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.

Important Things

Some things are more important than others. I know this to be a fact, in the objective part of my brain. But I am more than an objective brain. I am a human being who has ADHD, and one of the things that means is that prioritizing is hard, hard, hard. I start emptying the dishwasher and note the absence of a sippy-cup lid; search through drawers for the missing lid and discover a set of bag clips I thought I’d lost; take the clips to the pantry to secure poorly folded-over snack bags and notice the broom leaning against the wall; start sweeping the floor, only to arrive back in the kitchen and see the half-unloaded dishwasher. In the moment, all these things seem of exactly equal importance. Prioritizing. I so rarely get it right.

Tuesday was a good day from my perspective. I got at least four “real” things done, “real” being achievements other than changing diapers, getting snacks, nursing baby, fixing small meals, feeding puppy, wiping tears, pouring milk, trimming tiny fingernails, rocking to sleep. You know. Mommy things. Tuesday, I accomplished items on my List of Things to Do, which is an important list that rarely sees check marks. So it was a good day.

It was good until bedtime, when almost-four-year-old Niko, overtired and beginning a cold, decided he would do nothing he was asked. We had started a bath before 8; it was after 9 by the time I closed his bedroom door with a tight “Goodnight, I love you,” and no story. I was exasperated, my neck muscles were tightening more and more until the pain turned to tingling numbness up and down my spine and arms, my head was throbbing like the insides of bongos, and I needed – oh, so badly – time alone. I put Sofia to bed much later than I had hoped and wandered toward the kitchen to can the tomato soup I had started that day. Halfway there, I paused in the living room to lie down on the floor, breathe in the silence, and stretch my tense muscles as I tried to let go of my irritation at my recalcitrant child.

A tiny click. A breath of a sound. A small nose, two bright blue eyes, hesitating at the corner of the hallway. “Niko. What. Are. You. Doing.” I bit off every word, exerting every bit of control not to yell them and some others, too, as I saw my alone time careening off into the distance.

“I just…I just wanted…” he wavered, head drooping. “I wanted…”

“What?” I asked wearily. “Wanted what?” I felt I’d already been wanted nearly to death. I wasn’t sure I could deal with another demand. Water? A book? A stuffed animal? An open door? “What do you want?”

“I just wanted you, Mommy. I wanted to cuddle with you,” he whispered, already backing down the hallway, nose and blue eyes disappearing.

Something about that defeated whisper, the downcast head, the acceptance that he was surely not deserving of a cuddle, cut me to my heart. Forget the “real” things I’d accomplished, the ones still waiting for me. Right then, Niko needed his mom to do her mommy thing. I opened my arms. He ran to me, put his arms around my neck as I lay back down on the floor. I could feel his sharp little ribcage dig into mine, his head nestled under my chin, his small warm hand on my cheek. His fluttering heartbeat slowed, his tense body relaxed. We cuddled for a few minutes on the floor, whispering about darkness and fear and safety and love, before I stood with his lanky body in my arms, his legs dangling to my knees, hands draped around my neck, to carry him to his bed. I tucked him in, lay down beside him, stroked his head and neck to help him relax into sleep.

Some time later, I opened my eyes, remembering my abandoned soup. I gingerly extracted myself from the cramped little bed, tiptoed to the kitchen, checked the clock. 11:15. The time for canning soup had long passed. I put it into the fridge with a small sigh, surprised as I did that, despite an hour or more on a too-small bed next to a body made primarily of elbows and knees, the pain that had been sending tendrils of numbness through my body had receded on the back of my earlier irritation, nudged aside by cuddles with a  small warm boy. As I turned off the lights and checked the locks, tucking the house in for the night, I realized that this was one time I’d made the right choice; gotten my priorities in their correct order. Not all things have equal importance. For once, that night, I got it right.