Pink Champagne

Pink Champagne

Black and white photograph for background, tourist girl in swimsuit standing with happiness on the beach and sea at Koh Miang Island, Mu Ko Similan National Park, Phang Nga province, Thailand

By Harriet Heydemann

“Let’s send her picture to Dr. Doom and Gloom,” her father said every birthday. That’s what we called the doctor who told us she wouldn’t live past the age of five or ten, or maybe, if she was lucky, she’d make it to fifteen. The doctor’s prognosis was the worst we had heard. Most of the experts we consulted scratched their heads. Ariela never sat up, or crawled, or walked. No one knew what was wrong or why she was the way she was.

“Look how well she’s doing.” We said this every birthday past fifteen, knowing we were being smug, knowing we might be jinxing her luck. We laughed about Dr. Doom and Gloom. “She doesn’t know Ariela,” we said. “Ariela’s a trouper.” Sometimes we used the word “miracle.”

Every birthday, I relived her birth, just as my mother did with me. “What was it like the day I was born?” I’d ask my mother. She would tell me the story. How she was sedated. When she woke up, she had a baby.

“No sedation,” I said to my doctor who told me to take Lamaze classes. But the Lamaze teacher never said, “In and out of distress” and “No progress.” After hours that felt like days, I was rushed to the OR for an emergency

C-section. I couldn’t feel a thing or watch her birth.

I admit. I spoiled Ariela. After all, she was an only child. Ariela could have just about anything she wanted any day of the year. It was a challenge to make her birthday special.

At least a month before her birthday, she would decide what kind of event she wanted, who would be on her guest list, what food to serve. Whether she’d have a chocolate, white or carrot cake. But that’s where her power ended. She had little control over anything that mattered. She held court over her party from the seat of her wheelchair. She smiled and laughed with her friends and understood everything they said. But she was never able to speak. We read her facial expressions and her body language. She answered our questions with “yes” and “no” cards or a blink of an eye. By her eighth birthday, she used a computer with a digitized voice, a child’s version of Stephen Hawking’s device.

There would be more than one celebration. If her birthday fell in the middle of the week, she’d have a few close friends over for cake. On the weekend, another cake and another party for a larger group. Then, because her birthday came right before Thanksgiving, we’d celebrate when family came into town for the holiday. She liked being the center of attention, all her friends surrounding her, singing “Happy Birthday.” They filled our home with constant banter, interspersed with squeals of laughter and whispered secrets.

By the time Ariela turned sixteen, she could no longer eat the cake or anything else. Her food, a nutritional supplement, went into her stomach by way of a long, skinny tube. Sometimes I put the tiniest taste of strawberry jam in her cheek, washed down with a few drops of pink champagne, her favorite drink. We celebrated every year, like this year would be the best, like she would live forever.

I wanted all her parties to be perfect; the kind that linger in your memory for days after, where everything goes smoothly and no one wants to leave. Her friends still talk about her twenty-first birthday in a downtown nightclub. But the last one, a bowling party, was far from ideal. I chose a Sunday instead of a Saturday, and a few of her friends couldn’t come. The street was dark, and people couldn’t find the place. Almost everyone was late. The music was too loud. The bowling alley was slow serving the pizza. The strobe lights gave Ariela a headache. Her bowling ramp and lucky pink shirt, both previous birthday gifts, didn’t bring the usual show of strikes. I should have checked out the place beforehand. She looked at me with an expression that I knew too well. Roughly translated, “You really fucked up this time.”

“You’ll have a better party next year,” I promised.

As Jews, we mark the anniversary of a death, but what about a birthday? Is a birthday sacred? Or does only a mother hold that day sacred? My mother used to tell me, “You may not know the father, but you know the mother.” Sedated, anesthetized or awake, the mother was there.

My missing her is the same lonely, painful, deep hole every day. Her birthday is not different, except it is. It feels strange not to have a party, and feels even stranger to have one. We can’t have a cake with candles, and we can’t sing “Happy Birthday.” I worry that her birthday will become just another day. It’s a challenge to make the day special.

Her friends text and email, prodding me to do something. On the day of her birthday, about a dozen young women congregate in our house and reminisce.

Many of Ariela’s friends came into her life as caregivers, attendants to help with her personal needs and accompany her to medical appointments, classes, movies, concerts, bars, wherever she needed or wanted to go. For the last seven or eight years, she hired millennials, women close to her in age. Over time, their relationships evolved into friendships. Her friends went on to become physical therapists, nurses, speech pathologists, social workers, and teachers.

“I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch.

She’s grinning along with them.

This was the first birthday party she missed.

She would have been twenty-seven.”

 

“She changed my life, the way I think about disability and ability,” one friend says.

“She inspires me everyday,” says another.

“She didn’t want to be an inspiration. She made fun of people who patronized her.” They all nod at this.

“She made me laugh.”

We eat pizza and drink pink champagne. We gather around the TV and watch a video, a photomontage of Ariela’s life. Her friends point to themselves in the group shots.

“We’re at the Embarcadero in that one. We went to watch a flash mob.”

“That one’s from her trip to Israel. Dig the hottie she’s sitting with.”

Everyone laughs at Ariela dressed as a zombie, her eyes blackened, mouth smeared a bloody red, her Halloween costume two years ago.

The sounds of young women laughing, joking, teasing fill our home. I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch. She’s grinning along with them. This was the first birthday party she missed. She would have been twenty-seven. So there, Dr. Doom and Gloom. She beat your prediction by over eleven years.

Surrounded by Ariela’s friends, I understand why she said the “L” in her name stood for “lucky.” I think of the lasting impressions she made on their lives, and I know her birthday will not be forgotten.

I mark her friends’ birthdays in my calendar. I’m not crazy about pink champagne, but I raise a glass to all of them.

Harriet Heydemann’s work has been published in The Big Roundtable, Huffington Post, and A Cup Of Comfort for Parents of Children With Special Needs.

A Birthday In The Park

A Birthday In The Park

A lone park bench in a botanical garden park

By Lori Wenner

The din of the birthday party seemed to fade as a cloud of primary-colored balloons drifted high above the treetops, slowly disappearing into the azure sky. We’d enjoyed birthday cake, sung “Happy Birthday” in a large circle and then released the balloons. But something was missing: the birthday girl was absent from her party. As the last balloon vanished, I heard a voice whisper, “I’m okay, Momma. I love you.”

The birthday girl was Alexa Christine, my first daughter and she had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a year before when she was eleven weeks old. My husband Rohn and I had decided to observe her first birthday with a gathering at her grave. We couldn’t bear the thought of the day passing unnoticed, as if she’d never existed. But I worried what others would think; I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Rohn had reassured me, with his typical confidence, that our loved ones would approve and attend. He was right. We marked Alexa’s birth as she deserved and received love and support that our friends and family would never have known how to give to us otherwise.

