The Pandemic Birthday
The day is done. Our just-turned-four-year-old is asleep upstairs clutching an overstuffed, poorly-sewn orange woolen cat, a gift chosen by her sister from Etsy’s “handmade” and “under $20” filters. I stuff my Poison Ivy wig and my green velvet leotard, along with my husband’s plated abs (he was the Dark Knight for the day), into the costume chest. Big Sister wears her Cheetah costume (Wonder Woman’s nemesis) to bed. I shake the beach sand from the towels outside and add them to the wash. I pick up scraps of wrapping paper from the rugs. It was a happy day, despite the usual dips and swells that come from sugared up children and too much razzle dazzle. So why did I feel so unhappy?
Dad and I round out the day with a gin and lemon fizzy water and an episode of The Ozarks. The death and destruction surrounding an otherwise normal family wrapped up in terrifying dealings with a drug cartel does make me feel better about whatever it is I am worrying about. But when the episode ends and the TV screen is black again, the clock ticking in an otherwise silent house, I wander back to the question I’ve been asking myself all day: What are we even trying to do?
My husband, Mark, likes this poem — excerpted below — by Philip Larken. In our house when the kids are throwing tantrums and making impossible demands, Mark and I knowingly mumble the first four words to each each other, always soliciting a sympathetic nod from whichever parent happens to have more of their shit together in that moment.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
As these refrains echo in my head I revisit a birthday past. Six years ago our oldest daughter was celebrating her first birthday sat in her highchair in front of a cake she was meant to smash (in that modern tradition of smashing one’s first birthday cake, called a smash cake for those unfamiliar with the rituals of new parenting). We had gotten her this big, specially-baked layer cake, beautifully decorated with yellow and white fondant roses by an actual professional baker. She was supposed to tear that sucker apart! Instead she looked at me, wild-eyed and unsure.
I remember thinking at the time it was both funny and distressing. Should I help her smash it? How could I? I hit my fist into an open palm to demonstrate, and she took one finger and poked the fondant ever-so-gently. And I realize now that her reservations mirrored my own. She was a foil for what parenting has come to mean to me — this delicate negotiation between instinct and expectation.
I like to think Mark and I have wizened up since those early days of parenting, that at least we know now not to expect things. But each new day brings a different sort of challenge, especially today in a pandemic. We attempt to work from home while the entire family is bound too tight into the same space by the same walls. Did you see that guy who meticulously catalogued his interruptions while trying to work from home with his kids? They interrupted him 45 times over a three-hour period. 45 times. How can you even?
Lots has been written about the hopelessness of the situation, of course. But it’s no use going there if you are trying to survive the day-to-day. Instead we crank the handle, like we always have, just to keep everything going, but in truth we are exhausted to our marrow.
At that party where our daughter delicately prodded her birthday cake, some beloved friends (in addition to her birthday gift) brought a nice bottle of wine for Mark and me. “You survived the first year!” they proclaimed, fists pumping the air. Genuinely excited for us. They were lesbian chicken farmers without kids themselves, so we considered their lives a smidge different from ours, but they understood us more deeply than we understood ourselves. Hell yes, we survived! And every year since. We continue to survive. It has become a tradition to round out the kids’ birthdays with some parental self-congratulation.
This year, I don’t feel self-congratulatory. The cake, presents, decorations, theme— they are a constant of this annual milestone like they have always been. But something’s missing. As we all have faced down or prepare to face down our family’s Pandemic Birthdays, I suppose we are all missing a whole lot of something.
Maybe we are all a little depressed. Some of us, a lot depressed. It was sad for me to miss seeing the kids and their ten wild friends and cousins near-miss toppling grandma with their hugs, the teasing from their uncles and the mania of tearing into cake and presents as a pack of heaving children. This year isn’t like that. It takes me back to that first year, that time when we didn’t know what to do. A delicate negotiation between instinct and expectation.
When I was little, the bar was low for birthdays. Someone had to remember it was my birthday. There was a cake. Probably candles, maybe trick ones. A family potluck with a few gifts. Mark’s bar was even lower, being a Christmas-baby: pizza and a movie, a tradition that persists today. For our kids this year, under the shadow of COVID-19, we decided not to attempt a Zoom birthday party or a drive-by parade or any of the things the bloggers say are good to do when you’re social-distancing. I didn’t want to face the awkwardness of mixing Zoom with my personal life, that unnatural overlap between the fidgety nature of children and business virtual call etiquette. I couldn’t do it (and bless our teachers who have to). I could not do it not even for my kids. I am unsure if that makes me wise or a coward.
I know as parents we put too much pressure on ourselves to do all these things right. I know the impossibility of actually getting everything right, even when the world isn’t falling apart. Yet, if we don’t try, who will? And if what matters is that we tried, then we have to keep cranking that handle, right? There’s no pretending in trying — you either care or you don’t. That’s how our kids see it. Or maybe they are kinder than we are to ourselves. Maybe they don’t understand. Maybe they don’t even see the difference. Maybe they don’t care.
I think they probably do care. When all of this ends, they will remember. And I care, too. I’ll remember. But I’m tired.
The night is long but finally I am tired of reflecting. Tomorrow it will not be my daughter’s birthday and we will start another day. I just hope that in another six months when the next kid’s birthday rolls around I’ll feel a little better about the things I did or didn’t do in this pandemic life.