early fall, when the outside temps are still in the 80s and I don't really want my oven on for half the day.

This meal is one of my all-time favorites for the slow cooker because it's so easy (seriously: 7 ingredients) and it's kid friendly and it can morph into so many different dishes. Tacos, taco salad, nachos, quesadillas, burritos. I bet you could even send this as a school lunch, if you filled a thermos with warmed meat. Imagine your child bringing a make-your-own-taco kit to the cafeteria. Take that, Lunchables.

Slow Cooker Salsa Chicken
adapted from Everyday Food

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 tsp jarred minced garlic
1/2 cup salsa
1-2 tbsp chipotle chilis in adobo, chopped
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

1. Put chicken in the bottom of the slow cooker crock. Top with remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.
2. Cover. Cook on low for 8 hours, high for 4 hours. Shred with fork and serve alongside your favorite taco fixings, such as rice and beans, limes, cilantro, cheese, salsa, guacamole or avocados. Hard shell or soft shell? Your choice.

1. You can easily double or even triple this recipe. I do it all the time. I buy the 3 pack of organic chicken thighs at Costco and make enough so I can freeze shredded chicken for crazy days.
2. Chicken thighs are disgusting. They are at the top of my Least Favorite Things list. I don't like dark meat, I don't like the extra fat, I don't like the way they squish. I usually subsitute chicken breasts in recipes that call for chicken thighs. But that would be a travesty in this recipe. Take my advice and use the chicken thighs, at least once. They add flavor, tenderness and maybe even fat to this dish and they really can't be traded out.
3. This dish looks disguesting when you first mix it up.

See? (Warning: DO NOT PIN THAT PHOTO!) Do not be swayed. I promise that mess will taste amazing in just a few hours.