Happy birthday

My firstborn is five today. That’s five years of perpetual wakefulness and chatter; five years of emptying breasts and filling water bottles; five years of viruses rolling through the household and Legos rolling underfoot; five years of making the coffee one-handed; five years of screaming and tears—theirs and mine—when the structure breaks or the story ends or the cheese stick is too long in the unwrapping; five years of carrying the weight of two humans instead of one; five years of rooting around in the dark for pacifiers or the two halves of the Tylenol syringe or the lost stuffed friend.

Five years of questions to make a philosopher weep. Five years of stories that Stephen King would murder to have written. Five years of watching a person laugh at pasta sauce and growl at the immersion blender. Five years of witnessing a kind of self-possession that I hope I’ll have by 40. (I won’t.)

Five years of terror at the inevitability of this fierce, tender child touching the unkind, burning, bigoted world outside our home. Five years of growing hope that there might be others, like this one, whose strength and empathy and delightful weirdness might begin to turn that world toward kindness and responsibility and justice.

Five years of learning that everything I thought I knew about parenting was either wrong or insufficient. Five years of mental apologies to all the parents of my former patients. Five years of embracing the humility and chaos that comes with raising this one spectacular child.

Five years of fearing that my mistakes will ruin them. Five years of accepting that they will, that we are all ruined, that our broken pieces are what can make us strong and intelligent and forgiving and interested and distinct.

Five years of saving to pay for their therapy.

Five years of hoping that Adam Gopnik is right that adult children can feel two of the following things for their adult parents: pity, respect, amusement. Five years of giving up hope that I could have all three. Five years of working to earn the opportunity for one or two.

Five years of saving to pay for my therapy.

Five years of waking each morning to make the acquaintance of some new aspect of this person whom I carried in my body and will never fully know—some new aspect that emerged overnight and reveals itself now, surprising both of us.

Five years of meeting someone.

Five years of making space for them to meet themself.

Happy Birthday, my one wild and precious five-year-old, who would read this sap and ask me, unmoved, whether dragons or cobras are fiercer. Five years of you putting up with me—and I hope many more to come.

(Note: “one wild and precious” is excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.)

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