My parental friends, can we please participate in a little collusion? A little organized action. I mean, we aren’t unionized, so “big birthday” can’t come after us, right? Although I have a healthy fear of clowns (thanks to Stephen King), I feel safe enough taking them on. And I know, deep down, you want to too.
Here’s what I’m talking about- yearly birthday parties. Every. Damn. Year. It’s too much. Can’t we all agree to just go every other year? I propose that A – L takes the even years and M – Z takes the odd years. We’ll make exceptions for sweet sixteens and quinceaneras. Voila- between presents for the parties our kids attend and throwing a party, we’ve probably saved a $1,000 per family a year. Then, put that money in their college account or spend it on yourself. You probably deserve a nice date night or ten!
This year, when our girls turned 8, we did a “family party.” This used to be an acceptable way to mark a kid’s birthday, and indeed- the most common “party” a kid had, but now- with the birthday party arms race that has sprung up- the family party has been replaced by the institutional party machine- bouncy houses, climbing walls (we are guilty of this one), bowling, trampolines, gymnastics, mobile video game trucks, professional laser tag, pony rides- there is no limit because with everyone throwing parties, all the kids have done all the activities. It’s gotten completely out of control. Six year olds are having more elaborate birthday parties than I have ever had and I’m forty years old.
I know it’s a losing battle to ask everyone to restrain themselves from throwing these parties- that would be like asking everyone to go back to riding horses. Cars are here to stay and so are these birthday parties. We’re just as guilty- we did a party at a climbing gym when our girls were 4 years old! Four. Years. Old. I must have been mental. But I’ve come to my senses! I am calling for moderation! A truce- let’s just tone it down a teensy-weensy bit.
I make this plea with tongue in cheek, but I do think there is a serious side to it. What is left for a young person who turns 16 or 18 or 21 when they’ve “been there, done that” at all the great birthday venues by the time they are 10 or 12? The only thing I haven’t seen at a kids party is a bartender (and maybe if a little booze was served up for the parents, I wouldn’t be so over it).
Chatting with another mom awhile back, she protested that her daughter would be disappointed if she didn’t have one of these IPC (Industrial Party Complex) parties. That all her friends had them. My thoughts were in rapid succession- 1) Getting used to disappointment is one of the most valuable skills you can teach, and 2) How many more times are we going to hear that excuse as our kids grow up? I mean, I have probably said the one about “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” ten times already. Disappointment is part of being a kid. I WANT them to move out someday- we can’t make it too much fun to live at home.
Also, I’d like to say that our family party was really fun. We put up crepe paper streamers (the remnants are still hanging from the ceiling), had chocolate fondue instead of cake, and got to relax and enjoy ourselves- there was no 2-hour turn around on the room. Admittedly, I may have gone slightly overboard on things to dip in the chocolate fondue- we probably didn’t need donut holes, marshmallows, angel food cake, AND brownies… but I’m still getting used to toning it down too. (Side note: Angel food cake is THE BEST. Donut holes are surprisingly meh.)
A final, perhaps too radical, thought. I’m also an advocate for the “no presents/no goody-bag” party. I mean, I know I don’t live in Seattle anymore (being eleven whole miles outside of it) but I still love the sweet granola crunch of consuming less. (Sure, my eastside house is twice the size of the house we lived in, in Seattle- but we moved FOR THE SCHOOLS!) I know your kid doesn’t need the present we got at Target 45 minutes before the party and my kid doesn’t need a bunch of candy and crappy toys that I am going to surreptitiously throw away after they go to bed. The unicorn ride and custom, monogrammed cupcakes that you served at the party were treat enough.
If you’d like to read the happy side of approaching 40, read my earlier blog, or read this currently popular NYT piece. But this post isn’t like those. Let’s get all the hard truth out of the way: I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful life I’ve had so far- wonderful husband and truly my best friend, amazing kids, great job, great career, great standard of living, great dog, I’m in great health (if not great shape… but we’ll get to that). I have nothing, literally nothing to complain about. And yet, I’m going to.
Turning 40 (on the 28th of Feb, if you must know) is making me schizophrenic. So, read all of the above and then realize that I was crying into my coffee this morning because I feel like an abject failure. Okay, maybe not abject- but sizable, like clog the toilet sizable. There are some ugly realizations that hit at 40. I’m never going to be Tina Fey, or Nicholas Kristof, or even that guy that writes/draws The Oatmeal. Fame & fortune probably aren’t in the cards.
I remember being six years old, sitting in front of the TV and watching Princess Diana marry Prince Charles and thinking- that fairy tale could be mine. There was a chance, however remote, that I could be swept up in a fantasy like that. I had some English blood in there somewhere, right? I believed it with the fiery purity of a six year old.
Fast forward, thirty-four years.
