Birthday Angst

Niko has turned four. It was a bit of a letdown for him, I think. It seems he was expecting to be noticeably bigger, and to FEEL different. Instead, here he is, still himself. Maybe he’ll feel better after his little family celebration today, with balloons and hats and dinosaur decorations on cupcakes he helped make.

For me, his birthday is a source of anxiety. I don’t know how to celebrate birthdays. I certainly don’t feel up to organizing a multi-family celebration like the one we recently attended, which was lovely but would have left me a distressed mess of nerves if I’d been in charge of it.

I remember my own fourth birthday. I was allowed to wear my favorite dress: green gingham, topped with a white pinafore with an apple embroidered on the front. I walked with my parents and brother through the frosty winter early-morning darkness from our small house to the commune’s main gathering area (known as the Tabernacle – this was a religious commune) for breakfast. I was so full of excitement that I hopped up and down as I announced “I’m four!”

To my astonishment and distress, this was greeted with a unanimous refusal to believe my news. “No way!” “You are not!” “You’re still three! You’ll be three FOREVER.” I was on the brink of tears as I wondered if my mom had been misinformed. However, these were kind people who knew me very well and loved me as much as my own family did, and they quickly saw my worry and surrounded me with hugs and congratulations. I remember the smiling faces, being swung high in the air by a pair of strong friendly arms, the feeling of warmth fizzing inside at the rare display of excess attention.

And that was it. No birthday song – for years, I thought that was a fiction, something that authors invented for the benefit of their book characters. No hats, no balloons, no special meal. I had my first birthday cake two years ago, when I announced to Aaron that, despite being in my thirties, when many people are happy to stop counting the years, I wanted a birthday cake. He came through with a lovely pink grapefruit confection, topped with shimmering pink frosting and candles. I ate far too much of it and was satisfied that I had now had a birthday experience.

So I really don’t know what birthdays should be like. And I worry that I’m not coming through for Niko. For me, it wasn’t a big deal. None of my friends had birthday celebrations, either – or Christmas, Halloween, or any other “worldly” or “pagan” celebration. I didn’t feel left out or deprived. But Niko’s friends have moms who fling themselves into birthdays with joyous abandon. His friends have large gatherings with party favors, games, and excited kids shepherded by cheerful parents. I worry that, at some point, Niko will notice that his mom – with the social anxiety that comes from a constant sense of feeling like a cultural transplant, plus, thanks to ADHD, the difficulty focusing enough to plan an actual party – isn’t up to par.

I don’t mean this to be a depressing post. Niko is a happy little boy. We will conclude a fun, Niko-focused day (ToysRUs! Lunch at McDonald’s!) with a small family celebration. We’ll wear hats. He’ll have balloons. We made fondant dinosaurs for cupcakes. He will get to tear into a few gifts, some of which he chose himself. And we have a tentatively planned play date with his best friend, for later this week, at which he will have yet another dino cupcake. More importantly, he has a family who loves him.

Yes, my sweet boy will be fine. But still, the anxiety persists. Maybe it always will. All I can do is keep on trying. Trying to act like a normal person who wasn’t raised on a commune. Trying to pretend these new cultural activities make sense to me. And, most of all, trying to be a good mom to my kids. After all, isn’t that what we all want? And I’m pretty sure, from talking with other parents, that we all feel inadequate. Anxiety-ridden. Filled with self-doubt. We all second-guess ourselves.

Maybe I’m not so different, after all. Commune girl or no, when those feelings are distilled and examined microscopically, that’s what I’m left with. I just want the best for him. Just like you.

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