The dazzling summer sun spilled over our gathering and a breeze from the nearby Neches River granted us a reprieve from the southeast Texas heat. The mood was light with laughter, conversation and hugs. Our many guests mingled under the towering pine tree standing sentry over Alexa’s grave. The party also served as a send-off: Rohn and I would depart that afternoon for a Colorado holiday where, pregnant with our second daughter, Caitlyn, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool mountain air.

The cemetery where Alexa is buried is as green and lush as a city park. Pine and live oak trees shade the grounds, which are dotted with picturesque flower gardens. The grave markers are uniform, flush with the ground allowing an unobstructed view as the land slopes gently to the river below. Here, it’s easy to forget you are in a graveyard. When Alexa died, we chose four paired burial plots near the river, arranged head-to-foot. We buried Alexa in the middle of two plots; the other two were reserved for Rohn and me. I buried Rohn in his plot seventeen years later, when, at age forty-eight, colon cancer ended his life.

We celebrated Caitlyn’s first birthday fifteen months after Alexa’s. On that crisp, sunny October day, many of the same guests from Alexa’s party milled about our backyard, laughing and talking. The birthday girl, fashionably late after a long nap, entered the yard with her chubby hand in mine. Rohn videotaped her toddling by my side, capturing her pale pink smocked dress, her lacy socks, her white Mary Janes and the pink bow in her curly blonde hair. I presented the group with the queen of our world, my heart full to bursting.

Our family grew by two over the next six years, as Caitlyn’s sisters Jillian and Zoe were born. Big sisters and an ever-expanding cast of cousins increased the fun as we celebrated first birthdays with elaborate cakes from Beaumont’s best bakery and new dresses for the birthday girl and Mom. We chose Blue’s Clues, Jillian’s favorite Nickelodeon show, for her first birthday theme; the birthday girl wore an aqua, green and hot pink dress to match the chipper puppy and a headband that tamed her thick, black hair. At her own first birthday party, Zoe wore a vintage-inspired linen sundress, white sandals, and a white bow in her blonde hair. Rohn photographed her seated on our dining room table near her two-tiered pink cake, which she quickly devoured with both hands.

After celebrating Alexa’s first birthday with our friends, we honored the occasion each passing year with a dinner with my parents. In the early years, we also visited her grave. But, as time passed, I didn’t feel the need to visit Alexa there. I felt closer to her in our home giving her sisters the love I couldn’t give her.

Following his death, we celebrated Rohn’s birthdays at his favorite seafood restaurant, with his favorite cake: lemon with chocolate icing. Rohn had wanted these flavors for his groom’s cake, but for once, I’d said no to him. I would have been better off suffering through that cake once. When he didn’t get his requested groom’s cake, Rohn felt entitled to a lemon cake with chocolate icing for his next twenty birthdays. We continue this tradition now, reminiscing about Rohn’s other odd food combinations, like Steen’s syrup and cheddar cheese atop pancakes. In her first year away at college, Caitlyn marked her Daddy’s birthday by baking his favorite cake in her poorly stocked dorm kitchen and sharing it with her friends.

Caitlyn’s, Jillian’s and Zoe’s birthdays have always been about growth, hope and life; each represents another year that a child of mine has flourished. Since his death, Rohn’s birthdays have been about remembrance and gratitude. I often mention him to friends on his birthday. We laugh together, remembering the kind, gregarious, creative and unstoppable man we all loved. Rohn’s life was cut short, but he packed everyday of it working hard, playing hard and loving even harder. It is sad to remember Alexa on her birthdays and there isn’t laughter when I do, so I only mention her birthday to a few select friends.

Losing Alexa remains an agony, even after twenty-three years. I can easily recall the happy times in her short life, but I keep the the unvarnished fact of her death hidden away. I know that my daughter is dead, but I rarely access that reality. When I do, I say the words my baby died aloud. The intensity of my grief shocks me. Then I recall Julian Barnes’ thoughts on mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Alexa’s birthdays are not about a baby who didn’t get to grow up. They’re not about what might have been. After the initial devastation of her death, I wrestled with a heartrending question: Would conceiving and loving other children betray my love for Alexa? With time, I have come to believe that each unique child’s conception is only possible at one precise moment in time; a child conceived at any other time is a completely different person. If Alexa had lived, I would not have become pregnant so soon afterward and Caitlyn and her sisters would never have been born. In this way, I have come to believe that Alexa was meant to live for only seventy-seven days. This is a sadness I can bear; what I cannot bear is the sadness and regret of a life not lived.

A nursery RN for thirty years, I usually choose to work on Alexa’s birthday. I recall my first pregnancy, labor and delivery as I walk past room 319, the room where she was born. The babies I care for comfort me. At times, I see a whisper of Alexa’s spirit in their faces and for a moment, it’s as if she’s there with me.

Lori Wenner is an RN/lactation consultant who lives in Beaumont, Texas with her three daughters ages 22, 18 and 15. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, Nursing for Women’s Health and MEDSURG Nursing. 

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

Reflecting on Simple Joys

Reflecting on Simple Joys

By Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Art Balloons in Air copy

I asked my twin sons what they wanted for their upcoming birthdays. Isaac didn’t respond. He’s functionally nonverbal and wasn’t interested in using his speech generating device to answer. He was only interested in watching the garage door rise and fall as he examined how the light spread across the floor.

Noah thought for a moment and said, “I don’t need a new atlas. How about shirts? Then we can laugh when we open them.”

Today family will squeeze into our modest home to eat lunch and celebrate another birthday milestone.

Isaac might reluctantly open one present before escaping to play “Wheel of Fortune” on the computer downstairs. It’s a refuge from the sights and sounds and people that overwhelm his sensory system. Some years he resurfaces when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday,” even though he can’t coordinate his body to blow out the candles.

Noah loves the attention and company. Once he’s focused, he opens each present quickly. He barely looks to see what’s inside. Occasionally he will say things like, “Is this all there is?” even though he’s been told repeatedly that those words are rude.

Invariably someone will say, “Can you believe they’re 7 years old?”

My husband and I will answer in unison, “Has it only been seven years?” Then we’ll laugh and point to the bags under our eyes.

It’s been a long road since they were diagnosed with autism five years ago.

Isaac’s behavior was so challenging I was not sure he could remain in our home. He didn’t seem to understand language. He seldom slept. Often he was up for the day at 2:00 a.m. He didn’t go back to sleep. Either my husband or I would supervise him while the other slept. Many nights I prayed that Isaac would find comfort – and that we would – and somehow we all could put one foot in front of the other when the sun rose in the morning.

Noah said a few words, but his language wasn’t functional. His only word was “Daddy,” which was handy when I asked him who won the Miss America pageant last year. “Daddy” was his answer to everything. Most people frightened him – especially strangers — and he cried for hours when his routine was disrupted.

