Happy Birthday

I like birthdays. I like fuss, a grand gesture. X can't understand the fuss. It's about upbringing, I think: his parents unceremoniously hand him something – not even wrapped – at some point within a few months of the date. I'm fairly sure they don't know when it is. For me, birthdays mean surprises, parties, over-excited children blowing out candles on sponge cakes. Like pencil marks on the wall, they are the backbone around which you hang family rituals. Birthdays are also a way to make up for the failings – perceived or real – of the past 12 months.

We didn't have the stomach for the last round. Absorbed in our own misery, X and I lumped the boys' birthday parties together, a swiftly expedited afternoon in a soft-play centre, a swiss roll with candles. It's hardly the stuff of misery memoirs, but it made me sad.
Now a year has passed and birthday season is upon us, for the first time as a separated family. The boys' birthdays are close together and it feels like a milestone; I want to do it right. On top of my normal birthday fixation, I know the last weeks have been very hard for the children. I am scarcely mother of the year at the moment: I have made no headway in trying to find a new job, which scares me stupid, and am still bruised and shocked from the accident. My temper is short and I cry a lot. I've seen a naked look of worry in the eldest's eyes and felt powerless to make it go away.

It's the youngest's birthday first. He takes after his father in this: he's not really bothered. He likes presents, of course, but doesn't have my – or his brother's –need to turn the day into a Busby Berkeley musical with a firework finale. Even so, I am determined to do it properly, to crank out the old family rituals and create new ones. He'll be at X's on the morning of his birthday, mine in the evening. We've said we'll have dinner together, agreed who should get him which present.

In preparation for the big day, I bring out the stalwart Women's Weekly cake book and canvass his opinion. "So which cake would you like? A robot? A train? A spider? I don't think I'd be very good at the castle but I'll give it a try."

He deflates my ambitions. "I just want a plain square one."

"Are you sure? That's easy. With sweets on it?"

He purses his lips in thought. "Ok." I think he's humouring me. I prod him further, and he chooses something for his birthday dinner, something he has every week. I rather admire how matter of fact he is. He's one of those children that asks for a calculator and a toothbrush for Christmas.

While he's at his father's, I make a square cake. I sneak his age on to the top in Smarties, then make another for school, with chocolate fudge icing. I wrap his presents and write his card. It's very quiet in the empty house and I don't have to hide the cake in a cupboard, or issue dire "Don't come into my bedroom!" warnings. There's no sense of anticipation, and I don't like it. It's even worse in the morning, the first time in years I haven't been woken at five on a birthday morning by an over-excited child. I don't want to do this again, I think, as I take the foil wrapped cake up the road to school.

The evening is better. I collect the boys from school and he opens his presents. Later, X comes round and builds some Lego while I make the requested boring dinner. We eat and then we light the candles, blow them out, take the obligatory pictures. The youngest is smiling his small, careful smile in them. It feels like a birthday, at last. We both need to be there, it turns out: after all, we both made him.

We'll know for next time.

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