It is my birthday today. “Gefeliciteerd!”, we say in the Netherlands, which dictionaries will translate as “congratulations”. We say this, not just to the birthday boy/girl, but to everyone we find in the room at a birthday party: father, mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends. “Congratulations on your [best friend]’s birthday!” This always makes my husband laugh. “What exactly is it they have done that I am congratulating them for?” he wanted to know the first time he experienced this curious custom. “Your mother gave birth to you, but what do the other people have to do with it?” It was then I learned that saying ‘congratulations’ in English is usually reserved for achievements. The more accurate translation for ‘gefeliciteerd’ is ‘felicitations’, or ‘good wishes’.
I used to make a massive deal of my birthday every year, never having lost that childlike excitement for getting a year older. I think I was still hoping that this year might be the year that I was old enough to be taken seriously. Although I have now realised that this day will never – and probably should never – come, I still quite enjoy getting older, even now that I am looking at 30 in the rearview mirror. But the excitement about my special day has faded a bit since having children. My first birthday after my son was born I woke up and realised the thrill had dulled. Don’t get me wrong – I have had lovely birthdays since the arrival of my son and I have thoroughly enjoyed them. What is missing is the feeling of being Very Very Important for a day. Instead, I get that thrill for his birthday now. I enjoy having a day to celebrate my son and making him feel special and important. But I myself also feel important – because it is his birth-day, the day I went through hell to bring him into the world. This now seems like a much more appropriate day to feel a little important than my own birth-day, on which, to be fair, I didn’t achieve anything more impressive than drawing the first of many breaths.
I wonder if my mother still thinks of that moment every year on this day, even now. It probably seems more and more surreal as the years go by and the reality of me-now bears less and less resemblance to that very small, screaming, squirming thing I was on day one.
Giving birth to my son was not cool. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but – oh alright then – it was an instrumental delivery, I lost a lot of blood and needed a transfusion. While I was pregnant I had read books that were meant to be empowering, to help you realise that as a woman you are built to give birth to your baby and that you can do it yourself, no need for medical intervention. The books were meant to be uplifting and encouraging, but after my son was born the memory of their advice made me feel like a failure. I felt like it was my fault that it had come to a forceps delivery: perhaps I had not relaxed enough or I had unresolved issues or whatever. I felt very down for ages and couldn’t think back to the birth without crying. Although I wanted more children, I wasn’t sure that I could go through labour again.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I dreaded having to give birth to her, but resolved to grit my teeth and bear it. I didn’t read the books about natural birth again, although I hadn’t changed my mind about it: I still wanted as little medical intervention as possible, but this time I decided to be more relaxed and open-minded about changes of plan. Good thing, because as it turned out she was coming out feet first. Nobody had picked up on this until I was at the hospital and 3 centimetres dilated. By the time the doctors arrived to decide on a course of action, I was ready to push. I was rushed into theatre but gave birth to her normally – she was small and in much too much of a hurry to wait for scalpels. My husband only barely managed to scrub up in time.
Although my daughter’s birth was possibly even more eventful than my son’s, I felt on top of the world afterwards. I had delivered her normally, even though she was breech, and I got to hold her and feed her in the first hour after she was born. Any lingering guilt or feelings of failure from my first labour were gone: I was superwoman.
So no need to congratulate me today. I have done nothing remarkable other than stay alive. Congratulate my mother, and applaud my accomplishments in the autumn when we will be celebrating three years since my son came into the world amid quite a bit of agony, and one year since my daughter landed safely on her feet.