When I took them to a park on a beautiful summer day, they ran in opposite directions – and never to the play equipment. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice the slide or playground equipment at all.

They’ve both come so far.

So have I.

Before my boys were born, I never dreamed I could raise a special needs child or two. It seemed like a demanding job that always felt too big for me.

Kids with autism need to be taught everything. They don’t generally pick up cues from the environment the way others do. Problem solving is difficult, as is language, social interaction, and activities of daily living: eating, toileting, bathing, and dressing.

My boys have learned a lot at speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. They’ve had feeding therapy, early childhood special education preschool, special education classes, and therapeutic horseback riding.

Now I realize my boys have taught me much more than I’ve taught them. Not all of the lessons have been easy. I’ve learned about acceptance, patience, humility, and unconditional love.

I’ve learned not to worry about the person in the store who’s giving me the evil eye when my child is having a meltdown. I’ve learned to advocate for my sons’ needs. I’ve learned I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I could be.

I’ve learned that the boy who has no speech has a lot to say. I’ve learned that my son who is a walking encyclopedia views the world from a different lens. I’ve learned that getting angry gets me nowhere. I’ve learned how to recognize the little victories that are big victories in our world. I don’t diminish them.

I often wonder what kind of person I may have become had autism not entered my life. I believe I’d be more rested. But would I be shallow or judgmental? Would my new house or car be my biggest concern? Would I be oblivious to life’s simple joys?

Isaac and Noah are my gifts. They have made me a better person and mother.

Today I will stop to reflect upon their growth during the last year, and I’ll celebrate how richly I’ve been blessed. Then I’ll serve up those thoughts with a big piece of birthday cake.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw has been published on Yahoo Parenting, Scary Mommy, The Mighty, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and various newspapers. She blogs at Turn Up the V. Find her on Facebook and Twitter

Our Birthday Blog Series

200296650-001Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

This year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time.

 

 

 

theirbirthdayCelebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

 

 

 

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

 

 

 

fewcupcakesDo You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

By Rudri Patel and Stacey Gill

Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. 

Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.

 

izztbdaylistThe First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

The First Disappointment

The First Disappointment

By Stephanie Sprenger

izztbdaylist

I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

 

After months of begging, I finally caved. Eight years old seemed like a fine age to host our first birthday sleepover party; it seemed almost cozy, a pleasant contrast to larger birthday party adventures of years past. Maybe I was eager to re-live my own popcorn-eating, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”-watching, truth-or-dare-playing slumber party days.

My daughter was elated. Being the ultra-organized, hyper-planning apple from my Type-A tree, her sleepover party would not be a “go with the flow” type of event. Hours before the girls came over, she had fashioned sleeping stations in her bedroom, carefully mapped out with colorful blankets spread around her floor. On each station was a BFF necklace and an itinerary listing the sleepover’s events. Yes, an itinerary.

Four girls were attending, including the one child who rightfully claimed the official BFF title. The other three were girls from her class whom I didn’t know well. When I sent out the invitation, I offered parents the option of not committing to the overnight portion of the party—they were free to pick up their kids before bedtime. Only one family took me up on it—the parents of a shy child who was new to school.

The first half of the party was like an advertisement for “Girls’ World Magazine.” There was whispering, shrieking, dancing, Karaoke, pizza, cake, and nail-painting. For a group of 3rd graders, it was idyllic.

My mother and I cleaned up the kitchen to a soundtrack of laughter pealing from my daughter’s bedroom. Raucous dance moves shook the ceiling above me, and the girls’ singing nearly (sadly, not completely) drowned out the Kidz Bop CD that was blaring. My daughter was having a fantastic time. It was just what she’d hoped for, and as such, all that I hoped for as her mother.

After pajamas were donned and sleeping bags unrolled, I carried a tray of popcorn and M&Ms upstairs and tiptoed into the dark bedroom where the pre-bedtime movie played.

“Lindsay, your mom will be here in about half an hour,” I whispered, hoping she wouldn’t feel too badly about missing the rest of the fun.

At 9:30, the girls paused the movie and came outside to bid farewell to their departing friend. Lindsay’s parents pulled into the driveway as the girls hollered and swung from the tree swing, the porch light illuminating their grinning faces, nightgowns, and bare feet.

Returning to the movie, the mood was only slightly dampened by the decimated ranks. I sat in the kitchen, finally daring to pour myself a glass of wine, and de-briefed with my mom. “I think Izzy’s having a great time,” I said. A foreboding gong of doom may as well have sounded at that moment.

I heard a clatter of footsteps on the stairs. My daughter’s chagrined face poked around the corner. “Taylor wants to leave,” she whispered tearfully. I hastily rose to intervene, my premature glass of celebratory wine forgotten.

“Honey, we knew that was a possibility,” I reminded her gently. “She hasn’t had a sleepover before—neither have you. It’s hard for kids to be away from their parents all night. We can’t make her feel bad.”

It was after ten by now, and Taylor’s mom quickly arrived at our house after I called her. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” I assured her, waving off her apologies and discomfort.

“OK, girls, it’s time to get in your sleeping bags,” I announced cheerfully, trying to ignore the dark mood that had descended. The three remaining girls dutifully arranged themselves and their stuffed animals on the carpet.

“Mommy, will you sing us a lullaby?” my daughter requested quietly. “I think it will help us sleep.”

I of course agreed, snuggling next to my daughter and singing a few of her old favorites. The girls smiled and listened, and as I crept out of her bedroom, I felt downright smug. I was the best sleepover mom ever.

Ten short minutes later the next round of wails began. Another casualty was imminent—the girls were dropping like flies. But this time it was bad: It was Jessie, the best friend, who wanted to go home. Her slight frame was shaking as she sobbed, “I just—want—my mom. I want to go home!”

My daughter was borderline hysterical. “Jessie can’t go! She was supposed to stay all night! I was counting on it!” Her tone was frantic and I quickly ushered her downstairs before she said something that would hurt the feelings of the only guest still standing, something like, “Jessie was the only one who really mattered!” Which was, of course, what we were both thinking.

I handed my devastated child off to my mother while I hurriedly dialed Jessie’s mom and let her speak to her hyperventilating child. Meanwhile, the lone friend stood somberly by. There was no way she was going home. With a 20-year-old sister and 17-year-old brother, I got the feeling Abigail would probably spend the night at anyone’s house. She watched us impassively, knowing full well she was here to stay.

As Jessie packed up her belongings, sniffing quietly, my daughter sat in my lap and sobbed. My mom snuck downstairs to text my brother, a psychotherapist, to fill him in on our vicarious devastation and to perhaps beg for clinical reassurance that this event would not ruin her granddaughter for life. He was undoubtedly delighted to be included in the unraveling drama.

