A Portrait Of My Birthdays Over Four Decades

by Sharon Holbrook
Originally Published: 

I have a birthday party, and the girls from school come. We swim in the pool in my suburban New Jersey backyard, and unroll sleeping bags in the basement. The girls scream when scratching noises come from the wall and ghoulish flash-lit teenage faces appear outside the tiny basement windows. I am annoyed at my siblings, until I realize my friends (and almost-friends), the ones who know about everything, love it. This is good. Even better, I get a plastic chainlink necklace with plastic clip-on charms for my birthday, the kind that everyone else has, and an off-the-shoulder shirt with neon handprints all over its front.

I am 10.

August 1995

My dad is in the hospital, and I visit him in the evening after my perfume-factory job lets out. I’m free in the evenings now, because I’ve just quit my second job, the telemarketing one. (“You’re very sweet, Sharon,” my supervisor had said after listening in on my calls, “but you need to sell.”) Dad has a kidney infection, or something—at least they know what it is, unlike the mysterious illness of the previous year that Mom had, when I came home from college to find her so stiff that she needed me, her youngest, to tie her shoes.

I tell Dad that I bought the car today, the one we’d been looking at—a ratty tan 1983 Dodge, bought with $1,000 in cash brought carefully to the seller in a bank envelope, the kind with the flap at the short end that Mom used to pull from her purse to buy groceries. I am so pleased. I can’t wait to drive myself to campus in the fall, and to drive my roommates to Boston, and to the mall.

I am 20.

August 2005

It is over 90 degrees, and I am hot. I catch myself in the mirror and my face is round and red. Everything is round, most especially my belly, stretching one of the few Old Navy maternity T-shirts that still fit, and just barely. Three years earlier, my husband and I had bought the old Colonial, white with black shutters, which had seduced us with its charm and hardwood floors. We have no air conditioning, a fact that seemed trifling when we signed papers on that December day, cool and unpregnant.

I’ve quit my big-firm lawyer job, the one I hated, the one that I swear had caused the infertility. And so I am a stay-at-home almost-mother, and there is nothing left on the to-do list. I wait. I pause to sit in the nursery rocking chair, watching my visiting niece and nephews play with baby toys next to the empty crib that the cat keeps trying to sleep in. Three more weeks, the doctor says. We do not know that it will be nearly five weeks until he arrives, very large, very late and, mercifully, safe.

I am 30.

August 2015

We still don’t have air conditioning, so I take my laptop to the porch in hopes of a breeze. I write, eagerly and often, in between the “Mom!” and all the details of this house and family that belong to me. The children are getting big, and the littlest one goes to kindergarten in a few weeks. This is good. My 30s have been spent mothering: wonderfully, relentlessly, exhaustingly. Today I am storing up the green warmth of summer, provisions for the gray winter that now darkly seeps into my frayed edges every year.

The children are growing, and separating. I see this, and I am more tempted to celebrate than to cling—for they are supposed to do these things. And I see that I too am growing, and separating—growing less frayed—and separating from these lovely needy little people who have literally been nourished by my body for most of the last 10 years. I am refilling what I have poured out, and I feel strong and healthy and whole.

I am 40.

This article was originally published on