In the days leading up to my fortieth birthday, I occasionally found myself in tears. The same emotional meltdown happened a year ago, right before my son’s tenth birthday. The night he turned ten, I cried myself to sleep. My nine year old daughter, who’s been sleeping in my bed with me since the pandemic began, was sandwiched right beside me, wrapped up in blankets, my own personal heater. Before she fell asleep, she reached over and put her little hand on my cheek and whispered, “Don’t worry mama, you still have me.”
It’s true. Not my best parenting moment.
And so it was that the night before I turned 40 mirrored that very same cringe-worthy mom-moment. With my daughter right next to me, my eyes swelled, those familiar warm droplets like waves about to break. I thought she was asleep, so I reached for some tissues. Surprisingly, she reached up, her little hand on my cheek again.
“I’m so excited for your birthday tomorrow, Mama.” She smiled.
“Me too.” I lied.
Mom-of-the-year strikes again.
My fortieth birthday made me sad — not because of apathy about what’s to come, more because of grief for all that was.
In her new book Oh William, my favorite author, Elizabeth Strout, writes “grief is a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”
For many of us, melancholy happens at milestone moments -birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. This is certainly true for me. Perhaps because it doesn’t come naturally for me to celebrate myself, I find my birthdays, especially this last one, challenging. I’m always in awe of people who love their birthday. They care if people remember it. They plan detailed celebrations. Sometimes, they even have a “birthday week!”
I grew up in a home that criticized self-congratulatory behavior, and birthdays certainly fell in that category. Humility, above all else — the lone message my antithetical, divorced parents actually agreed upon.
In my twenties and thirties, life was full of seemingly important steps. Secure job. Find partner. Stabilize. Get married. Buy a home. Have a child. Or two. Stabilize. Advance career.
These societal steps, albeit privileged and pressured, gave me purpose, a path to follow, a direction when I felt directionless. On the cusp of 40, reflecting on my life’s journey, I felt both proud and pensive about my choices, the very decisions that propelled me to this moment. In the days leading up to my birthday, I wondered, just as Elizabeth Strout did. Was I sliding down the outside of a long glass building? Could anyone really see me?
After all, at life’s intersections, we make our choices and live in their aftermath. As I looked back on the last few decades, the decades I spent building the life I have now, I contemplated my choices, and at times, felt loss for what could have been.
And then, on the morning of my birthday, with the room still dark, my daughter woke up next to me and reached up to rest her warm, little hand on my cheek again.
“Happy birthday, Mama. I made a card for you.” She smiled.
I squeezed her hand, read her card, and looked back at her. Then, I told her the truth.
“This is the best birthday of my life.”