Genevieve turned one yesterday. I am not at all good at celebrating the first birthday. Maybe because I am terrible at decorating cakes or throwing parties. Maybe because I am never sure the amount of effort I should put into the party (Should there even be a party? Should you decorate? The kid won’t remember, but they will see pictures). Maybe because a one-year-old never appreciates the presents you buy (Miles really liked the wrapping paper better than anything, and Evie’s favorite was the sippy cup I almost didn’t even wrap because it is more of a practical necessity than a gift). Or maybe because, for the past month or so, since I started answering strangers’ questions about her age as “Almost one!” I’ve had this sad feeling in the pit of my heart. It’s a weird, clingy sort of feeling where I just want to hold her and feel her little pudgy arm around my neck forever.
My friend had an altogether different reaction to her girls’ first birthdays. Hers was more of a “Thank-God-We-Made-It” feeling. I think they actually had that phrase printed on the birthday banner. Is there a section for banners like that at party supply stores? If not, there should be. (Do you hear that, Party City? You owe me some sort of finder’s fee for thinking that up.) Either way, Gob from Arrested Development could definitely craft one for you if you’re in the market.
I get that feeling. I told my friend that there was a tiny part of my heart that also felt that way, but that was, perhaps, a gross understatement. First birthdays come with complicated sets of feelings, much like parenthood itself does, and there are miniature gospel singers that appear sometimes in my imagination when I think that we are just a little bit closer to my children sleeping through the night, or being potty trained, or being able to dress themselves, or leaving Scott and me free to go on cruises or out to dinner at a place that doesn’t happen to have chicken nuggets on the menu.
The first year of a child’s life is usually his or her most needy year. Or so I believe right now, since I’ve not yet raised a child through middle school. If this kid is not hanging on my breast, she’s hanging on my legs. Here’s proof:
This is the view I have of her much of the day. It’s her most annoying habit right now to want to cling to me whenever possible—especially when I’m trying to make dinner. Since she’s not really great at the walking thing yet, this clinging makes me feel like I am perpetually partnered with a bag of rice in a three-legged-race.
While I say that this is her “most annoying habit,” I do so with the knowledge that yes, I will miss this. I will have a little tinge of nostalgia later in life when it’s difficult even to get her home for dinner. (Full disclosure: I just made myself cry. Excuse me while I collect myself.)
Because the first year is usually a child’s most needy year, you learn about self-sacrifice. Because you have to; you are forced into being virtuous. As much as you want to turn the baby monitor off when they’re napping because OH MY WORD, I DON’T CARE IF YOU WAKE UP AND I DON’T HEAR YOU BECAUSE I NEED THIS HOUR AND A HALF. THERE WILL BE NO WAKING UP, AND IF THERE IS, YOU WILL JUST WORK ON DEVELOPING YOUR LUNGS AND NOT PASSING OUT FROM THE VIOLENT WAILING WHILE I FINISH MY SHOW!, you don’t.
Self-sacrifice is not a virtue of American culture. There is a lot of talk of self-love—of taking care of #1, of working hard to create a good life for yourself, of learning to love YOU. Now: this is not to say that the effort to be in a healthy place when it comes to self-esteem is wrong-headed. Please don’t hear that. But every good thing seems to have a negative extreme, and I think our culture might have reached that point. Whitney Houston sang about how loving yourself is “the greatest love of all.” And as much as I will belt that song out in the privacy of my own Ford Focus, I think I respectfully disagree.
I am beginning to believe that self-sacrifice is what makes parenting such an amazing endeavor. Jesus said that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for his or her friends. Some would interpret that to mean jumping in front of a moving train to save someone. This is probably a good interpretation, but, since most of us won’t have this opportunity, I would extend it to mean laying down our lives in small moments for people we love. Cutting up meat into miniscule pieces for someone with only a few teeth before eating ourselves. Reading a kid ONE. MORE. STORY. when we just want to be finished for the evening. Changing poopy underpants in a public restroom and not cussing like a Jersey Shore cast member all the way through it. Carrying a baby through Toys R Us whilst also holding a toddler’s hand, pushing a cart with your elbow, and lugging a diaper bag over one shoulder in search of a perfect present that is probably nonexistent and will definitely be upstaged by the wrapping paper. Getting up—AGAIN—in the middle of the night to sing and pat and sway and hold.
Parenting is one long exercise in self-sacrifice, and I would argue that this is what makes it so incredibly meaningful. (There are other examples, to be sure! I’m not limiting it—you’ve seen it if you’ve ever had a very dedicated teacher, or watched a hospice worker care for someone who is dying, or noticed an old lady daily take her little terrier for a walk in sun or snow or rain, or felt grateful for any number of acts of selflessness on the part of people who exist around you.)
So a kid turning one doesn’t at all end the exercise. Rather, it celebrates a milestone. It says “Thank God we made it!” as it also makes you realize how much overflowing love you have for a little person you have had to lay your life down for on a moment-by-moment basis.
You won’t be breastfeeding much longer because she’s beginning to enjoy new foods more and more.
You won’t be waking up in the middle of the night as much because she’s developing stronger sleep habits.
You won’t have to hold her all the time—she’s excited to walk and go and be and do.
You won’t have to meticulously interpret each type of cry—she’ll be getting words any day.
She won’t need you quite as much. You can have a little bit more of yourself back, which is a wonderful feeling. But also, somehow, a little heartbreaking, too.
Happy birthday, Genevieve Grace. You are so loved.