Birthdays were a big deal when I was growing up. So big, I remember often having 2 celebrations; 1 that was family only, and 1 with friends. My mom always saw to it that our birthdays were special. For each of her 9 children, she shopped for just the right gifts, prepared the menu of the birthday child’s exclusive choosing, and brought out a delicate little Merry-Go-Round cake topper/candle holder that actually turned. Somewhere in my pre-teens, when my dessert preference turned to tapioca pudding, the cake topper disappeared from the party. I wonder where that cake topper ever ended up. I loved it. It always said, “Celebration” to me.
This morning, I was struck with irony as I was digging through the corners of my mind. The last time I remember seeing that cake topper was somewhere around the age of 11 or 12. Granted, it wouldn’t stand up in a large bowl of pudding, but the timing of its disappearance seems symbolic nonetheless.
As I think is true for many girls, if not all, my teen years were far from easy. I had acne. I struggled with my weight. Though my grades were decent, I felt I worked harder than others to earn them. I desperately wanted to be liked but always felt like the “biggest dork.” I wanted to please my parents, my friends, my boyfriends but felt like none of them “understood me.” I wanted success but was afraid of the responsibility that came with it. I was often afraid of my own shadow. I didn’t know what I wanted “to do with my life” though I was sure I was supposed to know by the age of 12. I wanted to fit in, but I wanted to be different. And, most of all, I just wanted to be invisible.
By my early teens, I stopped wanting my mom to “make such a big deal” out of my birthday. When my mom would ask what I wanted for my birthday, I would often reply, “Nothin’. Let’s just skip it.” I didn’t want the attention because I didn’t want to “be seen.” Why would I? I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I certainly didn’t want any further attention cast in my direction.
Another common reply I gave was, “I don’t know,” which was the more truthful answer. I didn’t know. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know who I wanted to be. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. I didn’t know what made me special because I sure didn’t believe I was special. I was in the throes of classic teen angst, and through it all, my mom insisted on celebrating me. I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t like living in my own skin, much less celebrating my birthday.
For the next 2 decades, I would celebrate my birthday with friends and family, but with great reserve and the fostered insecurities of a teen girl. As a mother myself, I now ache for the efforts my mom put into making me feel special during those years. I see my girls faces as I write this. They are in their tumultuous teen years, searching for their “specialness.” I think of how my mom so desperately wanted me to see that I was special from the day I was born, and worthy of celebration. I think of my girls, and how I am trying to teach them the same. They each came into this world special and unique and worthy of celebration, everyday and particularly on their birthdays.
Sometime in my mid-30’s, my mom took me out to lunch to celebrate my birthday. I had delivered my second child roughly 6 months earlier, had lost the baby weight, and truthfully, felt pretty good in my own skin for the first time in my life. We lingered at lunch that day, just the 2 of us. We chatted about motherhood, marriage, and being women. I remember saying, “30’s aren’t so bad,” and I’ll never forget her response; “Oh, honey, if you think 30’s are good, just wait until you get to your 40’s. 50’s are even better.” That was the best birthday gift she ever gave me.
She was right. Though not without challenges, 40’s have been pretty darn fabulous! A couple of years back, one of my closest friends entered her 40’s. She asked me, her older and wiser friend, “What are 40’s like?” I replied, “Hitting 40 is like this: You’ve tried on the same coat every day of your life, and now, it finally fits.” I believe we grow into our skin as we age, and with 50’s just around the corner, my excitement builds, and the celebrations get bigger.
Today is my birthday; a day to celebrate me. I spent many years hiding from this day. In my teen years, I didn’t want to be seen. Through my 20’s, I carried my insecurities forward and avoided the “lime-light.” I stepped out of the shadows in my 30’s, and in my 40’s, I took ownership of my own skin and learned to celebrate me.
In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson wrote,
Our deepest fear…Is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be–brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Today, I will celebrate and I will make a wish; I wish that everyone can learn to celebrate their unique and special gifts that only they can bring to this world.
Whether or not today is your birthday, what gift can you give yourself, today, to remind you, “Baby, you’re a firework!”?