by Andrea Lani
On the eve of my eighth birthday, my family gathered in my grandparents’ kitchen, preparing a late-summer dinner. My grandmother stood at the white formica counter and molded hamburger into patties. My aunts sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. My mother sat on a chair beneath the antique school house clock and shucked corn. I leaned on the gleaming oak pedestal table, restless with anticipation of the meal, the cake that would follow, the presents. And then my mom, buried under corn husks, pressed her hand to the side of her lap, which had grown round and unwelcoming in recent months, and announced that it was time.
I don’t remember if she and my dad left for the hospital right then, or if they stuck around to eat dinner and see candles blown out and presents unwrapped. I don’t remember what kind of cake it was—chocolate with chocolate frosting, white with coconut, yellow with the crisp white peaks of seven-minute icing—though I know my grandmother would have made it from scratch and displayed it on a glass cake stand. Nor do I remember what presents I received, other than a hammer from my dad, my initials engraved on the ash handle and the steel head.
I do remember waking up alone the next morning in my grandparents’ guest room, bereft and abandoned. My parents called to say that my sister was born at 11:09 the previous night, fifty-one minutes before my birthday. In that moment, the baby I had anticipated with such excitement turned into a horror who stole my special day. When we all arrived home a few days later, I discovered that, rather than the living doll I had expected, a baby sister was a noisy nuisance that syphoned away all of my parents’ time, attention, and money. As she got older, she invaded my space, messed with my stuff, and saddled me with babysitting duties.
Birthdays were the worst. No longer was it my day, but one more thing I had to share with my sister—shared family parties and picnics, shared photographs, sometimes even shared cakes. She would blow out her two or three or four candles, then eight more would be added and lit. I would blow, but the magic of wishes would already have dissipated when she sprayed her toddler breath all over the cake.
When it came time for my husband and I to plan for a second child, I wanted to make sure that my kids’ birthdays would fall at least a month apart, to minimize at least this one potential for sibling rivalry. It turns out that I’m not very good at planning—or math—and I ended up pregnant with not one second child, but two, and a due date five days after their big brother’s birthday.
Twins never go full term. Even if they’re inclined to stay on the inside for 40 weeks, the doctor will schedule a C-section for week 39. My doctor performed surgery on Tuesdays and Fridays and Friday of my 39th week was my older son’s birthday. I briefly pondered the ethics of requesting a Tuesday C-section for not good reason other than to avoid my other child’s birthday, but was saved from the dilemma by the doctor, who was going out of town Friday and so scheduled my surgery for Tuesday.
We celebrated my son’s fourth birthday in the maternity ward waiting room, with no candles on the chocolate cake my in-laws brought (open flames are frowned upon in hospitals). I sat on a scratchy couch in my hospital gown with both babies propped on an enormous foam nursing pillow and watched as he opened an odd assortment of presents that my husband had picked out because I was too pregnant to go birthday shopping.
At first I made a big deal out of making each child his own separate birthday cake, the shared cake looming in my mind as a symbol of losing my youngest-child status. I bought cake pans sized for the top tier of a wedding cake, so I would not have to bake (and we would not have to eat) three full-sized cakes. But over the years I’ve realized that having their own cakes matters a lot less to my sons than it did to me. My oldest has foregone the cake altogether some years, opting instead for cream cheese brownies or peppermint bark. Last year we celebrated his birthday with store-bought cupcakes in the waiting room of the music school before his guitar lesson.
Two years ago, the twins had a Lord of the Rings birthday party and I bought a vintage bundt pan to bake them a ring-shaped cake, around which I wrote Elvish words in red squeeze-tube frosting. Last year I used the pan again to make an elaborate devil’s food cake that they’d seen on a TV cooking show. Both times they happily blew out candles from opposite sides of the single cake and they don’t appear to have suffered any long-term damage.
For better or worse, our own childhood experiences inform out parenting choices. Memories being forced by a substitute teacher to color a full moon yellow, when every moon I’d ever seen was white, loomed large in my decision to move my children from a preschool with prescriptive coloring practices to a more expensive, less convenient school that allowed more freedom of creative expression. My friend’s childhood spent sitting at a plate of cold and congealing food long after the dinner hour led her to cook separate meals for her fussy children, while my own adventurous childhood palate (pickled pigs’ feet, anyone?) made me impatient with my children’s pickiness.
Perhaps because they’re twins who share everything from their DNA to their underwear, the thought of sharing a cake doesn’t phase my kids. Or maybe because with three kids’ birthdays in the span of three days, birthday gets stretched out into birth-week or even birth-month. Between a camping trip, a kid party, several rounds of celebrations with my husband’s multi-faceted family, and boxes of gifts arriving from my long-distance family, they are certainly not deprived. We’ve taken to calling this season of abundance Second Christmas, falling as it does almost halfway around the calendar. They’ve gotten so used to this extended celebration that last year, when we moved the camping trip to Memorial Day weekend and had the twins’ birthday party on their actual birthday, one of them asked me, “I know today is our birthday party, but when are we having our birthday?”
As for me, once my sister and I were both adults I got over the cake thing and we became friends. Also, since I’ve had kids, I’ve gotten a lot better at sharing.
Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.