The Pandemic Birthday
The day is done. Our just-turned-four-year-old is asleep upstairs clutching an overstuffed, poorly-sewn orange woolen cat, a gift chosen by her sister from Etsy’s “handmade” and “under $20” filters. I stuff my Poison Ivy wig and my green velvet leotard, along with my husband’s plated abs (he was the Dark Knight for the day), into the costume chest. Big Sister wears her Cheetah costume (Wonder Woman’s nemesis) to bed. I shake the beach sand from the towels outside and add them to the wash. I pick up scraps of wrapping paper from the rugs. It was a happy day, despite the usual dips and swells that come from sugared up children and too much razzle dazzle. So why did I feel so unhappy?
Dad and I round out the day with a gin and lemon fizzy water and an episode of The Ozarks. The death and destruction surrounding an otherwise normal family wrapped up in terrifying dealings with a drug cartel does make me feel better about whatever it is I am worrying about. But when the episode ends and the TV screen is black again, the clock ticking in an otherwise silent house, I wander back to the question I’ve been asking myself all day: What are we even trying to do?
My husband, Mark, likes this poem — excerpted below — by Philip Larken. In our house when the kids are throwing tantrums and making impossible demands, Mark and I knowingly mumble the first four words to each each other, always soliciting a sympathetic nod from whichever parent happens to have more of their shit together in that moment.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
As these refrains echo in my head I revisit a birthday past. Six years ago our oldest daughter was celebrating her first birthday sat in her highchair in front of a cake she was meant to smash (in that modern tradition of smashing one’s first birthday cake, called a smash cake for those unfamiliar with the rituals of new parenting). We had gotten her this big, specially-baked layer cake, beautifully decorated with yellow and white fondant roses by an actual professional baker. She was supposed to tear that sucker apart! Instead she looked at me, wild-eyed and unsure.