I consoled my bereft child, reassuring her that I knew how sad this was, how disappointing. I’m not sure if she actually said it, or if it was just what I was thinking: It was the worst birthday party ever.

And there it was—that one sentiment expressed all of my darkest thoughts and fears about raising children. I cannot bear the knowledge that they will ultimately be hurt over and over. It was my daughter’s first real taste of the disappointment that accompanies epic unmet expectations. It was her introduction to celebration let-down, and not just the Clark W. Griswold variety of mishaps and disasters, but the deeper, darker kind, the variety that leaves you feeling small, unimportant, and unloved. I knew it wouldn’t be the last time she cried on her birthday.

As a Gen X parent hell-bent on not succumbing to helicopter parent status, I am mindful that it is counterintuitive and harmful to shield our children from disappointment and failure. But on that one night, on her birthday, at the party she’d worked so hard to create, I wanted to. I wanted to make it perfect for her.

We dealt with the fallout as best we could. My daughter and her emotionally stout companion fell asleep, enjoyed a pancake breakfast, and swung in the sunshine waiting for the girl’s mother to pick her up. She was nearly a half hour late.

We spoke of it wryly, we persevered. Truth be told, the failed sleepover will go down in family lore as a story we will likely giggle about over shared bottles of wine in decades to come.

And although it was perhaps a valuable learning experience, I still offer this precautionary advice to mothers considering hosting sleepover parties for their eight-year-olds: Don’t do it.

Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.

Do You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

Do You Invite The Whole Class To Your Kids’ Birthday Parties?

Children’s birthday parties aren’t always easy to plan, especially the guest list. Do you invite the whole class or not? Rudri Patel thinks that you should, because promoting a philosophy of inclusion is the most important thing for young kids. Stacey Gill believes every family should be able to throw the party it wants, even if that means handpicking only a few friends from school.

 

I Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Rudri Patel

manycupcakesMy car slides easily into the designated school lane. I watch a set of girls and boys interact, laughing, swinging their arms, the boundary between innocence and knowledge still a blur. Third in the carpool line, I turn around and glance at the back seat as my ten-year-old daughter climbs in, maneuvering her backpack as she lands in her favorite spot.

My daughter’s words start to spill. “Momma, I didn’t get invited.”

The air is contaminated by her sadness.

“Invited to what, honey?” My voice is calm, though I cringe at the thought of her being excluded from anything.

“Jenny invited all the girls in the class to her birthday party except for Heather and me. I’m so sad. I thought I was her friend too.” She crinkles her nose, a sign—one I know well—­­­­­that tears will soon overpower her.

“It’s fine, sweetie,” I say. “I understand you are upset, but don’t let it get you down. It’s only a party.” I hope to distract her by turning on the radio, as Taylor Swift’s anthem of positivity, Shake it Off, blares from the speakers.

But she is immune to Taylor’s battle cry, and I feel powerless as tears run down my little girl’s face.  

*   *   *

As an introvert, I often breathe a sigh of relief when I am not invited to a large social gathering. I prefer connecting with a few friends who get me, rather than bulldozing through a crowd of people who may not remember my name.

However, what works for me does not always gel for my daughter and that’s the reason I don’t extend my preferences to her social life. Since the age of four, I’ve invited all of her classmates to her birthday parties, instead of handpicking just a few, because I am sensitive to the need for young girls and boys to feel included. To keep parties from being cost-prohibitive, I may choose to have them at home or I may select a venue where fun doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. I also might budget in other areas—having a less costly cake, for example, foregoing on goodie bags or incorporating simpler decorations. Teaching my daughter the philosophy of inclusion matters more to me than accessorizing a party.

Parties where everybody is invited allow girls and boys to play, talk and learn from one another. This act of inclusion might get a more introverted girl to stop hiding behind her mother and take a shot at the birthday piñata or it may give the boy who moved to a new school mid-year a chance to get to know his classmates. Inviting everyone to the party offers girls and boys the possibility of making new connections, of meeting a special friend they wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Our children spend the bulk of their time at school, interacting with their classmates for at least eight hours a day. When one of them chooses to exclude a few children from a birthday celebration, the message being conveyed is “you are not good enough to come to my party.” This does nothing to further an atmosphere of kindness in the class and only creates unnecessary negative feelings among students who will most likely be exposed to each other for years through the same school system.

When only a few kids are singled out from a birthday party, it is also likely the chatter about the upcoming event will infiltrate the classroom. This kind of exclusion may cause a climate of bullying, one that has the potential to intensify as children grow older. I want my daughter to understand there is room for all of us in her schoolmate’s lives, at least for now. Of course I know it won’t stay this way forever. As children mature, they will naturally gravitate toward certain friends. But at this young age, they are still forming their personalities, opinions, likes and dislikes—so why not include all the kids so they can have the freedom to get to know one another better outside the school?

I understand the view that at some point all of us are excluded from something and that this is a lesson children will eventually learn. But why does it have to happen when they are so young? Why not preserve some of their innocence and build our children’s self-esteem? A stronger foundation in their youth might teach them to be more inclusive in day-to-day interactions in the future, whether this means refraining from gossip, protecting another classmate from bullying or saying a kind word to a friend.

*   *   *

As soon as we get home, I hug my still distraught daughter and wipe away her tears. As I embrace her, I envision her own upcoming birthday party in my mind.

The invitation will go out to all of her classmates.

One of the best gifts a kid can get, whether it’s her birthday or not, is feeling wanted by her peers. This is why there is much value in learning how to make room at the party for everyone.

Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, The Review Review and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri. She is working on a memoir which explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

I Do Not Invite the Whole Class to My Kid’s Birthday Party

By Stacey Gill

fewcupcakesWhen my kids were in elementary school I had a conversation with a friend who was planning her daughter’s birthday party. She wanted a simple party at home but lamented that she couldn’t fit all the kids in class in her house. She’d have to come up with something else. When I asked her why she was inviting the entire class to the party she said, “Well, you have to invite everybody.”

I looked at her pointedly and said, “No, you don’t.”

An entire class of first graders is a lot of amped-up six-year-olds to corral, keep track of and contend with, to say nothing of the cost. I understood the impulse to be inclusive and while inviting everyone is perhaps “nice,” throwing an enormous, extravagant party, especially for a six-year-old, was something I had no intention of doing.

This birthday party conundrum continues to be the source of much parental angst, but I’ve never particularly felt conflicted by it. To me the answer is pretty clear. Your party, your terms. No one has the right to dictate whom you can or can’t invite to your own kid’s birthday party.

Although recently some have tried. Schools are now stepping into the fray in an attempt to placate parents and avoid hurt feelings on the part of the students. Some are issuing policies that require everyone in the class to be invited to a student’s birthday party. I find this intrusion into family life not only rather unbelievable but completely out of line.

