Our son turns one next week and I feel as I always do when one of our children’s milestones are approaching: proud, excited and slightly sad due to the fact as they are constantly growing, they are moving further and further away from that small little bundle that lay in my arms.
That first birthday, I remember from our daughters, is a strange event. I remember with both of them I spent ages planning and preparing for the big day, I wanted to celebrate, not just for them but for me. I wanted to have a party, to lavish on them all those birthday moments I couldn’t wait to share with them. I wanted the photos of festivities, the preconceived memories, and the Kodak moments. There was the cake, the candle, the singing, and the presents. Hey, I even threw in some decorations and balloons with a guest list, why not?
Why not indeed! What subsequently happened for both our daughters’ first birthdays was pure disaster.
Our first daughter’s first birthday was a proper do, a family gathering, with a lot of chattering adults. We still have photos of her in her pretty pink party dress and in complete bewilderment. “Why are these people singing to me and why is my cake on fire?” She seems to be thinking in every pose. She’s a logical soul and always has been. She didn’t cry, just looked lost and tired. I barely spent time with her as I was with the guests and too stressed making sure it all went well. Oh, everything went fine as far as the guests were concerned, but the purpose seemed to have gotten lost and everything that should have been a bang, went out with a whimper.
For our next daughter’s first birthday I’d learnt a bit. We’d moved by then and didn’t know anyone to invite and the whole event was toned down. A simple birthday with her close family at home was what I’d envisioned. I thought she’d be thrilled with just a bit of celebration, with out the hoopla of lots of people. But still, all of her birthday photos are of her tear stained and stressed, why? I tried to give her a different experience. There was no party, no balloons, no fuss, just a few gifts and the offer of cupcakes with candles accompanied by singing. It still proved to be too much. Tears came as she wondered what was wrong with everyone. She looked at me as if I’d gone crazy with asking her to blow out a candle and offering her boxes wrapped in paper, which in the end I had to unwrap and struggle with getting the contents out fast enough for her to understand what was inside. I went to bed thinking that birthdays shouldn’t be celebrated until a child was 5.
I’ve often reflected since then why children don’t really enjoy birthdays and holidays until they are older. Why do we feel we have to make a big deal over landmarks and celebrations? From their perspective, life is about the day, this moment. They are happy to live in the moment and then suddenly the people they love are preparing for an event and probably getting stressed doing it. With an event, the celebration becomes the focus rather than the baby themselves and by shifting this priority they can’t help but feel like they are being treated differently. And then when the day arrives, they are sung to, cooed to by strangers and have wrapped gifts thrust in their small arms for, in their opinion, no particular reason. It must seem so off to them. They are happiest in their explorations, their quiet focused play with the little things. After all, don’t we all joke about how a child often plays with the box rather than the expensive gift inside?
I’ve watched my daughters come to enjoy and look forward to their birthdays. In fact, they spend a lot of time thinking about them and planning it themselves. They’ve gotten used to the idea of the big deal and in doing so I think they can lose a sense of the wonderfulness of the day. Ironically, when this happens most of us, as parents, resent the fact that our children are making demands as the plans get bigger and bigger. We call the child spoilt and make them feel bad for something we introduced them to way too early on. This seems totally unfair.
How do I shift this process for my youngest? Although he won’t remember anything about his first birthday, how can I prepare the foundations for his coming years?
Should I give up on acknowledging my son’s 1st milestone? Should I deny myself the fun and satisfaction of a celebration and simply treat it like any other day, much like I did all his monthly landmarks from 1-11 months? I can’t. I can’t help the fact that a 1st birthday is a celebration, it’s like I said that first birthday isn’t about them. It’s for me!
I love to think that next week I can celebrate and bask in the fact that I’ve been the mother of this beautiful boy for a year. I love to celebrate how happy and healthy he is. I love to acknowledge how he’s expanded and grown. He’s improved my life. He’s improved our family. The joy he’s brought all of us is indescribable and I want to take a day to let that joy wash over me and be my focus. I want to take some time to remember his birth, the journey that started off over a year ago, from morning sickness and craving mustard, to my water breaking, contractions while staring at a full moon, that final push, his first breath, and that moment we first clapped eyes on each other. I want to close this chapter of time symbolically, not let it drift by as a square on a calendar.
So yes, we will be celebrating our boy’s first birthday, but this time not in the conventional manner that I tried to conform to before. Oh he’ll have a present- a swing for outside sits in our closet waiting for the day- but we’ll forgo wrapping. Rather I can’t wait to see his face when he finds it already hanging up outside on his birthday morning. He’ll go to the beach, which he loves and spend the day playing in the sand and subtly I will make sure the day is filled with his little joys that bring him so much pleasure. I will play with him and cancel any other pressures in order to give him my full attention, even if it means living at the chicken pen where he loves to visit the new baby chicks we keep there.
But my celebration will also be an inner one. I will take the time to reflect on my joy on being his mother. I will appreciate the experience, I will reflect on the little baby that was, on his entrance into the world and how far he has come from there. I will look at photos and remind myself of his process to this point. As a present to myself I will create an photo album from the past year and I will allow his first birthday to be like a door closing on his babyhood, while another door opens up to his time as a toddler.
My celebration will be a selfish one.
He will know nothing different other than the fact that, for some reason, the day was filled with his favourite things. He will have his favourite meals, and custard for dessert. There won’t be any candle, although I’m sure I can’t stop my daughters from singing Happy Birthday at least a few times in the day. Rather than bewilderment, I hope he ends the day simply pondering how, for some reason, he got his own way more than not. However, for me, I will be filled with the satisfying awe and contentment of appreciating my bundle of joy.
I remember that blissful moment, that first night he slept in my arms. I remember thinking how this time around I would appreciate all the little things. That when our daughters were born I had no idea how fast the time would fly. I lay there, tired and sore, and counted his toes, and traced his features with my finger. It’s a wonderful moment. Pregnancy and any sense of worry or wonder are buried behind you, and the future doesn’t need to be thought about. In fact, there are few times in my life that I can remember being so in the moment. As I’ve watched our son grow this past year, I’ve tried to keep that sense of moment to moment joy. A life of joyful moments equals a joyful life. He has truly taught me to try to live more in that space. That space of that first night. Now, it’s been a year since that night. I’m not going to blow it by making his first birthday into a stressful planed affair, rather a celebration of the moments that have been and the moments to come.
He may not be a bundle any longer, but he will always be a joy and on his first birthday, I will celebrate the joyousness he’s brought into my life.