Parenting

I Forgot My Youngest Child's Birthday

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Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

It’s 9:30 p.m., two days before my toddler’s third birthday. We finally have our four children in bed—though not everyone is asleep. I open my laptop and frantically wrack my brain. What can I order for my youngest for her birthday? We own so many toys already.

I only have a few hours left or I risk missing the cut-off for two-day shipping. Even if I order right now, her gifts won’t arrive until 9 p.m. the night of her birthday. Oops.

Let me be clear. I love birthdays. I grew up in a home where my mom went all out. We’d have a 1980s creatively themed and executed birthday party every year with our friends. Then we also had a family celebration. My mom would make us whatever meal we wanted—no matter how disgusting the food combination was. We opened gifts, wore a new outfit, and also got to take a homemade birthday treat to our classmates.

It was magical. And I want to make sure I passed on our love of birthdays to my four kids. I’ve succeeded so far—until now.

When you have four kids, you are officially a big family. Two kids, OK. Three kids—it’s getting out of control. But four kids? We’re loud and chaotic, with big emotions and yes, six birthdays a year. That’s a lot of planning.

I don’t know how my daughter’s birthday came up so quickly. It’s the same day every year, but somehow it took me by surprise. What I do know is that having a birthday within one month of school starting, during this weird season where it’s not summer but it’s not really fall either, means she’s getting the short end of the stick.

Do I feel bad that her birthday gifts wound up being strawberry toothpaste, a board book, and a Daniel Tiger tee? Sort of. Not really. I don’t know. I was feeling guilty that they may not arrive on time, so I was stalking the package tracking for two days. As if constantly checking the shipping status would make the gifts arrive sooner.

The night before her birthday, my husband ran to the grocery store to pick up watermelon popsicles—her requested birthday snack. Then, out of guilt and lack of planning, he grabbed a brownie mix and some ice cream. Birthdays are for sugar, right?

The morning of her birthday, we greeted her with hugs and kisses. Then she asked, “Can I open presents?” I told her not yet—pulling out my phone to, for the one-hundredth time, see when her gifts would arrive. My account promised me the packages were out for delivery.

That afternoon, my daughter and two of her siblings attended a friend’s birthday party. That’s right: My kid went to someone else’s party on her birthday. They had a blast at the indoor play place. It was all fun and games until my daughter got home.

My tween and I stayed behind to make the brownies. We heard the baby before we saw her. She came into the house wailing. Her right ear hurt. She was insistent and inconsolable.

I whipped out the thermometer and she had a low fever. Great. I change clothes, buckle my daughter in the car, and zip to urgent care. Luckily there wasn’t a wait—call that birthday magic—and in 45 minutes, we had a diagnosis. A pretty severe ear infection. We were given a script for antibiotics and sent on our way.

By then, her pain killer has kicked in, and she’s feeling a little better. Is it present time yet? Hubby texts me to let me know the packages were delivered.

The minute we get home, I hand off my now three-year-old to her dad, and I wrap my daughter’s gifts in my closet. Then I come out holding a small stack of mismatched wrapped gifts, and she squeals in delight.

Despite my mommy guilt and skepticism, she loves her gifts. Who knew toothpaste could be so awesome? She cheers wildly for her t-shirt, naming all the screen-printed character faces. And the board book? She puts it in her bed, stating she can’t wait to read it that night.

Her birthday dinner was leftovers from the night before. She wasn’t interested—so we gave her one of her popsicles. It’s a fruit serving, right? Plus, you should be able to eat what you want on your birthday.

She grows more tired and cranky, so we give her a quick bath, get her in pjs, promise to wash her new tee so it’s ready to go for the next day, and put her to bed. My other kids complain that we didn’t have brownies and ice cream. I tell them to suck it up–because it’s not their birthday.

The dessert makes its appearance the next evening after dinner. Call it a birthday weekend? We have exactly three dollar-store candles shoved in a baggie in the pantry. Whew! I shove them into the pan of brownies, we sing and cheer, and then dive in.

Two days later, she comes home from preschool with a paper birthday crown on her head. And for the following few days, she walks around the house with it on. And when she misplaces it, she whines loudly, “Where is my crown?!?” So the thing that made her the most happy—all of her birthday dreams coming true—is a crown made of shimmery cardstock.

I realized I was fretting over nothing. Her birthday was special, because it lasted several days. Because she got loads of attention—which I swear is her love language. Because the gifts she received—as inexpensive as they were—meant the world to her.

There is so much pressure for parents to give their kids the perfect, outlandish birthday. There’s a party fit for a Pinterest photoshoot, a classroom celebration, and a family soiree, too. We feel that we need to check all the boxes in order for our child to feel loved.

What I realized after what I thought was my recent parental birthday screw up, is that kids just want to feel special. Their birthday doesn’t have to be expensive, planned weeks in advance, or themed. Perhaps the impromptu surprises are where the real birthday magic is.

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