Of course I understand the desire to protect children from getting hurt, but a child’s birthday celebration is a personal, family matter, one no school (or any other entity) has any business insinuating itself into. The school is certainly well within its rights to set rules about distributing invitations on school grounds during school hours, but to tell parents how to run their personal affairs is overstepping its authority.

That’s not to say these matters shouldn’t be handled delicately or responsibly with consideration for others. But including everybody isn’t the priority above all else. The fact of the matter is children should be free to invite whomever they’d like to attend their celebration and not everyone is a friend. Not everyone is a pleasant child (or person). And, not everyone gets invited to everything. Pretending otherwise doesn’t protect or in any way serve our kids.

Back in preschool, my children’s school policy was that every classmate was referred to as a friend. At that young age the policy was understandable. It enforced the notion that everyone should be kind and treat others as you would a friend, even if not all children abided. But as my kids grew I didn’t feel the need to maintain the charade. I knew better and so did they. Kids are pretty perceptive creatures. They may not articulate it, but they are keenly aware of the social situations around them. The insistence that everyone is a friend despite actions demonstrating otherwise doesn’t fool them, and I’d rather speak honestly with my kids and help them work through any difficulties with classmates than gloss over problems or pretend they don’t exist. I’ve always taught my children they don’t need to be friends with everybody—not everyone has the same interests or shares the same views—but they do need to be polite and try to get along with the people in their class. That’s just solid life advice.

So when it came time to throw parties for my own kids in grade school, we planned the parties that made sense to us. Typically, they were small affairs. Both my children have winter birthdays so I’ve never had the luxury of throwing a backyard party or one at the town pool, where space and cost wasn’t much of an issue. We planned what I thought were appropriate, manageable and affordable parties, and my children invited the kids they were truly friends with, some kids from the block, some from school and some relatives. I made it clear that they were not to discuss the party at school. We never distributed invitations there: I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It’s possible word might have gotten out about the party at school, but I did everything in my power to minimize that risk. My goal was to be realistic and practical and do what was best for my family, which I believe is every parent’s aim. If some of the children’s feelings were hurt in the process, that’s unfortunate, but it’s also a part of life. I don’t believe in shielding kids indefinitely from reality. Disappointments and frustrations are a part of that reality. We need to help our children learn how to deal with it.

Stacey Gill is an award-winning journalist, the mastermind behind the humor blog, One FunnyMotha, and co-author of I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, the third book in The New York Times best-selling series. Her work has appeared on such sites as The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, BlogHer, Babble, and Scary Mommy. For a good time, find her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Do You Invite the Whole Class to Your Kids' Birthday Parties?

 

Join us today, Thursday, February 24, 2016 at 1:00 EST on Twitter to discuss the issues. Please remember to use the hashtag #braindebate. We look forward to hearing your views.

The Cakes That Bind Us

The Cakes That Bind Us

By Susan Currie

The Cakes That Bind Us Im1

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

 

My mother always told me my birthday was a celebration for her too. I’d come from her. Neither my son nor my daughter came from my body, because we’re a blended family. They spend weekends, Tuesdays, and week-long interludes during the holidays with their dad and me, and the rest of the week they’re with their mom. We do our best to be as involved as we can, often going all out on holidays and birthdays.

I remember the first birthday I put on for my step-daughter. It started with a cake.

It was the end of a busy semester and my inner pastry chef yearned to break loose. What better excuse—it was my then-boyfriend’s daughter’s birthday. I mused over this cake, carefully constructing it in my mind until I was ready to embark on my great creation. Three towering layers. Devil’s food would alternate with pink and purple vanilla cake. The outer layer would remain snowy white, maybe with some chocolate shavings for elegance.

Only two years out of his divorce, and not a wizard cake-maker, my future-husband’s cupboards were not equipped to handle my project’s needs. I lived between my roommate’s and his place, therefore my cupboards were also barren. He an entrepreneur, and me a broke student, we turned our pockets out to make multiple trips to the grocery store. Cocoa, whipping cream, stabilizers, butter, food colouring, bricks of chocolate, and the list went on.

The tiny galley kitchen afforded me little room to work, his dented stainless steel bowls were not ideal for mixing, and he didn’t have a single mechanized way to whisk the whipping cream. I assessed my tools and MacGyvered to the best of my ability. His daughter looked on with awe.

If I think back now I can only imagine the production I must have put on for my almost seven-year-old step-daughter. The organized chaos of a veteran baker who didn’t have access to a dishwasher: batter splattered spoons set aside and elevated to be used later, whisks whirling and bowls turning in opposition. Items in the freezer, and other items in the oven. A carefully timed cacophony.

“What are you making?” she asked carefully.

“Your birthday cake,” I said.

It had been a year-and-a-half-long budding relationship. Their father had met me two months after his divorce, we’d become friends, and then we had become something more. When he originally introduced me to his children they stormed into his home elated to be visiting Dad, and hazarded me no more than a passing glance and a hello before mutilating the art supplies he’d recently picked up for them. As time progressed I began to appear at more events. I was invited on an outing to see their grandmother. Soon I was accepted as Dad’s girlfriend.

“That’s not my cake. Mom got me a cake. It’s ice cream,” she stated firmly.

“Well, that cake will be for your birthday at Mom’s house, with Mom’s family. This cake is for your birthday with Dad’s family.”

Her eyes lit up. She looked around for a second time her mouth opening slightly and her face changing as the nature of blended family birthdays struck her for the first time, “I get TWO family birthdays?”

“You bet.” I said, and as charming as her excitement was, I was suddenly struck by the enormity of my task. I’d been making a cake for the sheer fun of it, with the excuse of her birthday. Suddenly I realized, this was so much more. I whisked harder.

“And you’re making it?” she said cautiously. We looked at each other.

“Yup. That’s what all this is for,” I said, aggressively attacking the task of hand whipping cream.

A spark lighting in her eyes, she chirped, “Can I help?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was making the cake for her. I’d spent hours developing the plans. “I guess,” I said. I relinquished the whisk, and instructed her on how to beat the cream over the ice without it slopping over the sides.

It slopped over the sides.

I showed her how to drizzle chocolate without blotches.

There were blotches.

Soon her brother and father were taking turns with the whipped cream, all of us rubbing our forearms by the time the task was fully accomplished. As our cake stacked higher and higher my future step-daughter and I gleamed with identical maniacal glee.

“It’s huge!” She said, thrilled.

“It is huge.” My vision had been realized, but only kind of. It was gaudy, with a clutter of decorations that veered wildly from my original idea. It tilted ever so slightly. We placed the chocolate initial that I had shown her how to create on the top of the cake, and wrote her birthday message in red gel icing on top. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but I was slowly falling in love it.

We were finished.

“How are you two going to get this to Granny’s?” her father asked.

We froze.

