On First Birthdays

When Penelope turned one, we had a big party the following weekend. Friends and family flooded in, perhaps sensing how much we needed the fanfare after a bittersweet first year. I had purchased a special outfit for the party and a special outfit for her to wear at daycare on her official birthday. I cried as I drove to work that day, my heart aching because I was unable spend the day with, yet my mind knowing fully that she wasn’t actually suffering, the significance of birthdays utterly lost on kids that young.

Her party was themed to match the cold weather, but the house was full of warmth. I put on a pair of jeans for the first time since her birth. We purchased a single present – a mini Dyson kids toy vacuum, a tongue in cheek nod to the fact that the sound of the vacuum was the only thing that got her to stop screaming in her first six months.

I remember feeling like I had accomplished something simply by enduring that first year, surviving the colic and somewhat figuring out how to return to work despite the fact that I was an exclusively breastfeeding mother to a baby who didn’t take a bottle. I was drowning in guilt that she was starving every day. I hadn’t slept more than three consecutive hours since she was born. I had been pumping at two hour intervals each work day and then nursing her all night long, bed-sharing the only way forward, the pumped milk filling my freezer until I got around to donating it.

Hard babies are hard. Penny had been a tough baby – the six months of screaming giving way to the rocky return to work transition and her first birthday meant that she was no longer technically a baby. The day felt like permission to move forward and embrace the fun stages ahead, leaving behind much of the angst and some of the grief that had haunted me all year.

When Harper turned one, we celebrated with family, lucky to have two special guests from the states to make things feel more festive. We ordered some balloons and I picked up a cake, but much like her sister she had no interest in eating it, vastly preferring to yank down my shirt collar than try any sweet treats offered. She had an adorable birthday dress thanks only to my mother-in-law. I spent most of the day with her, but felt no guilt at leaving her with our helper, one of her favorite people, so I could run to the gym and attend a field trip with Penny. In this first year, I’ve never had to leave Harper long enough for it to matter that she too has zero interest in bottles. The only time I’ve pumped milk has been for my own comfort.

Harper was a shockingly independent newborn, happy to lay on her back and flail her limbs as long as she could sense my proximity. Her cries have always been easy enough to address. Yes, she can reach a pitch that makes passerby’s look over with alarm, but within a few minutes, she’s ready to move on. We had seven really hard weeks when I was alone in the states and we had to revise her tongue so that she could feed properly, in which I instantly regressed to my most fearful, stressed out self, but the rest of her first year has been marked by smiles and joy. She’s shown me that people who love babies aren’t totally crazy, they’ve just probably had easier babies. She’s healed parts of me that I didn’t even know were broken.

Harper got a ton of presents, mostly because Penny insisted on picking out a half dozen, wise enough to realize that if she “gifts” it to Harper, than at least for now, it means she can play with it too. Harper is still endlessly patient with and adoring of her big sister, all too happy to have any toy snatched from her hand if it means Penny is close by. Penny has been one of the constants in this first year of much change, in which the first half was spent in Glen Rock, NJ and the second half was spent adjusting to life in Singapore.

As I write this, I think of them grown up, inquiring about the vastly different circumstances of their first years. How time will likely distill them into bullet points, how I will have to work hard to not give the circumstances that were outside of their control any metaphorical resonance. With Penny, she got 100% of me for most of her first year, thanks to a slightly extended leave and summer vacation and my push for Wednesdays off to be with her. She did have to share me with my career and adjust to a variety of other caregivers at daycare. It took a while for us to find our footing and actually have fun together, but even in the hardest moments, I felt so much love and gratitude for the little lady who gave me the chance to grow into a mom. She didn’t ask to be born to a grief struck mother who expected babies to coo and poop and not shriek and flail. I have never worked harder at anything than I did at trying to rise to the occasion and be the parent she deserved.

Harper has always had to share me with her sister. She’s had to learn to feed and fall asleep while stories are read, to not get distracted by big sis deciding to jump on the bed. The times when she has 100% of my attention are far more rare, but they feel like gifts we get to open together. She’s never been in a formal daycare and expects either her mom or our helper to always be there. Her social interaction is informal, happens at the condo playground, where the other babies gather in the early morning hour and learn each other’s names as some of their first words. The mother she was given was a little older and so much wiser, but she also continued to flounder with things that were new. But any illusions of perfection in parenthood are long gone by this point so I’ve adopted a lighter touch with myself and with the world around me, always trying to learn more but always knowing that it all boils down to love and forgiveness, to fighting to be your best self for the ones who depend on you, to finding calm in the chaos and knowing your example will outlast any lecture you could ever concoct.

This time, as my last first birthday rolled around, it felt more like an ending than a beginning. My days with babies are more than likely behind me, and I’m so grateful to have had them all.

One thought on “On First Birthdays

  1. beautifully written… an authentic look at the challenges and joys motherhood has brought you. Your girls are lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing. ~Katie


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