I turned 52 in the back of an Uber last month, crammed alongside my three adult kids on our way home from sweating on a crowded dance floor as we sang and danced to one of my favorite bands late into a Sunday night.
We jumped up and down to the opening chords of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” shouting the OH YEAHs and ALL RIGHTs while pumping our hands in the air. Later, I saw that my oldest son had posted a video of me on Instagram, dramatically singing every word to “Born to Run,” my 24yo daughter looking on with a big smile, as I pressed my hand to my heart and swore to die with Wendy on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss.
I like to elbow my way up to the front of the dance floor, especially after a few vodka clubs, so I dragged the kids with me so we could watch the band up close. Later, we agreed we were slightly deaf from being so close to the stacks of speakers and wailing saxophone player.
I’m not sure what we talked about after we tumbled into the Uber car to go home. Initially, my older daughter was pissed because the rest of us were kinda wandering around deaf and tipsy outside the bar and having a hard time following directions. Eventually, she herded us into the car she had called and at some point during the half hour journey home, the clock struck midnight and the kids started wishing me a happy birthday.
And even though I really love my birthday, I mostly remember feeling relieved that I’d done the obligatory celebration and that it was almost over.
Here’s the thing about birthdays and holidays when you are single: they are hard.
I mean, maybe they’re hard for folks in relationships, too, but for some reason, I don’t remember it that way. Of course, holidays were always stressful, regardless of my relationship status. Every November I’d be sitting on my therapist’s couch complaining about how some of my family members would show up empty-handed to Thanksgiving or sometimes, just not show up at all.
But back when I was married, I mostly remember my husband doing all of the heavy lifting around my birthday. He was always good for getting tickets for us to see a show I wanted to see, or planning a gathering with friends. He loved a reason to celebrate.
Normal people probably don’t need a big commotion around their birthdays, but sadly, the Leo in me demands attention. She will settle for nothing less than a day in the spotlight filled with people celebrating her.
Another driving force behind my birthday planning mania is that there’s also something super-depressing about having nothing to do on your birthday, especially in the age of social media. Your birthday needs to be all Insta-worthy to complement all those Facebook birthday messages (of which I’m always hoping to break 100 hbds).
Now that I’m divorced, the burden to plan and execute the kind of birthday extravaganza I need has fallen upon me. I now need to be a shameless birthday huckster and convince people to go along with it. And mostly, it’s been working.
The worst was turning 50.
While other people’s husbands I knew were organizing big parties or taking them away to Hawaii or Italy to celebrate the half-century mark, I was wondering just who I could convince to go to the movies with me, or maybe out to dinner. To make things worse, my 50th birthday fell on a Saturday, which added to the pressure to come up with something worthy of an entire weekend. It felt like I needed two-days’ worth of activities to live up to the hype.
But the problem with weekends, as any single person can tell you, is that your married friends are doing things with their husbands-slash-families. It’s hard for mothers and wives to get away on a Friday or Saturday night. When you are uncoupled, you’re more of a Monday-through-Thursday playmate.
Which left my four children to pick up their mother’s birthday mantel.
I ended up buying tickets for us to go see a matinée of the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which was playing at the time on Broadway. Most of us had listened to the audiobook on our way down to my older daughter’s college graduation in Virginia a few months earlier, and we ended up talking about it all weekend — joking about the characters and trying to speak with British accents. It got to the point that we began to annoy anyone who hadn’t been in my car and listened to the book.
So I returned to New York, the city of my birth — 50 years later and this time, by bus — and my children complained about the melting heat as we walked along 41st Street and cursed my parents for having me in August (“What were they thinking?” the children moaned). But other than the excruciating weather, we had a lovely day out. The kids took me to brunch where we were served pitchers of mimosas and ate chicken paillard and the play reminded us why we had liked the book so much on that long drive in the spring.
Then it was my BF’s turn to share my 50th birthday burden, and she hosted a little gathering later that night with some of my favorite ladies where I received an alarming amount of wine and appreciated their group effort to make me feel loved and give me the attention I needed.
Another year quickly flew past, and I found myself still single and needing to come up with a plan for turning 51. Since the recipe the year before had worked so well, I decided to get us tickets to see another show and started stalking the Internet for cheap tickets to see “Dear Evan Hansen,” of which there are none. Finally, after a lot of agonizing and rationalizing — not to mention needing to see Ben Platt sing “Waving Through a Window” IRL — I broke down and bought the tickets for a matinée on my Sunday birthday that I’d had in a shopping cart for a week.
The next day, my oldest son found me in the kitchen and announced that he’d heard Ben Platt wasn’t going to be in the performance we were going to, and I went upstairs to my bedroom and cried.
Eventually, my older daughter came up and sat on my bed and assured me that we were still going to have a great day together. That was all that mattered, she told me. I heard the logic in her reasoning and eventually dried my tears and went downstairs with lowered expectations, to match my new credit score.
We took the bus back into the city on my birthday and returned to the same restaurant we’d gone to the year before, and drank more mimosas and I had that delicious chicken again. I am a strong proponent of sticking with a formula that works.
