Dear 42nd Birthday . . .
How nice of you to join me during lockdown.
Honestly, you gave me something to think about all day, at least. You gave me a focus that felt at least a little different to all the other days. And you, along with many of your predecessors, made me think about what a birthday actually is.
It’s a proper weird one, isn’t it? I mean no disrespect but what do you actually expect us to do on the anniversary of the day we were born? That might sound like a ridiculous question, but I think it’s a valid one. Being married to somebody from another culture, I’ve had a little window through to ‘birthdays done in a different way’. Or, as far as Turkish culture seems to be concerned, ‘birthdays not done at all’.
In Turkey, most people don’t even know the actual day they were born – especially men. This is because until recent years, it was absolutely imperative that when young men turned the age of eighteen, they had to carry out their national service. Fifteen months spent undergoing intensive army training and being posted god-knows-where to do unspeakable things. This is something that Turkish mothers, understandably, wanted to put off for as long as possible so it makes sense that they would also put off registering the birth. I don’t know if that’s how things are done now but in the hubby’s day, mums could pop along to the registry office and make up whatever day they bloody well liked as the official day of their offspring’s birth. That’s why, if you look at a lot of Turkish men’s ID cards, you’ll find they were all born on 1st January.
It’s kind of unthinkable in British culture, isn’t it? To not know your birthday? How could you not know your birthday? We place an enormous amount of importance on that date from the word go. You can hardly even buy a pasty from #Greggs without entering your birthdate somewhere along the line, or wondering if your stars are currently in the correct alignment for a steak bake or a sausage and bean melt.
When the hubby and I first got together, he was left wide-eyed and reeling at the way us Brits do birthdays.
What? You hand each other cards with messages inside? Why can’t you just tell the person to have a nice day?
Kind of valid.
What? You buy each other presents on a particular day, regardless of whether or not that person might need or want those items? You try to match each other in price and quality and quantity? What madness is this?
Again, I see his point.
What? You eat cake and drink wine as if you haven’t seen sustenance in a week? But why? What is the purpose?
It was about here I started to question our marriage.
And when we started having babies, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.
You want to spend how much on a Super-Mario themed disco? You want to commission a cake in the shape of what?! He needs how many personalised helium-filled balloons to fill the village hall?
And, as ever, our relationship threw enough vastly opposing forces into the mix that, eventually, we found our happy middle ground. I got to celebrate the Lads’ birthdays with rather fewer balloons, and with traditionally-shaped cakes, and he got to understand The Ways of the Birthday at a slower, gentler pace.
So, The Ways of the Birthday, how do we do that when we’re in lockdown? I’ve got a friend with three kids aged under six and they all have their birthdays within a month of each other. What she was thinking when she orchestrated that particular phenomenon, I will never know. Anyway, two out of those three little mites had their birthdays during lockdown. And this, god love her, is a friend that does not do her kids’ birthdays by half. She doesn’t have a hubby from another land / time / planet to whisper in her ear questions about the point of Barbie marshmallow cakes or dinosaur-shaped party favours – not everyone is 'blessed' with that. But she did have the boundaries of lockdown to contend with this year, and I know it wasn’t easy.
It can’t be easy, can it? When we’ve allowed our kids, from day one, to believe that birthdays are a magical time of bigging oneself up and having all the things and eating all the cake and inviting all the friends and having all the dreams come true. We thought we were doing a good thing. We thought we were giving our kids a little time to celebrate themselves. To feel good and worthy and happy.
When I flew to Turkey to finally live (I’d flown there lots of times before that to get jiggy with with afore-mentioned hubby who was merely a love interest at the time) it was only a few days before my birthday. The first one I had spent with him and I was heavily pregnant with Big Lad.
It was also going to be my thirtieth birthday so it was a biggie. At least, in the land I hailed from it was a biggie. Come on, thirty? I was entering the decade I was going to have children, discover the endless joys of motherhood, live immersed in a different culture, learn a new language, discover what married life was like, finally become happy in my own skin (or something). The thirties were going to be awesome and if I’d been at home I would have been given the bumps or something (pregnant or not) and plied with ridiculous presents and foodstuffs.
But here, in this sleepy, out-of-holiday-season Turkish town, on the morning of my birthday, I woke to the smiles of my equally sleepy husband. I’d obviously already announced that my birthday wasn’t important and I didn’t expect any presents (Amazon Prime was not a thing in Turkey in those days) or cards or cake or anything silly like that. I was, I insisted, happy with the company of my man, the romantic call of the nearby beach and the sun streaming down on my skin. That was all I needed to turn thirty.
Or was it?
Because although the company of my man and the beach and the sun were all very nice, I did have a nagging feeling that something was missing that day. I remember walking towards the beach with the hubby on that afternoon and he handed me a hand-picked flower / weed thingy he’d seen at the side of the road. I remember feeling utterly disgusted with myself that I could not just be elated with the flower weed thing. There was, of course, a sense of quiet gratitude for this simple gift, but I can’t deny there was also a slowly strengthening niggle of disappointment.
Where was my cake? Where were my gifts? Where were the well-wishers and all the people who would make a fuss of me? Where had my birthday gone?
There I said it. I’m a spoiled bitch.
But now, thanks to you, I am forty-two and I look back on my thirty-year-old self and feel a slither of compassion. Maybe, just maybe, I was allowed to have some complex feelings on that day. I’d spent the previous seven months working like a deranged dog to earn enough money to move out there to Turkey. The reality of living with a man who, although I loved deeply, was from a vastly different culture was starting to hit me. I was eight months pregnant with not one single family member less than two thousand miles away. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t understand the ways. I didn’t understand what was happening.
A little disappointment on my birthday was probably allowed.
And we’ve all had them, haven’t we? Birthdays that have disappointed? I’m having less of them now, as I’m growing older, but I do believe all us well-meaning parents are potentially setting our kids up for massive falls as they get older. But the draw of buying the expensive gifts that make them smile from ear to ear, and booking the disco and baking the cake and making the party favours and creating the dream birthday is so strong. We’re helpless against its power.
It all feeds into my theory that it’s not the kids who should be celebrated on their birthdays at all, but the mums. I mean, come on people, we’re the ones who extricated them from our bodies. And it wasn’t pretty. Surely, it’s us who should be larging it up? Raucously toasting our miraculous bodies not to mention our unquestionable emotional resilience? It makes sense, no?
But, that will potentially never happen in a patriarchal system such as this so I guess I just have to get over it (and quietly toast myself every time one of my kids gets a year older, obvs).
Anyway, back to you and your undeniable presence during lockdown. You happened yesterday and, because I have unwittingly taught my kids The Ways of the Birthday over the years, we had to at least make a little nod towards my forty-second year.
I baked a cake with Little Lad the day before, and allowed him to adorn it in all the Skittles he could scrounge from around the house. If there were cake and candles then we would all feel The Ways of the Birthday had been adhered to at least a little.
Husband couldn’t get the day off work as he is basically providing our little town with comfort food right now and, let’s face it, if there was ever a time when curly fries can save the day then this is it. He could, however, go into work a little later so we all went for a nice country walk, which Boris thankfully said was fine just a week or two ago. I was even presented with similar flowers / weeds to twelve years ago but this time, felt positively enraptured.
Boris did not mention wailing children though. He didn’t say . . . “You are allowed to go out for one walk or run per day and during which you are allowed to leave your children in a forest clearing if they don’t stop whinging for twenty seconds.” You can always rely on a Conservative government to leave holes in their policies.