It’s safe to say that the cake made it to Granny’s. Perched on my lap it was dangerously close to the car heater, the gel icing running until the perky red we’d chosen to write “Happy Birthday” in looked disturbingly like blood. The chocolate initial had condensation on it. Before it was served I carefully did my best to make touch ups, afraid that the little girl who it was intended for would be disappointed. I shouldn’t have been concerned, because when it came time to sing Happy Birthday there she was, sitting at her grandmother’s dining room table—too excited to sit still. She blew out the candles and declared, “Susan made this!” to the room of individuals who I’d later call family, “And I helped!”

It’s four years later, and a week before her eleventh birthday, “Do you know what kind of cake you want?” I ask.

She chews on her lip, “I can’t decide, here’s what I was thinking,” she thrusts her iPad at me and we scroll through images of gummy-bear pool-party cakes, fondant iPad cakes, cakes more complex than the me of four years ago could have imagined—I blame Pinterest.

“I’m not working with fondant,” I say smiling.

“But—”

“No.”

“Okay.”

We scroll together, taking note of the cake elements we like and don’t like before settling on this year’s winner. It’s our family tradition now, we find our cake and we make it deliciously real.

Many years, and many cakes on my step-mom resume, a ring on my finger, and a baking cupboard bursting with supplies, these are only a few of the things that make my family mine. Cakes baked in ice-cream cones, Kit-Kat cakes, dirt cakes: we’ve made them all, together. What my mom said about birthdays still resonates with me, but for our family it’s a bit different, birthdays are another way for us to celebrate our unique way of becoming.

Susan Currie is a stepmother of two living in Vancouver BC.

Celebrating Their Birthday

Celebrating Their Birthday

By Kelly Burch

theirbirthday

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. 

 

My daughter’s first birthday—my father’s 52nd—was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. I had to call and plead in order for the baby to be allowed to visit my father, speaking first with a nurse and then with the unit manager. Normally, children aren’t allowed beyond the locked doors that mark the start of the psychiatric wing.

“Please,” I begged. “It’s their birthday. Both of them.”

My father was my sadness, and my daughter was my light. I couldn’t celebrate the joy of her first year without thinking about the deep sorrow that year had held for my father. I couldn’t bear to celebrate another melancholy birthday with my dad, or find hope for his future, without the healing balm of my baby’s smile. After all, without the baby, we may all be forced to confront the lunacy of singing “Happy Birthday” to a man currently hospitalized for depression.

  *   *   *

The morning that my daughter was born, I awoke in the hospital with the OB-GYN by my bedside.

“The induction hasn’t taken,” he said. “But your blood pressure has stabilized. We’ve consulted with Boston, and they said we can send you home, or we can try Pitocin. We’ll let you decide.”

Frustrated but still hoping for a somewhat natural delivery, I waddled out of the hospital without a baby.

“Sorry Dad, not today,” I said as I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even through my own exhaustion I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

But on the drive home, I began feeling the rhythmic tightening in my stomach that had failed to happen during my three days in the hospital. My water broke right around the time I was supposed to be going to my dad’s birthday gathering.

“Going back to the hospital. Don’t tell anyone at the party,” I texted my mom. We had already had one false alarm, and there was no need for everyone to come running.

But a first-time grandmother can’t control herself, and the cake and ice cream were left abandoned as my siblings and parents rushed from the cook-out. After holding out all weekend, my daughter came so quickly that I didn’t even know my family had arrived, waiting just on the other side of the locked doors that separated the maternity ward from the rest of the hospital.

When my family came in to meet the baby, my father was the last through the door, his hulking frame looking timid and unsure.

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

As I watched him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped that the baby would make a difference. I wondered if a 7-pound infant was the key that could break into the icy depression that had held my father captive for eight years, correcting his chemical imbalance and bringing him back to me.

At the same time, even in my postpartum haze, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth, I was downstairs, in the hospital’s Emergency Room with my dad. As I swayed my ever-widening hips in an attempt to soothe my aching back, I listened as the nurse asked my father, “Do you take drugs?” and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others?”

Hospitalizations were something I had been through many times with my father’s bipolar disorder. But at eight months pregnant, this felt different. As I helped him through the E.R., hoping that he would be deemed sick enough to warrant one of the few beds reserved for psychiatric patients, I felt completely drained. That night I curled myself around my belly, wondering how the baby inside would remember my dad.

Long before I had children, I mourned that they would never meet the boisterous, gregarious man who raised me. They wouldn’t know the man who ran for mayor on a whim; the man who always had the next big idea, and was ready to shout it from the rooftops; the man who was apt to scoop up his nieces and nephews, tossing them too high into the air until they were consumed by laughter and their parents exchanged nervous glances.

That man had been snatched away from me by mental illness. I loved the sullen, subdued person left in his place, but I was heartbroken that my kids would not know the same version of my father who helped me discover creativity, and taught me to buck the norm. The poet and author who gave me my greatest joy—writing.

But as I looked at my father holding the baby on the day she was born, I had hope. I saw genuine joy radiating from him for the first time in nearly a decade. My daughter, swaddled loosely in the hospital blanket, nuzzled into my father’s bright coral shirt, a garment too cheery for the man who was wearing it. The massive man with paunchy cheeks, who was clean-shaven and showered only because he knew his family was visiting for his birthday, looked down at the baby with awe.

These two souls were connected, entering the world on the very same day, half a century apart. They were linked through me, but also independent of me, with a relationship I would never be fully privy to.

The year that I was expecting, I celebrated my birthday at 38 weeks pregnant. “Maybe she’ll be your birthday present!” people would say. Although I smiled, I hoped the baby would leave that day for me.

However, when I thought about her sharing my dad’s birthday, two weeks after mine, it just seemed right. Through the foggy years of his depression, I visited him on his birthday and tried to make my rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound as genuine as I could. But it seemed hollow and insincere to sing of happiness to a person who couldn’t find any joy at all.

For years, I repeated the ritual and the saying, but I knew he wouldn’t have a happy birthday, and wasn’t likely to have many happy days in the coming year.

But then, that day became theirs.

“I was hoping she would come on my birthday,” he had said when he met the baby.

He hadn’t expressed hope in the longest time.

Author’s Note: My daughter is nearly two now. After being hospitalized on her first birthday, my father began doing better. He is currently on his longest stretch without a hospitalization in nearly a decade.

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor living in New Hampshire. She shares stories about mental health, mothering, and anything else that catches her interest. Connect with Kelly on Facebook, or via her website to read more of her work.

Happy Birthday Baby

Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman

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This year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time.

 

It’s the first time I’m not sharing my daughter’s birthday in person, let alone on the same continent. She is studying abroad, drinking sangria in Seville. I’d imagined watching her get carded ordering her first legal drink, 21 years after 31 hours of labor. I’ve exalted in every developmental milestone—until now.

