The year I turned thirteen I played the oboe in the school jazz band. On my birthday, the clarinet player who sat next to me brought me a single mylar balloon, the words happy birthday scrawled across the front. It meant something that she’d thought of me, but my heart sunk a little when I saw her walk through the door in the early morning, balloon in hand. I already knew it would be the only balloon tied to my backpack on that day.
The number of mylar balloons bobbing along behind girls on their birthday was a way to measure social value: the more balloons, the more you mattered in the adolescent social scape. I don’t think boys did this balloon-gifting tradition. I was overcome that day by contradictory feelings: the single balloon trailing behind my backpack felt like public acknowledgement that I had only one friend. No balloons, and I could have hidden my hurt. But my single balloon evoked looks of pity on the faces of the other girls. Quasi-friend after quasi-friend squealed as only seventh grade girls can, that they’d had no idea it was my birthday. Each time I shrunk a little bit more inside of myself. Yet, that sweet clarinet player brought me a balloon, and I didn’t want to make her feel like I didn’t appreciate her kindness. So I swallowed my pride and tied that balloon to my Jansport and pretended I didn’t care, even as the tears gathered behind my eyeballs and I frantically searched next year’s calendar hoping to find my birthday on a weekend.
Fast forward twenty-plus years, and I’ve become an expert at birthdays. I wrap gifts with ribbons and layered tissue paper, and love setting up a little birthday morning surprise with glitter and magic. I think nothing of spending $50 on balloons, and love dreaming up birthday themes like my daughter’s “Chugga-Chugga-Two-Two” party, for which I created a train the children could get into from cardboard boxes and fabric and sequins. In my quest that my loved ones- and especially my daughters- feel noticed and cherished, I fill baby pools with plastic balls and handmake rainbow tutus and decorate cakes with fresh flowers and whipping cream. I love doing this. And each time I hang banners and flags and streamers, there’s a thirteen year old girl inside of me, who wants desperately for those folks to know how very loved they are. Underneath it all, she desperately wishes to know others love her, too. I paint faces and blow bubbles and make favorite dishes as though I could travel across time and tie hundreds, thousands of balloons to that thirteen year old’s backpack. If only I could show her how very loved she was.
When I turned thirty-something, that thirteen year old was peering out from somewhere deep inside my heart. The kids were sick, the hubs was stressed, and the birthday dinner was a hodge-podge of leftovers. All those carefully laid stories, all those ways I’d convinced myself it didn’t matter if there was a single balloon came crashing down. Sure, that pimply kid has now grown into a mother, an adult- and yet, she’s still there. And feelings jump across time and space, and our hearts are big enough and tender enough to hold them all.
Text after text and Facebook post after Facebook post pinged, “I hope it’s a magical day!” “All the love! Happy day!” And I felt like the girl with single balloon who had to plaster a smile on her face to hide the tears behind her eyes, less those tears make someone else feel badly. I smiled. I knew it shouldn't be that big of a deal. And yet, I wanted to honor my feelings, honor what was in my heart, honor myself.
The biggest gift was that day was my mother’s group- a tiny corner of the internet where we gather to nurture each other’s hearts, crowd-source information about how to keep our tiny humans alive, and share stories of survival and joy and grief and wonder as we traverse motherhood and careers and family together. “Oh mamas,” I began. My phone pinged and pinged and pinged. No one said I needed to be happy. Finally, the answers I needed. “It’s fine to cry, let the tears out.” “Maybe the magic is that we’re all here together even on a sh*tty birthday?” “Love you so much.” “Ohmygosh, this similar thing happened to me and I felt the same!”
I wasn’t alone anymore. The mamas got it. I spent the next two days reading and re-reading their comments each time the tears threatened to spill over. Community was what I needed. Understanding. To articulate how I felt. To not have to be happy, even though it was my birthday. Other mamas. Instantly and without needing me to explain, they got it. I needed them to get it. I needed their love, their kindness, their understanding.
I am so grateful for that community. And for all the other once-thirteen year olds, my hope is that you too, have communities that have your back, that will nurture you just because you feel vulnerable and sad, no matter what day it is, and no matter what you did, and no matter how wrong you were and no matter what you should have felt. There is no greater gift than being able to show up for and with each other, exactly as we are. Because really, it’s your birthday and you can cry if you want to.
If- goddess forbid- I ever have to time-transport back to middle school, I hope I can go with the thirteen year old girls living inside the hearts of the other women in my mama’s group. Bet ya they’d bring me hella balloons.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.