It’s all or nothing – that’s the philosophy I’ve tried to follow when it comes to birthday party invitations.

But with 30 kids in a class, friends from a variety of activities, and our friends’ children who’ve been bound into forced kinship with our own, it’s nearly impossible to invite everyone to a child’s birthday party. City kids in particular rarely have large backyards, and play space parties come with hard attendance caps and lofty per-child fees.

That said, the idea of only inviting a select group of children from the same social circle makes me deeply uncomfortable.

I’ve been able to mostly avoid this conundrum in two ways.

For my son’s 5th birthday party we held a huge blow out. We rented, and decorated, a local recreation center for less than $100, and had the playground mostly to ourselves. We hosted more than 30 kids – it was cheaper than a bounce gym and felt warm, inclusive, personalized, and ours.

His 6th birthday occurred the week after the culmination of preschool, but before the start of kindergarten. We had yet another simple solution – no party. We spent the day at the beach and posted an open invitation for anyone inclined to join us. Two families were able to make the day trip, and the celebration was perfect.

I’ve always said that there’d some a time when we’d go by the birthday age = number of friends rule. So, seven friends get invited to pizza, or out to a movie. But in reality, I can’t do that with a clear conscience. Like most children, my son’s idea of his “seven best friends” changes on a daily basis – sometimes hourly. He’d change his mind immediately after the Evite was sent.

But, more importantly, how could I not invite my best friends’ children – the one’s with whom he’s grown up, and to whom we’ve sworn marriage? How would I explain those Facebook photos? And even if I didn’t post them, someone else would.

Look, I get it. We should teach our children to have thick skins and accept that they won’t always be invited to everything. They won’t always be on the winning team, sometimes they’ll be picked last in gym class, and not everyone is going to want to be a best friend. Yes, I know. We need to prepare them for the real world.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put in a little extra effort to avoid hurt feelings. Because, let’s be honest, sometimes the parents’ feelings are hurt more than the kids. And while we’re all adults, it still hurts.

In the past few months, I learned of three separate parties to which my son was not invited. This is despite that he considers those children close friends, and that my husband and I are friendly with the parents. My son was mostly in the dark about these events, but as a social media-engaged parent, I was stung by a handful of images.

Was my son not as well-liked as we thought? Did the child’s parents not like us? Was my son a booger eater? Was I too abrasive? Did my husband smell like a fart? Was I imagining these close social circles in my own mind this whole time?

I can fully own up to much of this heartache and FOMO (fear of missing out) as an extension of my own insecurity. While I’ve always had a wide group of friends, it’s been difficult to fit squarely into any long-term social circles. I’ve inherited a crippling sensitivity and hyper-awareness that’s hard to shake. I have great admiration for those who react to life’s little disappointments as water off a duck’s back. 

But I simply don’t walk, or quack, like a duck.

At the same time, my children have been invited to several birthday parties where we literally didn’t know who the children, or their parents, were. Apparently, several kids have been asked to choose a small handful of friends, and my kids have sometimes been selected, much to their own surprise! I was delighted that other families thought so highly of my children, especially independently of having a relationship with the parents. But being included in a select group of invitees made me feel cautious about sharing my whereabouts, lest someone else’s feelings get hurt.

While the real world will pull punches, and we’re all bound to be left out in various ways throughout our lifetimes, I still want to do what all I can to avoid being the cause of anyone else’s pain, whether child or adult. When I host a party at my home, I tend to invite everyone I know. Personally, I’d rather run out of spinach dip than run into an uninvited acquaintance at the playground.

When it comes time for parties to become smaller and play dates sizes capped, I’ll make every effort to be conscious of other people’s feelings. I’ll try to instill in my children that same kindness – maybe they can’t be invited to everything, but no one who wants to join in a game should be excluded.

I haven’t yet sorted out my plan for the 7th birthday party. Maybe we’ll just skip town or post an open invitation to a large public space. Or maybe I’ll eat my words, invite seven friends for cake, and feel hopelessly guilty for the next decade.