Cake and Anxiety
Featuring: Kristine Hunder
February 9, 2020

Can you relate?

Kristine submitted this story after overcoming extreme anxiety at a birthday party. This experience left her wanting to model change and is a great example for all the parents out there struggling with their own party plans.


We raced around the house, throwing on a dress, brushing hair, getting the present ready, coat on, out the door, into the car. Deep breath. As we made our way to the birthday party and I recalibrated, my daughter was beaming with excitement and I found myself looking forward to meeting the other parents.

We knocked on the door and after a few chilly moments on the porch, the door opened with a burst of warm air and we were welcomed by the birthday boy’s parents. As I was offered coffee, my eyes were drawn to a refreshment table piled high with single-use water bottles, juice boxes, and disposable coffee cups, complete with single serving packets of sugar and cream. A lump formed in my throat, but I figured they were after convenience.

“Each time I saw a parent take a water bottle or make a coffee I felt a small pang of panic.”

While the kids were happily enjoying the party’s activities, I chatted with a few of the other parents and found myself relaxing for a moment. But each time I saw a parent take a water bottle or make a coffee I felt a small pang of panic. Normally I am quite vocal about single-use water bottles but I bit my tongue. When it came time for cake, I watched with dread as each child was handed a paper plate, napkin, plastic fork, and juice-box. Within moments there was a mountain of single-use, non-recyclable plastic on the table. I was stunned at the amount of waste produced at this one birthday party.

There was no recycling bin available, so everything went into the garbage. I steadied myself as I anticipated the moment where the abundance would reach its apex: the gifts. I had already noticed that our gift, two books wrapped in leftover winter-themed wrapping paper with a homemade card, stood out from the gifts in giant bags with loads of tissue paper.

“I didn’t let on, but I was on the verge of a panic attack.”

As the birthday boy tore into the gifts, I felt my heart pump faster and blood rush to my cheeks. Everyone was standing around smiling and taking pictures as plastic toy after plastic toy, each housed in superfluous packaging, was unwrapped.

I didn’t let on, but I was on the verge of a panic attack. I was facing three upcoming birthday parties, including my own daughter’s. I took a few deep breaths as the parade of presents ended and the kids went back to playing. I felt relieved as we collected the gift bag with a few treats and toys inside, and said our thank you’s and goodbye’s.

Back at home with my husband, we talked about my physical reaction to the waste and my feelings of isolation in a setting that was meant to be joyous. I told him I was anxious about our daughter’s upcoming birthday. I was so overwhelmed that I contemplated canceling the party, but we reflected and decided to make specific choices and be as environmentally conscious as possible. Starting with the invitations, we explained, “Gifts are not expected! If you intend to bring one, we would ask that you avoid toys made of plastic in favour of books, crafts or toys made from environmentally friendly alternatives.”


Embracing our choices

Preparing for the party was stressful and I worried that our “no plastic” declaration would attract scrutiny from other parents. We carefully made decisions to reduce our waste and the party was a success. My daughter loved the alternatives we chose and all the kids had fun; I even had a few conversations with parents about the challenges of juggling the expectations of a party and being sustainable and rather than scrutiny I felt curiosity and support.

I learned many ways that I could cut waste for this party and where we could take it further in the future. I am hopeful that with each passing year, the wasteful norms associated with these parties will shift, and throwing a zero-waste party will become less a rebellious act and more the new normal.

A note from Rachel

When we first published this story, Kevin reflected that as a parent it is often hard to find the balance between cultural norms and courageous acts. Birthday parties exemplify this. While we want to break old norms and pioneer new ways of celebrating that don’t come at the cost of our childrens’ futures, we also don’t want to shame other parents or kids, and ultimately, we want the party to be, well, a party. 

How do you practice your traditions in light of all that is changing (and must change) in our relationship with “stuff”?