Half Past Seven x Jen Shoop: On Entertaining in the Early Years of Motherhood

A spin on our "How She Hosts" series
We asked Jen Shoop, a mom and hostess we admire, to share a peek behind the curtain of entertaining in the early years of motherhood.

Jen Shoop is the founder and author of Magpie, a literary lifestyle publication.

I hosted a 20-person dinner party for my husband's fortieth birthday. Despite priding myself on being a life-long "anticipator" (versus procrastinator), I recall feeling frayed at the edges in the days leading up to the event. My children were two and four at the time, and, in those early years of motherhood, layering anything on top of the demanding routine of caring for small children can imperil your state of mind. Sometimes the most fibrous of requests -- say, "don't forget to send in the $2 for free dress!" -- after a long day of reminding your son not to put his finger in his nose, and wiping down countertops, and filling snack cups, and soothing bumped foreheads and skinned knees, can shoot you over the edge, and you find yourself taking deep breaths in the dark of your closet, simultaneously righteous in your rage and appalled at your own small-mindedness.

The day of the party, I tornadoed around the home, squeezing citrus for elaborate cocktails, ironing napkins, and placating my children with goldfish, fresh paper on which to draw, and long bouts of television. I had (smartly, I thought) arranged to have a mother's helper come by in the evening to help the children through their bedtime routines, as I knew I would be taking care of last-minute details like lighting the candles and putting out the ice. She arrived promptly at six and my children promptly ignored her and clung to my skirts like thistledown. Bedtime that night ran like whack-a-mole. The sitter would guide one child to the bathroom to brush teeth, and the other would be clinging to my left leg. Then she'd pry that one off, and the other would materialize in the kitchen doorframe, rubbing his eyes. I remember feeling exasperated. Not at the sitter, not at my children, but just at the tremendous challenge of getting anything accomplished with an audience of young ones. Eventually, I absented myself from the dawning party, sent the sitter home, and handled bedtime myself. It was one of those clipped, not-great bedtimes, where I was more or less tapping my foot and sprint-reading through the bedtime story. I felt guilty about this, but I also had twenty guests downstairs. Finally, I closed the doors to their bedrooms, made my way downstairs, and relaxed into the evening.

Just before I shepherded my guests over to the candle-lit dining room, I popped into our living room, where we had assembled a makeshift bar by throwing a tablecloth over a card table and stationing big bins of ice studded with beer and wine, as well as an enormous punch bowl filled with a delicious cocktail I'd made from the excellent Death & Co cocktail book. As I was refilling my glass, I noticed my daughter's tiny feet poking out from underneath the table cloth. In a flash, I remembered the many times I sat on the uppermost front stair of my childhood home in my nightgown, pressing my face against the baluster, as I craned to take in my parents and the guests they were entertaining downstairs. And then I remembered pilfering Carr crackers off the table, and running through the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room, and the times my mother permitted me to carry out the desserts and circulate with trays of appetizers. I crouched down and lifted the tablecloth, and there was my girl, just wanting to be a part of the party, a part of my life.

It is not always easy, but I have tried, in the years intervening, to incorporate my children into our entertaining: my daughter will write the names on place cards and put the silverware out, and I often enlist her advice in where I should place the table decor. ("Does the moss bunny look better here or here?"). Sometimes I find myself assigning my son superfluous tasks, like "sorting napkin rings," but he feels engaged all the same. And they both love serving as head scout, spying for incoming guests by laying on the floor by the front door, their noses pressed against the panes of glass that run alongside it.

The sight of my daughter's feet under the tablecloth hem moved me deeply. I had been foolish and wrong, I determined, to try to keep my children at bay, to ferry them out of the way, to exclude them from the festivities. I had thought I was paving an easier path, but my goodness: my children are a part of me. They are, in fact, the heart of me. And so my guests will just have to accommodate my mildly off-kilter and imprecise entertaining style at the moment. I don't think anyone minds, and perhaps no one even really notices, but my children, I think, do mind and notice the invitation. You are a part of this celebration, I am telling them. You matter, I am whispering.

The author and her daughter

About Jen Shoop

Jen Shoop is the founder and author of Magpie, a literary lifestyle publication.  Magpie exists to inspire and politely provoke women to live thoughtful, well-curated, stylish lives.  It leans into the vision that “a woman contains multitudes”: we can be intellectual, style-conscious, highbrow, lowbrow, ambitious, exhausted (and, and, and – !) all at the same time. Ultimately, Magpie aspires to invite self-discovery and encourage women to see their entire selves.

Jen Shoop holds an advanced degree in literature from Georgetown University and has enjoyed a varied career in non-profit management, technology, and product design. She considers writing her vocation. Jen is an adoring wife to her husband, Landon (styled as Mr. Magpie on this blog), and a loving mother to two young children. She resides in Bethesda, Maryland.

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