First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 17.5.21
There’s nothing like a long solo drive on a crisp autumn day to have you indulging in a bit of reflection. I had scooted out of the house at the crack of midday, dropped in at the cake shop to pick up a ridiculous confection that shouted, “Happy Birthday!” in caramel sponge and chocolate, swung by the supermarket to stuff bottles of bubbly between icepacks in the chiller bag in my boot (terrible to arrive with warm wine, how thoughtless) and headed three hours south to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.
Before you are a mother, you assume birthdays are about you. A new bike, a year older, a party with your name in the song, your special day. Quite right – this is exactly how we want you to read it. A joyous celebration of the anniversary of your arrival on the plant.
Secretly, though (and I can’t be alone in this) those of us who were fully sentient at the birth allow our minds to swing back to it. To recall some of it (the bits we liked, mostly, the stuff that went well) and quietly measure the distance between then and now.
Those minutes and hours (also days and years) after your first child is born are when you are most aware that you have no idea how to do the thing you are doing. Raising a new human? Where’s the manual? When will the grown-ups arrive to take over? Then realising with waves of panic that there is no list of instructions and you are the grown-up now and you are just going to have work it out.
And then they’re 28, and you’re driving to see them with cake and prosecco, and it all seems so simple and fun, and you wish you could tell your earlier self, the one who threw kids’ birthday parties with cakes baked in the shape of something you possibly swore over the night before, that it does all work out in the end. And you might measure the distance in grey hair and creaky knees but you can also just enjoy the breathing out now, because you got this far and everyone seems very happy and safe.
One year (and I shivered as I remembered this on the drive down) when my daughter was at intermediate, I gathered up a dozen or so of her friends, took them into Auckland’s Queen Street, and sent them off on a birthday scavenger hunt I’d designed with endless research and bags of prizes, but with zero health & safety protocols in place, and I don’t know what I was thinking except it seemed like a terrific idea at the time and it turned out nobody got lost or abducted, but I cannot tell you why not.
Some years we did parties at home which involved days of preparation followed by more days of trying to vacuum icing off the carpet and finding cheerios down the back of the couch. Other years we’d hire a room at some indoor play area that smelt of wees and socks. Though there was one exceptional year – a Fairy Party with an actual fairy to host it – which was so successful I booked the whole experience again for my own birthday three months later, only with champagne instead of raspberry fizz.
This year, the birthday girl planned the games which left me free to unleash my competitive beast (note to self: leave it to the young ones another time, there’s a love) and there was a lot of very excellent dancing uploaded to Instagram. Again, my competitive spirit reared its head and, after an especially spectacular performance from those in their twenties, I had a go and discovered (why did I not already know this?) that I cannot at all do any of the moves that require you to bend, or lift yourself on or off a chair. Measure the distance between youth and middle-age any way you like, but I’d advise you to find an approach that doesn’t require a lot of upper body strength or flexibility.
I like this bit of life where you get to be on the edge of things, observing, rather than the person at the centre. I also like the bits of my life where I get to be at the centre, of course. But there is a lot to be said for not carrying all of it, all of the time.
I love watching the way my daughter parents, and happily catch myself lost in the observation of it. Bonus points for those moments when a grandchild notices you there, and climbs on your lap for a cuddle and a bit of head-sniffing.
We assume, I think, when we see our nana and pops sitting quietly to the side that they are not robust enough to throw themselves into the giddy bits. Perhaps. But there are also times when we are just looking at how far we have come, relieved that we’ve got here. And maybe planning our own giddy party in a few months, and picking up tips.