And of course, I don’t need to tell you how phenomenal the show was, despite Ben Platt’s absence. I had a feeling the story would resonate for us, but didn’t realize how much until I heard my daughters crying on either side of me. Then, towards the end of the musical, my older daughter grabbed my hand when Evan Hansen’s mom sings:
“Your mom isn’t going anywhere
Your mom is staying right here
No matter what
I’ll be here”
Seriously. Who wouldn’t have paid money for that? Then later, after we returned home, my 15yo son came downstairs and announced he already knew every word to every song, and sometimes when we’re driving around, he’ll put one of them on and we’ll sing along. Ka-ching.
Then, and I swear the years are coming at me on an accelerated cycle where 365 days have been compressed into maybe 300, yet another birthday approached.
The nice thing now is that my kids just assumed we were doing something to celebrate 52 together. “What are we doing this year?” they started to ask in, like, June.
Since my credit cards cannot handle five tickets to see a Broadway show, I needed to think cheap. For the last few summers, I’ve headed south with a group of women I like to call my Little Mommies to a Jersey Shore summer staple, the Parker House, to dance on a Sunday night. It’s a a big white house two blocks from the ocean with a wraparound porch where you can sit and eat and a bar inside that’s pretty clubby on a Friday night in July and where anyone over 30 would look really out-of-place. But on Sundays, they have bands down in the basement tavern that play lots of Bruce and Tom Petty and the likes and it’s a blast being down there with a big posse pushing your way up front to dance the night away. It’s pretty joyful.
As my birthday fell on a Monday this year, getting a group together to head to the Parker House seemed like a good way to celebrate my birthday, and then I wouldn’t care what I ended up doing on the actual day of my birth. It also helped that three of my four kids are now 21 and that my baby was not the kind to feel left out.
I put an invitation out in text and email to all my groups of friends but, as it was August, folks were away or busy entertaining out-of-towners. In the end, two (Gold Star) Little Moms hauled themselves down to show their love and dance — and it was perfect. We met up with two of my sisters and a brother-in-law and later, my baby girl, who’d been making beds as an intern at the Hotel Hershey all summer, arrived after her shift to join the fun.
We tumbled out into the warm August night and my inner Leo was satisfied with the celebration.
Lately, my dad has taken to telling me that he is impressed with the relationship I have built with my kids (he’s also always telling me that I don’t want to die alone, which is his way of saying, “Start dating, already.”). He admires how the kids and I still go on vacations together and that they show up to celebrate my birthday. “You have a family,” he says, and it resonates since I struggle with my family of origin. Even though my divorce shattered the fantasy I clung to of creating some perfect family, I think I might have ended up with what I really needed instead.
Jennifer My Therapist often reminds me of this phenomenon. She’s impressed that my adult children actually want to pay to go on vacation with me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a whole lot of dysfunction swirling around us — you should have seen the argument the kids had in Florence this spring that erupted over a pizza drizzled in pesto that should have been the real reason for tears, it was that good. One child stormed out of the tiny pizza place — where one little Italian man kept shoveling slices in and out of a giant oven, taking orders from a long line of customers — and I went out to reason with that kid and came back inside to talk to another kid, when all I really wanted to do was sit there with my glass or red wine and enjoy the magical pesto pizza I’d dreamt of eating for months.
But to our credit, I really think we’re all trying to figure it out. I think we all feel deep down that it’s worth trying to work through it all. When we are able to see past each other’s masks — through the hurt feelings and miscommunication — to see the person struggling inside. I think that’s what keeps us together. Pesto helps.
Prior to heading out to dance on my birthday eve, my two older kids and I had a drink, and my oldest son took a sip of the margarita I had made and asked if he could give me his birthday card.
“Well, my birthday’s not until tomorrow,” I told him. “Why don’t you wait?”
“I can’t,” he said, handing me the grey envelope. He’s the kind of person who gets a bee in his bonnet and just can’t shake it. The card itself was pretty funny, with a cartoon of a little yellow duckling on the front asking its mom if she remembered all the times he had said mean things and did things she told him not to do. “Thanks for letting me live,” the little duck says at the end, and my son thanked me for letting him “live 25 years on this Earth,” in his note below.
“I love you more than you know,” he wrote, and although there have been times when I’ve really wanted to throttle my oldest kid, I know that deep inside he’s a mush. He’s like my very own M&M, sweet and gooey deep down, once you get beyond the hard outer shell.
Tucked inside the card were two pieces of paper folded together, and when I opened them up, saw that they were two tickets he’d purchased for a performance next month of the show “Mean Girls” on Broadway.
This. Was. Unexpected.
“I got you two tickets, but I was hoping that you’d bring me,” he said, and I told him that sounded like a perfect date. My daughter joked that she should have given me her gift first, and we finished our cocktails and called an Uber to go out and dance.
Happy birthday to me.
It turns out, my inner Leo is hungry all-year-long! Please consider feeding her by signing up for my highly-erratic newsletter, which sends my latest post right to your inbox (who needs Facebook?).