Sometimes, not having a party is reason enough to celebrate

October 27, 2002|By SUSAN REIMER

A couple of times each year, I pick up and leave town. I try not to slam the door behind me or run screaming from the house or make the tires squeal as I tear out of the neighborhood because people would talk.

But there has never been any question that these little trips are necessary for my mental health.

And there has never been any debate about my going. My husband never objects -- he considers it part of our bargain -- and the kids claim not to care one way or the other.

But this time, when I announced my plans to visit an old friend in upstate New York, there was no mistaking the sighs of relief.

"I need the break," I said, offering my usual explanation.

"No offense, honey," my husband said, "but we could use the break, too."

It seems everybody had their own reason for wanting to see me go.

My 16-year-old daughter could barely contain the joy she knew it would be impolitic to reveal: Her jailer was taking a weekend away.

"Oh," she said, stumbling and recovering. "I mean, you know, it will be quality time with my dad."

"You mean 'quality time with your slow-witted, clueless old fool of a dad,' " her father responded, meeting her cloying smile with a sarcastic one of his own.

But that wasn't the only reason my beloved family would do the happy dance in the driveway when I left. I seemed to have worn everybody out.

Since planning a first birthday party for my son with a guest list of 50, I have been the family's somewhat expansive social chairman. Whatever the excuse, I always want the celebration at my house and I want everyone to come.

The party pace has been somewhat daunting lately, I admit. A confirmation party, a graduation party, a goodbye party, 11 house guests for an extended weekend, a neighborhood back-to-school party, three football tailgates and a backyard barbecue for 40.

For my husband, these events inevitably require immediate lawn care, 30 pounds of ice, 36 rented chairs, a grill and a trip to Sam's Club.

"It just keeps rolling over us," said my weary husband, looking as if he had, indeed, been rolled over.

"Frankly," he said, "it would be nice to have a weekend off."

For good or ill, women are the social secretaries of the American family.

We cut our teeth on toddler birthday parties and we keep going right on through weddings. I swear, the funeral wake was the brainchild of a woman who wanted to have everybody over after. If there were not already holidays on the calendar, we would schedule them.

Such gatherings are more effort than they used to be: families are scattered, neighbors are over-committed, and if women work outside the home, a party can seem like too much work at the end of a long week. But we haven't abandoned the notion altogether, and it can still be a party if everyone will just bring a little something to share.

Social researchers have found that these kinds of activities not only improve the quality of life, but can actually increase its length. The reason isn't crystal clear, but, for example, socially active people are less likely to smoke cigarettes and they are more likely to learn from one another about health issues.

If we look forward to parties and social gatherings as a chance to relax, there is reason: these same social researchers say talking with family and friends is a great source of stress relief. So is the idea that somebody else cooked and went out for the beer.

Women, I think, use parties and holidays and birthdays and other informal occasions as a way to reinforce family ties as well as build a network of friendship and a safety net for their families.

There is something about being invited inside someone else's house for food and drink that makes someone an intimate instead of merely an acquaintance. Women build that kind of interdependence without even realizing it, I think.

But there can be too much of a good thing, I suppose.

That's why my family was relieved and grateful that I was taking a weekend off to renew one of my old social relationships instead of managing theirs.

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