Yesterday was my birthday. It was a good day. My long-abandoned annual birthday run was replaced with an equally pleasant walk in the park with my daughter and a lovely hour-long yoga session in my studio. My family and I met a friend in a café for some cake (or cocktails – depending on whose account of the afternoon you hear) and the babysitter came, leaving my husband and me to go on a date which included dinner and some jazz, and in typical Amsterdam-style ended with a 35-minute bike ride through a very stiff and slightly wet head wind. This may sound quite challenging and unwelcome at such a late hour, but over the past few decades, I’ve discovered that it provides a beneficial service: that of clearing cocktail-induced clouds from one’s head. A splendid birthday on all accounts!
For as long as I can remember, each birthday, my mother told me the story of how I was born. It was early in the morning that cold February day and she wasn’t due for another five days. She woke up early that morning because she couldn’t sleep. Labor wasn’t the first thing that crossed her mind, but she felt uncomfortable in the bed, maybe a bit restless. Despite the early hour, my father had already left for work, so she rang her mother, looking for some comfort and advice. My grandmother, having given birth to six babes, was an expert in the matter. My grandmother told her not to fret, got in her car and drove the 10 minutes to pick my mother up, bringing her back home. My mother showered, washed her hair, and felt a slight rise in the pressure of the situation – nothing she would really call labor, but still, something was afoot. They decided that a trip to the hospital would be a good idea as it did seem she was heading in that direction. It was mid-morning at this point, so she called my father who would have a break at work around that time and told him that she thought she might be in labor and asked him to bring her to the hospital. My father, being the ever practical man that he is, suggested that his mid-morning break was not very long and perhaps she might wait until he had his lunch break a few hours later, when he would have a longer window of opportunity to bring her as it was a 30-minute drive to the nearest hospital. Mom must not have been in the throes of labor because apparently she agreed to this. Eventually my father showed up and picked her up, making the drive and arriving at the hospital early in the afternoon. Once she reached the hospital, her wait for my arrival was very short as I arrived at a quarter past two. Happy day!
More than three decades later, it was my turn. Now, having heard this story so often and for most of my life, I had a much romanticized idea of how giving birth would be. In Holland, giving birth at home is quite common and encouraged. I even planned to have my daughter naturally in a birthing pool at home and though we did fill it once and have a little splash in it that hot July, unfortunately, she had other ideas. My experience, which was in the hospital, was less than romantic, being significantly longer and far more painful than the story my mother had shared with me through all those years – my story – a story which I’d unknowingly adopted as a preview of my upcoming birthing experience, projecting ideas of a swift, natural and yet reasonably painless delivery. The lesson learned? Even if your mother tells you how it is, one woman’s experience of giving birth is not another’s. Ouch.
This year’s birthday was special to me in a way. It occurred to me that my very first birthday spent in Europe was my 21st. I lived in Strasbourg, France at the time where I was studying during a year abroad and life was an adventure, ripe with possibilities. One of those possibilities eventually led me to stay in Europe and spend my next 21 birthdays in Amsterdam. Now I used to be fairly good at math and so I according to my calculations, I have officially (or non-officially, since I’m not a certified mathematician unless being on the Mathletics team in high school counts as a certification and I’m pretty sure it does not) lived half of my life abroad. Not a big deal, really, and yet I find myself wondering where this adventure I am on will lead in another half a lifetime. A lot of people see the start of the New Year as a time to reflect and evaluate the direction their life is taking, making course corrections as they feel the need, but I feel this more deeply on my birthday since it’s my own personal New Year. My life, like many, has been filled with plenty of ups and downs. The past decade has held some pretty great things and some pretty dark things. I don’t want to discredit the bright points of these years for they were certainly present and important, but the larger picture has in truth held much darkness. Fortunately, I feel that I am slowly emerging from the darkness, reclaiming a sense of the person I once was, embracing the magic of life again and hoping that I can continue on my adventure with a renewed sense of purpose. This year could be pivotal…and, in fact, it will be. Inevitable decisions and change lay ahead for me personally and for us as a family. These are both stressful and scary and yet, for the first time in a long time, I feel drawn to make them. I take some comfort in the fact that my journey has brought a sense richness to my life, whether it felt like an adventure at that particular moment or more like the ultimate defeat, and I know that my next step will bring another life experience to the table. With a new year ahead of me and a course that is as of yet unknown, all I want to do is approach it like I once did, with both determination and an open mind, a sense of curiosity and wonder and a belief that it will bring me to where I’m meant to be.
Thanks for reading.