January 19, 2013 by Julia
Yesterday, Fiona turned five. We have a five-year-old! And I want to cling her to my bosom and kiss her head and talk about feelings and stories and look at her baby pictures and have a dance party. Grateful isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel on the birthdays of our children. There is a celebration of the soul going on.
All of the above goes without saying, even if it turns out to be the worst birthday ever. The gratitude is still going on beneath the surface. The joy underneath remains, if you will. And thank God for that. Because, between the two of us, we had enough estrogen-fueled birthday drama to supply a season’s worth of soap opera storylines. We really know how to bring out the inner teenager in each other. (We all have an inner teenager, methinks, just as we all have an inner child.) In fact, another title for this post could’ve been “Crying in Multiple Bathrooms in a Single Day,” but that was just a little, I don’t know. Embarrassing?
I’d been working on things for her party for the past two weeks, which is happening tomorrow, with a Jake and the Never Land Pirates theme. To clarify, yesterday was her actual birthday, which we celebrated with just our immediate family at home, and tomorrow will be her big party with friends. Every year I swear I’m keeping it simple, and then I get sucked into the allure of the theme – last year it was Madeline, which…how could anyone resist the charm of that? – and then I start getting ideas about games we could play, and color coordinating the decorations, and figuring out what music we need. The result is usually still pretty laid-back. I wouldn’t want to throw one of those parties that are more about impressing the other parents than letting the kids have fun. But I will say my expectations get pretty built up alongside my preparations, which is a risky business – especially when we’re talking about a five-year-old’s birthday. Who knows how anyone will feel on their birthday (especially a five-year-old girl), and if I start to think for a minute that a paper whirlpool or pixie dust or a treasure hunt are going to guarantee happiness, well. Not good. Not for her, or for me. It’s just that I can’t help getting excited while working on a paper whirlpool as part of the treasure hunt game for her party, and she’s standing right there watching me, and I have to say, “Isn’t this SO COOL? We’re going to have SO much fun!!”
I didn’t want to over-stimulate her before the festivities even began, or put pressure on her to HAVE FUN AT THIS PARTY NO MATTER WHAT, BECAUSE MOMMY IS WORKING REALLY HARD OVER HERE. She is definitely sensitive to those vibes already. So I wanted to be careful. I was ready to go into her birthday with an “anything goes, whatever happens, it’s all good!” attitude. Really, that’s what I was thinking. And I believe it to be true.
But although you know something logically, sometimes your emotions refuse to play along. I think it’s these moments that keep us human. If we could get our bodies and emotions to bow down to reason, how boring people would be. Shakespeare would’ve had no material to work with. A world of Spocks! (I can’t remember the name of Spock’s alien race at the moment.)
It didn’t help that I stayed up way too late the night before Fiona’s birthday working on mix CDs as party favors. (Another true compulsion of mine – making playlists.) And then Jack woke up extra early, so I was going on about five hours of sleep. Really, I think that was the main reason for my lack of cool on her birthday. Lack of sleep.
But the day got off to a good start, even though Dennis and I were dragging ourselves out of bed. We definitely had a giddy “We have a five-year-old!” moment. And we upheld our family tradition of walking into Fiona’s room singing happy birthday, while holding a poster and balloon. Dennis drew all of her favorite characters on her poster, which she loved. We had breakfast together, and let her open some of her presents, while saving a few for after her birthday dinner that night.
Fiona was kind of high-strung and impatient and possibly overwhelmed all morning, which is completely normal, and I didn’t mind. I knew it was okay. I may have given her the impression earlier in the week that she could be in charge, and could make me drop everything, including Jack, to play with her all day. So that’s on me, for not explaining “we can do what you want to on your birthday!” in clearer terms. We had to remind her many times that no, she cannot do everything she wants, even if it is her birthday. It was a little draining, however, when she’d say, “This is a terrible birthday!!” every time the slightest thing went a tiny bit wrong. I took it in stride, though. Because that’s what a mom should do, and because she also told us “This is a great birthday!!” just as many times.
But I guess I wasn’t handling the ups and downs as well as I thought I was, because without any notice, suddenly I started crying at the indoor playground with bouncy houses that I took her and Jack to later that day.
We met my close friend there, who has a son Fiona’s age, and a daughter a little older than Jack. The kids are just as close as we are, which is great because it means we can actually talk to each other without the children getting bored. Anyway, Fiona and her friend were having a blast in the bouncy houses, and so were the little siblings. Things were going well. I was glad for the opportunity to bring my kids to such a fun place.
And then we had to stop for lunch in the bouncy house café, which I knew was going to be iffy. They don’t let you bring in outside food, and only carry overpriced junk, and when we went in to entice our children with the food on display, there was nothing in the display case. My friend ordered two milks for her kids, and the guy at the register goes, “We only have chocolate milk. Durrr..” And my friend says, “So…you don’t let us bring in our own food. And you don’t carry regular milk for kids. And you’re making me pay extra for chocolate milk?” which was all said in passing comments as we tried to figure out what the heck we were going to feed our kids. My friend is much more health-conscious about what her kids eat than I am, which I admire in her. So as annoyed as I was with the situation, I knew it was probably worse for her…and suddenly I was on the verge of tears. Just like that. I couldn’t even tell you why, in that moment. I was trying to hide it, because even though we’re close, I didn’t want to look like a crazy person, especially in a bouncy house cafe, of all places.
