Birthday Anxiety and the Modern Mom

Confession: I hate my kids’ birthdays.

Not because of any trauma associated with the experience of birth (though goodness knows there was plenty of that). But because of residual anxiety I have regarding a long history of my own sucky childhood birthdays.

It’s tragic, really.

On my 8th birthday, my gift was a promised trip to the dinosaur museum in Vernal, Utah. I was nurturing the flames of a nascent love for paleontology, only to be shattered by the slow, 6-month-long realization that my mother’s promise was never to come to fruition.

Like so many wizened and embittered by life, I took up writing instead.

A friend of mine remembers her mother losing it at a party and throwing all the birthday presents out the window. I had to talk this friend down on her own child’s 8th-birthday by reminding her that there is NO way we’re screwing this up as badly.

The standard I inherited from my mother was this: I’m out of bed and dressed. In my childhood, that was functional motherhood. Anything past that was gravy, including birthdays.

So it is with a great-deal of “I’m gonna fuck this up” that I approach my kids’ birthdays. I’ve lived through 12 of these so far, and I think I’m getting better about it. I no longer hit the panic button at the last minute. Or every week for 4 months prior.

But it was with some trepidation I asked my soon-to-be 5-year old what she wants for her birthday party.

As one often inadvertently and tangentially does with a almost-5-year-old, we discussed every possibility in depth. She settled on a yogurt place. One of those with bright colors and a full bar of sugar-derived toppings. Relieved to pawn the fiasco onto someone else, I called the shop.

The person I spoke to was the most spectacularly competent 15 year old on the planet. I said COMPETENT. She was a joy. Her name was Taylor and she was WAY excited about my daughter’s birthday. Part of the reason she was so excited was because my daughter’s birthday happens to be her birthday too. I wanted to adopt Taylor on the spot.

A lot of people complain about teenagers. I love them. I used to have a job where I went to high schools and taught teens about blood. I always got little grimaces of pain when I told people I was guest-lecturing in a high school. But the students were invariably enthusiastic, energetic, and inquisitive. Maybe there is some gray, Alcatraz HS somewhere where they stick all the dimwits and jerks. But every teen I encountered was pure sugar. Once I was in restaurant near a high school that had just let out on a bright spring day. The server apologized to me for the rambunctious clientele. But I was loving being awash in their joy and excitement. I said, “No need to apologize. They’re just excited to be out of school on a beautiful day.” It roused a chorus of cheers from the table behind me. They wanted to throw me a tickertape parade, but I declined, having already paid my bill.

So Taylor impressed me. She was re-working schedules, presenting options, crunching numbers all to give me and my kid a good birthday at their yogurt place. While discussing how many invitations I needed, I asked her, “How many people can I fit into the room?”

Her response was perfect. “She’s turning five? Well… they’re pretty small people.”

It was a challenge.

It conjured images of those 1920s contests to cram people in a phone booth. I pictured various members of my daughter’s preschool class pressed up against the glass Gary Larson-style, sticky with yogurt and cooing softly from a sugar-induced stupor.

“Give me a whole stack,” I said. “We’re inviting EVERYone!”

It was a lovely moment. A far cry from the anxiety I’ve often felt the last 12 times I’ve gone through this birthday thing.

Perhaps I’ll take Taylor a gift, so she can celebrate her birthday too. It’s nice to get to look forward to enjoying the day my little one and I first encountered each other. Moreover, it’s lovely to let go of worrying about getting it wrong. Because, stress and anxiety is for grown ups. The young have things figured out. You live out your enthusiasm. You throw sprinkles and fudge on your fro-yo. You enjoy every day. Promises may or may not pan out, but a birthday is still a birthday. And you only get one a year.

Birthday Anxiety and the Modern Mom