My friend Emily and I haven’t lived in the same state for years, but we always show up for the important stuff: birthdays, breakups, weddings. When I moved across the country, Emily took a week off of work to drive with me. A few years later, I was back on the East Coast, and Emily was living in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her husband, and was pregnant with their first child, Connor. I drove up for the baby shower, and again a month after Connor was born. But this year, when she called to invite me to his first birthday party, I had to tell her I couldn’t make it. I consoled myself by thinking, it’s not as if Connor will miss me; he doesn’t even know it’s his birthday.
I talked to Emily a few days after the party, and asked how it had gone. Emily had constructed an elaborate birthday cake in the shape of a standing snowman. She sent me a photo of a respectable, if somewhat wobbly-looking cake with a black top hat and a baby-carrot nose.
The party had gone well, she said, but certain key members of the family had been less than enthusiastic about coming. Initially, her mother, who lived several hours away, had refused to come, saying that she didn’t understand why people threw birthday parties for babies. One of Connor’s aunts had been planning a skiing vacation to the area, and rescheduled it for the weekend following the party. “You’d think they would want to come,” Emily said. “He’s her grandson and her nephew.” She sounded so hurt.
It was true, I thought, and a surprisingly cold reaction for a grandmother and an aunt to have. Connor was the newest member of their family, Emily and Nathan’s first child, and his aunt’s only nephew – why wouldn’t his first birthday be a milestone worth showing up for? I pictured Emily up in her farmhouse in the mountains planning Connor’s birthday. I pictured her finding the snowman cake recipe and buying streamers and sending invitations. And then I saw her floored when she was not met with the enthusiastic replies she rightly expected.
To be clear, Emily is not a momzilla. She was not a bridezilla. She is not, has never been, and I doubt will ever be anything that can be fairly illustrated with an allusion to a scaly, kitschy movie monster. She is considerate and tolerant. She remembers birthdays and keeps plans. She is rarely late. She laughs easily and often. She can keep a secret. She tells the truth, but gently. Small children love her. Cartoon woodland animals scurry in from the forest to help her make breakfast every morning. When Emily invites you to her child’s birthday party, you do your best to go.
And yet, I saw Connor’s grandmother’s point: why throw a party for a one-year-old? He can’t blow out the candles on his cake, play party games or even understand the word “birthday.” He could open presents, but he couldn’t understand what a present was, or why one would wrap it. Nor would he remain awake long, after the excitement of the afternoon party and the buzz from his first refined-sugar high had waned.
Why then, was Emily so wounded?
Emily’s pregnancy had been difficult. She was prone to getting blood clots, which meant sonograms every few weeks in addition to the shadow of worry for her own health as well as Connor’s. Two weeks before her due date, Emily’s doctor decided to induce labor, because Connor wasn’t gaining the weight he should have. Emily dilated so quickly, and the trauma was so great, that she needed 150 stitches after Connor was born. A few days later, when the swelling went down, the stitches fell out, and she had to have them put in again: three hundred stitches in the most sensitive area of the body. Connor didn’t take to breastfeeding, and he needed to gain weight, so Emily bottle-fed him. When Connor was about six months old, Emily was so exhausted that she began to have dizzy spells. She assumed she was just exhausted because she was a new mom. When she finally did go to the doctor, he told her that she had mono.
Of course, even without the blood clots and the difficulty breastfeeding and the mono, are the ordinary changes that come with new parenthood: People don’t become parents in the fullest sense of the word the day their child is born. the sleepless nights, the worry that ignorance or incompetence will result in maiming or disfigurement, or political extremism. But like most new parents, Emily and Nathan learned as they went along. At the end of the year, Connor was a heavy, sweet-natured armful. He was better than okay; they all were.
From what I’ve seen, people don’t become parents in the fullest sense of the word the day their child is born. The comfort, the confidence, and maybe even the self-identification, seem to come in degrees through the relentless hazing of that first year. The awkward cradling of a newborn gives away the trembling terror of a new parent. “What do I do now?,” their wide-eyed gazes seem to say. Emily, even with her masters degree in child psychology, and her years working with babies and toddlers, looked like an elephant fumbling a teacup those first few weeks with Connor after they came home from the hospital.
Change is easier to spot in people I only see once or twice a year. When I visited Emily next, months after the birthday party, the polished, orderly house that I remembered was gone. Their cozy, sunny living room was full of toys and picture-books and stuffed animals. There were sippy cups in the dish drainer. Connor could walk and talk, and crawl up the carpeted stairs and slide down on his bottom. And there was something else, a unity between Emily and Nathan and Connor. I saw, in way that is invisible over the phone, that in the year since I’d seen them last, they had become a family. That was what she had invited all of us to celebrate, and what I won’t miss out on next year.