I celebrated my birthday this week.
I’ve always been a birthday person. With three March birthdays in my immediate family (belonging to my mom, my dad and me) we decided, years ago, to dub the entire month March Madness, and, so, with the flipping of the calendar page, a month-long celebration, bearing no relation to basketball, commences.
It’s hard to say exactly why I’ve always loved this day, my day, so much. Of course it marks my birth, and while that’s something, that’s not quite it. It’s also not the cake or the singing of Happy Birthday. I was a nervous child, and the very thought of a raucous group of people singing and clapping and staring down at me in my attempt to extinguish those tricky candles with one breath was enough to send me into a full-fledged panic attack; it still is.
I suppose one of my favorite things about my birthday has always been that it’s like my own personal New Year’s- a year older, a fresh start. It’s also the one day each year I’m guaranteed to feel like I matter. People send messages expressing sweet sentiments and greeting cards with thoughtful notes scrawled inside. Sometimes there are even gifts involved. It’s all about me, or so I’ve always thought.
[Fast forward to this year]
I celebrated my first birthday as a mother this week, and, now, I can’t help but look at this whole birthday business from an entirely different perspective. The day that marks my birth also marks what was once an extraordinary transition for my mother- a rebirth, if you will, and this is the first year I’ve ever been able to grasp the magnitude of that. In fact, I’ve spent nearly 32 years, in their entirety, thinking this day, the anniversary of one of the most significant days of my mother’s life, was about me.
I also now realize that, under the surface of all that joy, this anniversary can be quite unforgiving for a mother. After all, her once brand new baby turns a year older, then another, then another, not to mention the painful memories that will inevitably be dredged up year-after-year if the birth didn’t go as planned; Miss P’s didn’t, and I’m accosted by a combination of anger, sorrow and resentment each time I think of this. I know we often tell each other – and I’m guilty of this as well – “A healthy mom and a healthy baby are all that matter,” but this is just not true. At the very least, those things certainly matter, but let’s just stop with the pleasantries already.
I’ve been thinking of Miss P’s Birth Day often lately; I strip it down to raw emotion in my mind, hoping one day I’ll be able to accurately convey its power and mysticism through thoughtfully placed words, but, today, this task feels a bit like simultaneously constructing a fortress and summoning a unicorn.
At my first postpartum visit, my midwife urged me to write this story -Miss P’s story- and to do it soon, lest I forget the details. There was no doubt I’d write about the birth of my daughter, but, it’s a meandering tale, and I knew it wasn’t something I could recreate with words until I had achieved some emotional distance. Five months later, I’m still struggling to recount the day, hours and minutes that led up to her arrival.
On my first birthday as a mother, I couldn’t help thinking about the birth of my daughter, letting the events play over and over in my head, but, for one of the first times, I also contemplated the events of my own birth. I saw through the hoopla of previous years: greeting cards, balloons, the dreaded Happy Birthday tune and those stubborn candles, to name a few. I came to terms with the fact that although this day marks the anniversary of my birth, it’s larger than me, and I wanted to find a way to honor that.
As I was playing with Miss P, my baby book, which had been tucked away on a shelf under the coffee table caught my eye.
My parents spent last summer at our family’s former house in New York State, which now belongs to my sister and brother-in-law. During their stay, my mom spent some time in the basement sorting through a mound of cardboard boxes and plastic bins all brimming with books, clothes, toys and photographs.
At summer’s end, she returned to Florida lugging with her an array of forgotten, but once beloved, objects; among them was the baby book she’d put together for me during my first few years of life. The book features numerous photographs, lists of my monumental firsts recorded in her tidy handwriting and keepsakes such as a map of Disney’s Magic Kingdom and embossed plastic wings from my first trip on an airplane.
The day she brought the book to me, we spent the afternoon thumbing through its pages. I was expecting Miss P at the time, so there was something very special about looking at the old photographs and mulling over my milestones and achievements. When we were finished, I set the book aside and continued preparing for Miss P’s impending arrival.
On my first birthday as a mother, I once again opened my book. As I flipped through it, with Miss P sitting in my lap, a stack of yellowed type-written pages tumbled out. It was a newsletter of sorts, from what seemed to be a school my mother was attending at the time. The packet, dated April, 1981, was stapled in the top left corner, and, sandwiched between a list of local happenings, recipes and a brief history on Ukrainian Easter Eggs, was my mother’s birth story – my birth story – printed in faded serif typeset and titled, An Early Spring Blossom.
Miss P kicked her legs and smiled as I read my mother’s words aloud. Though my mother’s experience was different from my own, the sense of anticipation, wonder and urgency she recorded was universal. Towards the end, she took a moment for reflection. She said, “I never really thought much about actually giving life– just living it.”
For me, that’s just it. Sure I’d fantasized about being a mother for years before my wish came true, but it wasn’t until I experienced the birth of my daughter that I was able to grasp my own birthday in all of its beauty and complexity, to see it for what it really was: the day my mother and father finally got to meet the child they’d given life to- the day a family was born.