The First First-Birthday Party
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
It’s mostly adults gathered here. There aren’t other siblings and the child isn’t old enough to really have a circle of friends. These are mostly close friends and family members whose conversations veer from work to sports and from buying houses to weekend plans. Every now and then, you hear Oh, how cute! or Come here!
But something is lost in this party. Forgotten among the balloons, the cake, the streamers, the platters of food, and the pile of gifts. If you look more closely, you see the mother, smiling at the guests who are taking turns holding her squirming, crawling, walking child, who was a baby just months before. She’s making conversation, refilling the food, helping her child open gifts, saying thank you, answering questions. She might even wipe a few tears from the corners of her eyes.
Ah, how sweet. She’s proud of her baby.
But if that’s all we think—that she’s proud of her baby—we don’t really understand. Even though it’s right there in the title of the party: a first birthday party.
This a birthday party for two.
First, for the child.
But also, for the mother.
Because this day marks the end of her first year as a mother.
But the guests aren’t celebrating her. They don’t see that she is both thankful and amazed that she made it through the whole year. She remembers how distant 6 months old had once seemed. (At two weeks old, it might as well have been ten years away.) She remembers how she had once wished her baby could just keep the pacifier in or just hold her own bottle. She remembers how she had persisted on four hours of sleep each night for weeks.
We celebrate so many other days that are far less worthy of celebration and we do so with more fanfare. Annual birthdays that arrive without much effort. Housewarmings that celebrate our ability to spend money. Farewells, graduations, retirements: they all celebrate changes that are far less transformative, all requiring different degrees of work and investment, but none of them requiring the level of transformation and commitment that the first year of motherhood guarantees. We even celebrate events that haven’t even happened yet—engagement parties, bridal showers, baby showers.
Some might argue that Mother’s Day is how we honor a woman’s transformation into mother.
Mother’s Day honors all mothers. It’s a shared holiday. It isn’t personal. Mother’s Day didn’t remind me of being in labor or those first moments with a child in my arms. I didn’t think, At this time, one year ago, I was in excruciating pain or At this time, one year ago, I was holding my own baby for the first time ever in life.
Mother’s Day doesn’t commemorate a woman’s first year of motherhood. And it happens every year. You celebrate it whether it’s your first year of motherhood or your twentieth.
But that first first-birthday is a day that is holy–but only to the mother. And perhaps that day’s personal reverence is what makes everything else that happens on that day seem so unimportant. Even profane. (What mother wants to read about violence and death on a day that she’s remembering peace and life?)
But it’s singularity can be isolating.
The guests gather around the child and sing Happy Birthday. They give gifts and compliment the parents on the party. There are hugs and smiles. But no acknowledgements about what that year has meant to the mother.
But isn’t that what mothers do?
They step into the background. They turn their gaze outward. They sacrifice. They love. And they don’t ask for recognition. Because if they did, they would sound selfish. Or ungrateful.
Or worse, they wouldn’t sound like mothers.
And that is the biggest fear of all.
Because more than anything else—on that first first-birthday—new mothers want to look like they finally belong in the new shoes that they’ve been breaking in all year. They want to walk in them without tripping, and definitely without falling.
And they want others to see that they’ve made it to the other side, following a path that other mothers respect. They don’t want to be reminded that they haven’t reached a certain point on the map (“He’s not sleeping through the night yet?”) or questioned about why they followed different directions to get where they are (“You introduced solids at 5 months?”). They just want others to acknowledge the distance. The rugged terrain. The storms. The fog. The map, constantly being drawn and redrawn. The conflicting advice from other travelers about the easiest way to get there, the safest way to get there, the healthiest way to get there.
They want others to acknowledge that this is a journey unlike any other journey. And one that they are still travelling.
So when her child dives in and eats a handful of cake, her tears are more than tears of pride.
They are also tears of humility.
This party isn’t for her anymore. And the only day that people will honor her incredible transformation is a shared holiday with other mothers who have been wearing these shoes for years. It’s a bitter reminder that the end of that first year of motherhood isn’t about celebrating her own personal growth—it’s now about celebrating her child’s growth.
It is a complete and final humbling because that first first-birthday is the one day of her life when she feels that she deserves recognition for her strength in labor and recovery, her perseverance through sleep deprivation, her patience with fussing, her kindness toward her partner, and her loss of individual space. It’s the one day that marks the end of this pivotal year in her life, when the winds shifted and she found herself sailing toward a new destination.
It’s the one day when she’ll most desire others to celebrate what she’s been through, and the one day when practically no one will.
Not because people are rude, or heartless, or too busy—but because they have never before heralded how amazing this transformation from woman into mother really is.
We err to believe that a change that is so common is also a change that is easy.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
So give a special hug to that mother on her first first-birthday party. Tell her that she is amazing. Tell her that you honor what she’s been through, what she’s sacrificed, and how far she has traveled. Tell her that it’s her birthday, too.
And reassure her that accepting this small fanfare isn’t selfish.
It’s her reward for a job well done.