It had something to do with feeling like I was letting everyone down. Like no matter how hard I’d worked all week, here we were, pissed about chocolate milk on Fiona’s birthday. The bouncy house café was utterly ridiculous. I was an idiot for bringing us there. I started to say something to that effect, into my bag, so she couldn’t see my tears, and she was like, “Are you kidding? We’re having a great time! Did I embarrass you?” and I was like, “No, I totally agree with you!” which was true. And man did I NOT want to start crying, because how would I even explain it? I knew everything was fine, it was a good birthday, nothing was ruined, none of these things were a big deal, and yet I was basically like Fiona, saying, “This is a terrible birthday!!” the minute we hit a tiny speed bump.
And then my friend got up to change her daughter’s diaper, and Fiona was yelling at me for not wiping up her spilled fruit cup fast enough, and her friend says, “Fiona, you’re being really bossy,” and I said, “It’s true, Fiona, you’re being really impatient and rude in the way you’re talking to me right now,” and I watched her look down at her hot dog, and I saw her face turn pink and her chin quiver…and I knew she was holding back tears. And that kills me. People trying not to cry slays me every time, but my own daughter, on her birthday, crying out of shame…I mean, it makes me cry right now, as I write this.
As soon as my friend got back, I whisked Fiona off to the bathroom so we could have a moment alone. She sob/screamed in my lap as I sat on the closed toilet and I cried and it was a big ol’ mess. We didn’t really come to any conclusion other than that it was a terrible birthday and that I really hurt her feelings SO BAD by agreeing that she was being bossy, and by that point I knew I had no chance of hiding the fact that I’d been crying. So as we walked back out to the lunch table I said something to the effect of, “Well, we were just having little mommy-daughter breakdowns in the bathroom,” and of course my friend worried that it was from her son’s “bossy” comment, which I said was completely not a problem, and true – Fiona had been acting very bossy, and I wasn’t offended. And then Dennis showed up during his lunch break from work so he could play with the birthday girl, and Fiona was thrilled and perfectly fine, but I knew he must’ve been wondering why the heck his wife was crying.
And here’s the thing: I could not stop. The tears kept leaking out. What is wrong with me? While Dennis took the older kids, I tried to explain to my friend what was going on. It was hard to, when I wasn’t entirely sure, myself, other than the aforementioned things above. Again, I knew there was no reason to be crying, and yet, there I was. Oh, the humanity. Mine was on full display yesterday, against my own will.
Dear God, I haven’t even gotten to the second episode of crying in another bathroom that day. I’ll try to speed this up. We got home after having an otherwise great time at the bouncy house place, and after putting Jack down for his nap, I told Fiona I quickly needed to go to the bathroom and eat some lunch (it was 2pm, and I hadn’t eaten anything at the crappy-bouncy café), and then I could play whatever she wanted to play. Quite reasonable, correct? Not to a five-year-old on her birthday, it’s not! My mistake. She actually blocked the door to the bathroom. Maybe it’s just me, but when a five-year-old refuses to let me meet my basic human needs, I get a little, oh…mad. It’s somewhat different than when a newborn won’t let you meet your basic human needs.
I moved her out of the way so I could use the toilet, but before I got there she started slamming the door into the wall behind it. I told her to stop, and when she didn’t, I tried to grab the doorknob, and my hand got slammed into the wall. It really hurt. I screamed at her to get out of my face (words I am not proud of), slammed the bathroom door and locked it (which is a horrible offense to her after years of open bathroom doors). She of course pounded on the door and said I was a terrible mommy and this was a terrible birthday. We were both on the verge of hysterics. I caught a glimpse of my truly angry face in the mirror, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.
Somehow we made it downstairs and I apologized for the way I’d reacted, but not without crying and playing the “I’ve been working so hard on your birthday stuff and this is how you treat me?” guilt card, which I am just as ashamed about as the “get out of my face” words. So, there you have it. I screwed up. Semi-understandable under the circumstances – maybe – but I’m not happy with my behavior.
I know I can do better. I never want her to feel indebted to me for the things I choose to do for her. I never want her to feel like she owes me. I chose this whole scenario, because I chose to have children. I am the one who owes her. As a parent, I owe her love and security and about a million other less important things. And if she chooses to have children, she’ll pay her own dues to them, someday. For the privilege of being a parent. Because it is a privilege, worth paying for.
We were two moody peas in a pod, back and forth, happy/sad, high/low all day long. I don’t know if it was a girl thing, or something in my genes that I passed on to her, regardless of gender. Maybe most five-year-olds have high expectations and get a little crazy on their birthdays. It’s so hard to know what’s normal when it’s your first child. We are new to each milestone, too.
Maybe I was crying so much because my baby girl is not so much a baby anymore. Five sounds so old to me. I know that’s crazy talk to all you parents of older children. But it feels that way right now.
Last night as we ate our rainbow sorbet covered in hot pink sprinkles, Nerds and whipped cream, I told her the story of her birth, and how it snowed, and how happy we were when she came out of my belly all pink and healthy.
This was after our family dance party, after she opened her final two presents.
I sang her to sleep in bed, scratching her back. How much longer will I get to do this?
I need to go put some favor bags together now, for her party tomorrow. And I am happy to do it. It’s because of days like yesterday that I named this blog The Joy Underneath, to remind myself that it’s always there, even when my daughter and I are crying on opposite sides of a bathroom door.