Obviously, those dreams are long, long gone and good riddance to them. I mean- look how that marriage turned out! I’m confident Tony & I have had more happiness in one day than they had cumulatively in their 15 years. But I also believed, as a child, that I was exceptional. And that feeling didn’t dissipate with the years. I have held on to that belief. As I climbed through the ranks at school, at various companies, measuring milestones based on goals around tangible things like job titles, fitness level, kids, possessions, etc.,- I felt secure, like I had settled into a good position. Not crazy leader-of-the-pack, but with a couple of accomplishments that I could cuddle at night, the way I used to snuggle my beloved stuffed rabbit.
Now, with the big 4-0 just days away, my subconscious image of who I am and what I should have accomplished is crumbling beneath my fingers like sawdust. I thought I’d always be on the fast track at work, I thought I’d always be able to knock out a half-marathon at a moment’s notice, I thought I’d have parenting down seven years into it (oh, how wrong I was on that one!). In short, I thought I’d have it figured out. I believed I’d go riding into my forties triumphant, on the back of chariot like Marc Antony coming into Rome. I might have even practiced my wave and sincere-yet-knowing smile.
Pbbhhhbt. Instead, 40 feels like shit. I am just overwhelmed by impostor syndrome. Not only do I feel like my career hasn’t reached the heights I’d hoped for, but I have this horrible suspicion that ALL my jobs and all my work has been a fraud. I also spend a fair amount of time thinking I’m a horrible mother. And don’t get me started on my fitness or weight. Pull up the goddamn bridge, ’cause I’m going for it.
These realizations have been hitting in waves. At the end of December, I was struck by the fact that I would never make a “40 under 40 list” and, if I can be honest- I had really thought I would. Maybe it would have been in the community newsletter- but as I said, I have felt, for my entire life, like I had something exceptional, something special to contribute. Yeah, not so much, I guess. So, being a “pull myself up by my bootstraps” type, I thought, I may not make the PSBJ list… but you know what?! I’ll just write my own list of 40 accomplishments that I have made before 40. Then I’ll feel great! And worthy! Hooray!
Mentally, I began to compose my list. Happily married. Ta-da! Master’s degree. I am smart! Fancy jobs at Microsoft and PATH. I am accomplished! Peace Corps in Kenya. I am altruistic! Incredible kids. I am a parent! Just 34 more little feathers to put in my cap. I should feel GREAT by the end of this.
Then, abruptly, I stopped, a cool horror dawning. I realized something profound. I was still fucking competing. Comparing. Measuring myself. Cuddling up with my little stuffed rabbit of self-worth. Against whom was I competing? Against what yardstick? I’m flipping 40- it’s time to let that whole ridiculous business go. Measuring your worth through accomplishments is a young person’s game. Yes, I know.
But it’s hard to let go. It’s super hard to change your perspective from “what you have done makes you worthy” to “who you are makes you worthy”. As people who know me personally will attest… I can be a bit of a control freak. I like things to go my way. I like to be in charge. I like having a list of “dones” to refer to. Long time security blanket, first time confessor. This has been my yardstick my entire life!
The truth is, I may have let go of my “swept off my feet Princess Diana dream” (though, if I have hit the jackpot anywhere in my life, it’s on the marriage front), but I swapped one set of unrealistic aspirations for another. I suppose we all do to some degree. Now, I know that 40 is the gate-keeper that makes you put all that crap down or at least take a long hard look at it.
Here’s the thing I am really struggling with- I’m disappointed in myself. Not in my life- because again, there is not one actual thing I should be disappointed in about it, but I guess I had hoped for more from me. It’s that exceptional thing again. I know- I can hear all of you (or some of you, anyway) saying “Don’t be so hard on yourself!” Yes, I know. And some of you are saying, “Life isn’t over at forty, it’s just beginning!” Yes, I know that too. When not mercilessly flagellating myself, I feel so excited and optimistic about the future. I feel great about everything I can shed now that I have crossed this magical, mystical threshold. But that gate-keeper is extracting a painful toll. And I can see that this is not a one-and-done exercise.
So, 40. It’s coming on like a freight train and as my sister so wisely said, it’s a lot better than the alternative. I just have to stand at the platform and get on board.
That’s what I’ve got going on right now. It’s not a super pretty time to be in my head but I wanted to give you a peek at the journey. It’s a little bit of the sausage-making, but I wanted to share the darker side, the harder side of turning 40. In case you have felt it, are feeling it (I know Wilson High School Class of ’93- you feel me), or wanted to be forewarned about feeling it (if you are under forty- don’t even talk to me right now). I did not know that a ding-dang birthday- some arbitrary date on the calendar could inflict such angst and agony in the midst of so much to be grateful for. My rational self is violently shaking my emotional self by the collar and yelling, “Get yourself together, Locati!” Did I mention that it’s a little ugly in my head at the moment? Maybe call before you come over….
Over the years, I have come to see myself like a cork floater on a fishing line. I get pulled down occasionally, but I always pop back up to the surface. Turns out that 40 is more of a whopper than I anticipated but I’ll bob back up and have a heck of a story to tell in the process.
Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with me!