Alone, my husband and I toast to the six-pound-eleven ounce newborn who has evolved into an adventurous young woman. He still refers to her as “the baby” as in: “When is the baby coming home for spring break?”

Not this year.

On her first birthday she couldn’t yet walk. Birthday #2, while a music teacher played songs on his guitar for her friends, my daughter stomped her feet in my kitchen—overriding the music with a wailing, “I want a bagel!” I caved in, quieting her tantrum with carbs.

By four she was a pink partying ballerina who jeted gracefully one minute, exploded into a chaotic game of tag the next. Subsequent birthdays took over my living room with crafts projects. I’m still picking up confetti.

Then came years of sleepovers. Truth or Dare, late-night gab fests, cranky faces over breakfast pancakes. Guiltily I sent them back to their parents with sleep-deprived hangovers.

As a teenager, she went out with friends—no parents invited. We set aside family time before she dressed up and trotted off. In college, she was three hours away. My husband and I used her birthday as an excuse to save her from dreaded dining hall slop, to see if she dusted her dorm room (she didn’t), or ever did her laundry (dutifully once a week, even though at first she didn’t realize that bath towels had to be washed too).     

My mother never made a big deal about my birthday. She slapped together tuna sandwiches and invited a few neighborhood kids for lunch on our porch. No magicians, clowns, or gymnastics. The most extravagant bash was venturing to Jahn’s, the lure of free sundaes served with birth certificate proof. The first time I got carded.   

My 21st birthday, a surprise affair thrown by my grad school roommate, found me weeping in my bedroom because my boyfriend was breaking up with me. Nobody gave me a bagel to assuage my tears.       

The day before my daughter’s 21st, a new driver’s license arrived in the mail. Her official permanent ID no longer screamed UNDER 21 in bold letters. I texted her a photo. I skyped her, afraid she’d be too busy to talk on the actual day. Like a film director she narrated the panoramic view from her terrace, over cobblestone streets and terra cotta roofs.

“One of the world’s best ice cream shops is a short walk away!” she enthused.   

She sounded as innocent as the little girl I used to take to Ben & Jerry’s. We’d sit in a booth with squirming kids whose ice cream tumbled off their cones and had to be replaced, whose mouths had to be wiped again and again, who stirred their cookie-dough and sprinkles into revolting soup even though their mothers admonished, “Finish up. We don’t have all the time in the world.” They did; we didn’t.

“I want to be nine forever,” she once said, anticipating double digits as if eligible for Medicare. “Eighteen sounds so…old,” she claimed nine years later, mixed with the thrill of registering to vote. I’ve loved watching her leaps into maturity, sounding like a law school graduate one minute, a sticky tot the next. But this year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time. There will still be tears to soothe and tantrums to forgive, but our on-call schedule will be greatly reduced.       

I was surprised yet pleased when she asked to speak again on the Big Day. It was 1:40 a.m. her time. We smiled simultaneously when her face emerged on my computer screen. Her hair was wet from a shower. “Squeaky clean,” I used to remark after giving her a bath.     

“You’ll remember this birthday for a lifetime,” I said.     

Nodding, she sounded melancholy. “It was awesome, but I face timed all my friends back home. It’s weird being so far away today.”   

I didn’t confess how unnatural it was for us too, how much we missed her but knew her separation and independence meant we’d done a good job as parents. As hard as it is to let go, it’s even more difficult to pretend we don’t still yearn to share every aspect of her life—but know we can’t. 

Instead my husband and I broke into an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday,” harmonizing off-key, jumping around like embarrassing parents, our images transported across the Atlantic. My daughter rolled her eyes but didn’t want our connection to end. Usually she rushed off, too busy to chat; tonight she lingered online. She threw kisses into the camera, and we reciprocated. After her image faded, all I could picture was my three-year-old blowing out her candles, as I knelt beside her tiny chair. She placed her palm on my cheek and stared lovingly into my eyes for one brief moment. Soon enough, I was wiping icing from her upper lip, as she protested and tried to escape my grasp.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Photo: gettyimages.com

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

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IMG_0548Last week, my youngest child turned one-two-three-four-five-SIX. Six. Six requires two hands, after all, as Saskia’s godfather pointed out when I emailed the photograph of her with the count displayed across her fingers.

She’s wonderfully set for six. This girl is rocking kindergarten. Although I feel no pressure to have her read or write, she’s begun to do those things and of course, these new skills excite her and the rest of us, too. Her ability to hurl through air—gymnastics, not flight—amazes me. She’s got awesome, patient friends she loves, hugs too hard, cries out “Not Fair!” to all too often but then hugs again. Her One Direction-loving, screen-loving, chocolate-loving, sassy little self tickles me most of the time and proves a bit hard to calm down at night.

What was different about this year for me was this: I didn’t feel sad. The sadness I’ve experienced other years wasn’t connected to my baby, our caboose’s advancement from infant to toddler or toddler to preschooler; my sadness had more to do with her mother—and I guess, with her. On her birthday, I’m forced (this is a fine thing) to remember her birth and to remember that her arrival into our family is defined by a gift and a loss rolled into one. It’s not about a value—adoption is good or bad; sadness even is positive or negative—it’s about how complex it is to make families. I almost added the word “sometimes” here and then hesitated, because families always embody complexity along with simplicity. Our complexity as a family includes this. My memories of that original birth day, the day Saskia was born include this happy-sad truth that our family grew by more than one and that her first mother’s family grew by more than one, too.

Apparently, Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow. Our family constellation could use something like that to describe our roles, and our connections. Even mother doesn’t get a good divvying up. Every qualification of mother serves up room for judgment, words like biological, birth or adoptive. And what of cousins that are, technically, Saskia’s but not her siblings’—why aren’t there words to describe those relationships with more clarity, rather than somewhat convoluted, breathless explanations? Open adoption is relatively new territory and there aren’t so many descriptors or rules or customs or blueprints. There’s some good amount of winging it.

Every single year it’s amazed me that we’re a year further into Saskia’s life. Every single year the same thing amazes Caroline, her first/birth mom (her other mom). Somehow, this year, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, that amazement felt softer all around. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is it simply about the passage of time? Is it that over time, we’ve gotten to know each other better? We’ve enjoyed recent visits with Caroline, with a couple of Saskia’s grandparents, her aunt, and two cousins. Since the visit with the fourteen-year-old-cousin Saskia recalls fondly what they played and things they both liked at the toy store. I think it’s one of those older, cool cousin crushes you get (I did, at least), the kind that makes you wish to grow your hair exactly that long and to wear makeup because she did.

I think that as Saskia gets bigger, she understands adoption and she’s pretty matter-of-fact about it. She isn’t more confused by cousins or grandparents from this family of birth than the rest of her labyrinthine family; she is accepting of everyone pretty equally at this point. She knows this tummy fact and remembers it more often than not. She knows she’s loved. She feels entirely loved.

