This year, Oscar and I celebrated our birthdays- which are exactly six weeks apart- in Brazil. It is the first time in both of our lives that we have been outside of the United States for our birthdays. For Matt, this is old hat: in the last 10 years, he and I have spent nearly as many of his birthdays on different continents as we have together in the U.S. For Oscar, it’s all just part of the adventure. He was able to be with family and friends and eat sweets and open presents, and that’s all he needed. For me, though, it was hard, and unexpectedly so.
I like celebrating my birthday. I don’t need a giant party or extravagant gifts, but I like to do something. Whenever the date August 30th randomly pops up throughout the year, I always feel a little nudge of happiness. It’s a special day to me, and I like to observe it in some way. Which Matt and I had plans to do here on the Saturday closest to the 30th. Our babysitter, Marina, was going to come over to watch the kids, and we were going out for sushi rodízio at a fancy place. So! Plans in place. It was surprising to me then, that on the actual day, a Thursday, I felt a little…sad! Sad, even though the day was just fine. The kids didn’t have school, so I got to spend lots of time with them. We went to the park, we goofed around, we ate lunch. A normal day. I got birthday messages from my family and friends back home, which was sweet and made me achy with love and homesickness.
While the kids were napping that afternoon, I headed upstairs to read because the front of our condo was being painted, and the fumes made hanging out in our living room uncomfortable. It was quiet and dark in our room, and as I often do when feeling a bit sick or sad, I gratefully escaped into the book I was reading, so much so that I didn’t hear the knock on our door right away. When I finally made it downstairs, our friends Alana and Pam were there with hugs and a beautiful cake from my favorite bakery. It was a moment so touching that even now, a few months later, I feel a little teary writing about it!
The Portuguese word for birthday is aniversário, which I like. It makes me think, naturally, of the English word anniversary. It would be odd for a native English speaker to use anniversary to describe a birthday, but doesn’t it make more sense? I turned 35 in Brazil, which I could not have predicted when I celebrated 25 at a salsa club in the middle of my divorce. When I turned 31, I was six weeks away from meeting Oscar. When I turned 29, I was a happy newlywed with a brand new career trajectory. On my 21st birthday, I had to rescue a cat who fell through the floor of my crappy second-story apartment into the first-floor apartment below (I’ll tell you that story sometime if you’ve never heard it. It’s a good one.)
When I think of myself at all of the different ages I have been, I feel proud at how I’ve changed and grown, at the hard things I’ve faced, and I feel grateful for the many blessings (#blessings) I’ve received. Time and life make us new people each year, people who have grown a little bit more. Birthday makes me think more about the day itself; anniversary makes me think more about the changes that have happened in the last year, and the person I am now.
I am even more aware of these changes as a parent, not only because my kids physically change a little more every day (and SHOVE IT IN MY FACE that they are not my tiny babies anymore), but also because I inevitably think about all that we have experienced as a family since they joined us. Like, when August turned one, I was struck by how much our kids’ relationship with each other had changed in response to August’s growing abilities. For example, now he can bite his brother when he’s upset. <eyeroll emoji>
One thing I’ve learned about Brazilians is that they love kids and birthdays, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we’d been to several birthday parties by the time Oscar turned four on October 4th. We attended a neighbor girl’s fifth birthday party nine days after we arrived in Dourados, and it was a doozy. Or more accurately, I thought it was a doozy because it had a trampoline, a bouncy slide, and catered food served to us by people in uniforms. Turns out, that was basically standard (maybe a little chique) for the folks we’ve met here. Just last week, Oscar spied the trampoline being set up in the early afternoon and accurately predicted the birthday party that happened later that evening.
I was feeling some serious- and mostly self-imposed- pressure as a full-time parent to pull out all the stops for Oscar. (I say that with enough self-awareness to laugh at the ridiculous nature of this very frivolous kind of stress.) Matt and I talked it over, and we started considering the Big Party, planning which friends to ask for bouncy slide recommendations and wondering if our neighborhood bakery would cater.
And then we paused and zoomed out. Throwing a party like the big, elaborate ones we’d attended would be a lot of work, not to mention expensive! Sure, our kids have a blast at these parties, but what would it be like for us to host one? Would inviting literally all of our neighbors and our growing network of friends in Dourados even be meaningful for Oscar? How stressed would the planning make us, and how exhausted would we be afterwards, with the added challenge of the language barrier on top of regular hosting duties? And finally: was this us? We would never throw a party like this in St. Paul. Why were we considering doing this here?
The truth is that it’s not us. Matt and I have been intentional about minimizing the presence of gifts at holidays and birthdays, wanting instead to focus on special time with loved ones. We have also been intentional about minimizing the amount of toys our kids have- we’ve seen how quickly novelty wears off, and we’ve seen them, time and again, choose non-toy items for their play (our rubber spatula hasn’t seen the kitchen drawer in weeks). We typically don’t spend a lot of money on any one thing except travel, which even still is only occasional for us. Big parties create a lot of waste, and having kids + living internationally already inflates our carbon footprint. In the end, we just couldn’t square the extravagance with our own comfort and values. What we did instead for Oscar resembled something far more familiar to us.
Matt’s parents happened to be visiting over Oscar’s birthday, and in the middle of their stay, all six of us went to Bonito, a jungle resort town three hours away. Oscar loved the idea of celebrating in Bonito and shared that information with all of his classmates (in English, so who knows what they actually thought we were doing). We picked up a chocolate cake and two candles- the number four and one of those thick sparkler candles he loves- and we brought a few thoughtfully-chosen gifts for him to open. We sang happy birthday. After it got dark, just Oscar and I went to the pool to look at the stars and take a nighttime dip. It was a special day, and Part One of how we celebrated.
Part Two happened back in Dourados, and along with Matt’s parents, we included a few other special people: our good friends Luis and Alana, and our babysitter, Marina, who has, during the course of her weekly visits to our house, become part of the family and one of Oscar’s favorite people. We made a churrasco meal, Alana made an amazing pudim dessert, and Marina made the best brigadeiros we’ve had in Brazil. My tradition for the kids is to make a short video comprised of pictures from the last year, and we gathered around our little TV to watch Oscar’s 4th video while we ate dessert. We sang happy birthday and put a candle in his pudim to blow out. There was no bouncy slide, but it felt exactly right.
The video reminded me of how much Oscar has changed in the last year. His face is different, a little more angular. His vocabulary has widened and deepened. His fine and gross motor skills are that of a preschooler, not a toddler. And just as it had six weeks earlier when I turned 35, wishing him parabéns on his aniversário made perfect sense.
August though…if that kid can keep his shit together on the plane ride back to the States this Christmas, I will rent ALL of the bouncy slides for his birthday in June.