I’m about to do that thing where I take a wonderful moment from motherhood and talk about it in an intense, slightly morose way. Because a child’s birthday isn’t just about copious amounts of sugar, and standing on brand new bits of Lego. No, it’s about letting go, and a deep, residual melancholy harking back to the moment of their birth.
I did warn you.
We all know motherhood changes things. There are a host of clichés that tell us what to expect; we’ll no longer finish a hot drink before it turns tepid, get a good night’s sleep, pee in peace, leave the house without snot trails down the back of at least one leg. The list goes on. Being the eldest of 11 (yes, really) I thought I was pretty clued up about the changes having children would bring, but some parts of motherhood are so visceral they’re hard to fathom until they happen.
One thing I didn’t know was that motherhood would break me. Just after Little E and Bean were born I pulled them onto my chest, and as they unfurled and looked into my eyes, I felt what I can only describe as a physical sadness. I think it’s common to feel relief once pregnancy is over, but for me, it felt terribly sad. I found the physical and spiritual side of pregnancy so empowering, and all of a sudden it was over, and my babies were in an imperfect world. That initial separation was when I realised that motherhood means forever being a bit broken.
Another thing I didn’t know before becoming a mother was that birthdays are as painful as they are happy. The birth dates of my children are carved into me the way wood is hacked out of a totem. Each year I think back to their births and I’m no less affected by the memory of when they came into our lives.
We celebrated E turning the grand old age of 4 this week. Even without his birthday this is a full-on time for us. 2014 has been our most difficult year as a family, so the fact that it’s finally drawing to a close is a relief. And it’s almost the end of term, so we’re trudging through the nursery and work routines, the late nights, and the early starts, in an exhausted stupor. And then there’s Christmas just around the corner, a time which, for me, is heavy with difficult memories and the need to make it good again with my babies.
E is just as exhausted as the rest of us, and his behaviour has nosedived as a result. He’s been pushing all the boundaries. What starts with hysterical giggling and hyperactive bouncing, ends with him in tears and being removed so he can get some calm and perspective. The night of his birthday was no different. He crashed, big time. It probably wasn’t helped by the huge tube of Smarties he’d eaten during the day (note to self: birthdays don’t make E numbers any less manic-inducing). By bedtime he’d had the biggest meltdown and was snivelling in my arms. We had a quiet chat and I explained why he couldn’t have a bedtime story, he’d been too naughty. He was worried Santa would know (more tears). I reassured him that he could be good the next day and he drifted to sleep in my arms, but not before telling me, “it’s so hard to be good sometimes, mummy”. I cried all over his head for about 5 minutes after that.
As I lay next to E I thought about birthdays. About how time flashes by when you share it with a child. How the demands of each day mean you don’t see the ebb and flow of life. I’ve wandered through this year in a daze, not processing, just focusing on getting from morning to night. Perhaps that’s why E’s birthday hit me so hard. It was a sucker punch of a day. I felt it in my guts. All of a sudden I could see how much he’s achieved this year – the growing, the changing, the challenges, the little mountains climbed. And it dawned on me, for about the millionth time, how lucky we are to share this life with our boys.
Now that I’m a mum, birthdays are no longer just about cake and presents. They are the dot to dots that make up our journeys from woman to mother, from child to man. They are landmarks from a life before we made life, to the moments after; from the newborn haze, to the toddler chub, and the struggles of trying to be good when you’re 4.