This is this year—and other years may well feel different. There’s only been one time when Saskia asked why she’s here and not somewhere else and the answer was that this worked well for everyone was met with a nod. Either she’ll want to know more or she won’t want to know so much more than that. The fact is she doesn’t have to ask me whether other family members love her, because she can do so directly. And because I know, for a fact, with my own eyes, that they do. Reassurance is a concrete offering.

Maybe we all understand—and trust—our adoption better over time. I didn’t have to wonder whether to call Caroline on Saskia’s birthday, because she called. Saskia was at her friend’s house so we called back. Sure, mostly Saskia said, “Hi Auntie Cece,” and “Uh-huh,” during the phone call with Caroline. That’s because she was busy with her brand-new coloring book.

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Expectations of the Fall

Expectations of the Fall

WO Expectations for Fall art v3By Kathryn Wallingford

My seasons are shapes. The long tunnel of Winter. The triangle of Spring. The four lines of Summer. We all come together in the Fall. My birthday marks the onset of Fall.

Years ago, for my 8-year-old birthday, my three friends and I watched Bette Midler’s Beaches. It is a terribly sad movie about dying, friendship, and heartache. We cried while my mom popped popcorn, and peered inside the family room to watch this remarkably strange celebration.  But even at that young age I seemed to know that Fall had expectations.

Fall is here again but I can’t remember how to rest, say goodbyes, and prepare for Winter.

Leaves know the cue: they produce less, they let go of chlorophyll. They let themselves fall and they come into the earth.

But this Fall I have a lot to put together, to pack, and to store.  I say goodbye to my house of almost a decade. I moved into this old house right after marriage and sobbed over the 2500 square feet. Each foot seemed burdensome and pleaded for domestication. But each room also found a place and we filled the home with footsteps and dog hair. I am okay taking my family elsewhere.  It is time for a new family to enjoy the creaks and cracks, but I am worried about the plants I leave behind.

In April 2006, I cried ferociously as I planted my coneflowers– mad as hell at my graduate professor. When my first son was born, I carried pieces of limestone from the Kentucky River and formed a vegetable garden. And now my two boys run through the lemon mint, catching its aroma with their superhero pajamas.

This new house will have room for new plants. We will also have to make room for this new baby. Another baby, I think?  “It is no small thing that they so fresh from God, love us,” I recite in my head. I think of my friends struggling to have their own and I surrender myself to guilt. But how can I love a third? I know too much of toxins and disease. I left the summer saying goodbye to a friend.

I met this cancer this Summer, my four walls quickly invaded.

This Summer I also planted marigolds and saw a bear. The marigolds came first. I know marigolds like sun. Marigolds keep bugs away. Marigolds are copious. I counted on this-the sun, the growth of flowers, the ceaseless flow of life.

On these summer days when there was no rain, I pulled a blanket from inside and spread it onto the grass. My boys littered the blanket with peanut butter crackers and slices of bananas. Sometimes the bananas smashed like molasses. And sometimes they would pick the marigolds and throw them on top of the bananas. Fruit and flowers.

I would lie down on top of our creation and stare at the clouds. “There is a rocket ship,” I told them. I saw it in the clouds. But their feet were too quick, too busy to stop. So I searched into the sky alone.

When the sky turned purple, I took my boys inside. I gathered the blanket. That is when life began to feel heavy. It was more than the encroaching dark clouds and the June storms, it was the weight of the world.

It seemed to be the end of everything.

The last night she was in the hospital the parking attendant had said, “have a good night.” He said it steadily and calmly. I wondered how he could pass out goodbyes so quickly, so easily? He had not seen what I had seen.  Her colossal-like strength reduced to nothingness. Where was her silent killer? He did not know the weight I carried.

The end of the colossal-like strength and the death of my dear friend and neighbor actually came before the bear.

The day I saw the bear the air was heavy and thick with humidity. Each summer I visit my parents in the Blue Ridge Mountains and wander the woods alone.  I look up into the trees and remember that bark has faces too. The smoothness of beech. The deep-wrinkles of oak. The muscles of hornbeam.

On that day a grey fog covered Grandfather Mountain. The forest was dark. It was only 11:00 in the morning but it appeared like nighttime. The path was splashed with large rock outcrops and I looked downward. I needed my eyes to see the next step. I rounded a curve and followed the path upward, pulling my legs over a fallen tree. And as my eyes searched for my trail I saw her blackness staring at me.

It was a black bear. I had been around bears before. I had worked and lived in various national parks drowning with grizzly, brown, and black bears, I knew what I should do a when a bear was staring at me beneath a chestnut oak tree and a standing in the patch of solomon seal.  I knew I should walk away slowly, but she was the deepest part of the earth I had seen in a long time. I had to stare.

Neither one of us wanted to be looking at the eye of a stranger and wondering what was next. But she seemed to have all the answers and I suddenly wanted my children to be there too.

Maybe the truth of life would come to them in this instance. The quietness that eludes from looking something unpredictable in the face. Something bigger than you. Quiet with fear. What can you hear when you listen? The cry of a towhee. The heartbeat of a hummingbird. Yes, another robin. Or maybe even a bigger voice? What would she say in her wildness. Had the summer rains altered her patterns too? And would she help me explain death, saying goodbye to the ones we love, the myths of heaven, my hopes for an everlasting spirit?

The depths of death are near impossible to explain to a four and 2-year-old, and yet fundamentally easy. Our bodies just get tired. And there are other theories: we are cursed, God has another plan, we go to a better place, or we give up on life. But what if I did not have to provide any of these rationales and just a glimpse of a bear in the woods?

The bear grew bored with my gaze and eventually retreated into the woods. We parted

I think about my bear now as I try to complete my circle of Fall. Hunkering down for the cold months ahead. Preparing for Spring. Planting new life.

Fall will not let me forget goodbyes.

I don’t make the time I once did for tearful celebrations of life, but I need it this year more than ever.

My birthday has come and gone this year. I did not watch Bette Midler’s Beaches, but I did pack boxes. I see those pictures of my college girlfriends: our midnight swims, all-night road trips, and Friday afternoons getting lost in the East Tennessee Mountains. I see a picture of my mom tubing with me near Sliding Rock, North Carolina in the mid-1980’s. I forgot she had a perm, but didn’t everyone? I see my brother and I, once my own sons’ ages, dressed in superhero gear. I see my husband and I on top of a mountain in Montana.

Life lost, remembered, and stored away. I wrap tape around the boxes.

Kathryn Wallingford is a stay-at-home mom in Lexington, Kentucky. On good days, she writes about religion, mothering, and the natural world. Her most recent work has appeared in Literary Mama and Hip Mama. She can be reached at katjean24@gmail.com.