When you're little, every birthday is a big one. But as you grow up, it's O.K. to let them get small. I have mixed feelings about how midlife birthdays, once easily waved at as they passed quietly by, have spun so far out of control, thanks to Facebook alerts and my generation's abiding commitment to our eternal youth.
When my husband asked how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year the first anniversary of my 49th birthday, he called it I was at a loss to answer. No surprises, I said; even our routines already supply plenty of those. No extravagance: we're still in a recession. When I read about Naomi Campbell's $1.8 million party at a seven-star hotel in Dubai (still wasn't enough to save the local economy), or the British retail tycoon who marked his 55th by sending his guests a travel wallet with instructions to meet at a London airport and clear their calendar for five days, I'm not impressed; I'm exhausted. I count it as a gift to have reached an age at which I am content to observe the date or overlook it.
It wasn't always that way. I had to miss my fourth birthday I had just had eye surgery and was not supposed to hang out with germy little kids and my sense of justice was so aggrieved that six months later, in the middle of July, I invited all my playground friends over for a party. It would have all come off beautifully, had I not neglected to tell my mother.
To her eternal credit, when a flock of 4½-year-olds descended in the middle of my afternoon nap, she rose to the occasion, conjuring a cake out of her pantry and a celebration out of thin summer air. It's true that for years afterward, she wouldn't let me forget it, that party I'd somehow arranged in the sandbox without permission. Eventually I reminded her of the important part, that when you are 3, going for the entire year without your friends hoisting you up to 4 seems cosmically wrong.
Ten felt very big those two digits, one so straight and mature, one so round and promising. And 13, which made it official: childhood is memory now; life is PG-13. Sixteen was sweet; 18 was freedom, a launch that in those days could legally include a champagne toast. Your young self hatches again and again between birthdays, so marking them has meaning a grab for the handrail to steady yourself on a dizzying climb. Turn 14 and grow five inches. Turn 17 and fall in love.
But at some point, that all changes, once time is not sliced into semesters anymore. How different really is 27 from 26, or 42 from 41? The journey curves and loops; your age in years seems to detach from your age in experience. You get fired at 32 and feel 12 again, or you're invited to teach for the first time and feel ancient standing in front of all those wide eyes. You circle back on certain ages, replaying them until you get it right. If the middle-school cafeteria is the setting for your recurring nightmares, you can spend decades as a preteen in your head, refining the snappy comeback that you never mastered at the time. What is a midlife crisis if not an adolescent rebellion with a bigger price tag? And our culture conspires to add to the confusion, now that 50 is the new 40 is the new 30.
Above all, it was having children of my own that most messed with my life cycle. Being allowed to walk out of the hospital with that child in my arms no instruction manual, no warranty sealed the certainty of adulthood in a way no car keys or paycheck or mortgage ever had. Their birthdays loomed so large that ours could discreetly recede. My diet would soon include, once again, cupcakes and macaroni and applesauce. The first time we all went to the circus, I felt 6 years old too.
Raising teenagers has forced me and every mom I know to double back even more, recalling what heartbreak feels like, and moodiness, and mystery, when every day feels so suddenly rude and ripe with expectations and revelations. My husband and I talk late into the night, trying to remember what it was like for us, even as we realize how much has changed for these kids. It feels ageless, middle age, when we are suspended between twin poles: the needs of our own parents as they hang on to us tighter and the needs of our children as they push us away. Who has time to stop and look closely at the calendar?
But when we do, when we gather with friends and count our blessings, what I find I'm most grateful for, nestled so deeply here in middle age, is being able to watch the candles flicker, and marvel at how many birthday wishes past have already come true.