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.
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.