I had a birthday this weekend. It should have been my worst birthday to date, because I spent it with my family at a theme park. And I’m not a theme park sort of person.
I despise rollercoasters, as I can quite easily develop vertigo just by taking an unexpected left turn when I’m out for a stroll. Too much light, heat and noise stresses me out and makes me feel unwell. And crowds make me panicky and breathless. In short, I am a lot of fun.
So, when I agreed to spend my birthday weekend at a theme park during the last, and hottest, Bank Holiday weekend of the summer, my husband actually said the words, “Who are you and what have you done with my wife?”
The thing is, while it should have been overwhelming and too hot and horrible (and in many ways it was all of those things, as we were constantly jammed in queues with a million other sweaty families, cowering under the growing cloud of angry yellow wasps, and I had woken up that day with a migraine) – it was also my best birthday to date.
Because I got to witness my kids’ first taste of a theme park (my four-year-old: addicted to rollercoasters but irredeemably spooked out by the lyrical storybook “experiences”; my toddler: shouting “again!” after every ride; wanting to “go for a swim” at the penguin enclosure).
I got to spend time with my entire family, which is something I haven’t been able to do much before. The last couple of years have been a slog through bereavement, mental health problems, financial insecurity, family estrangement, and other unhappinesses – as well as the intense joy/pressure combination of the birth of a new baby.
My husband and I, both freelancers, have coped by passing each other the baton throughout the day so one of us can parent while the other works to try and fill the void in our household coffers. It has worked. But it doesn’t allow for much quality family time – at least, not time where at least one of us isn’t exhausted and the other is quietly emailing editors on their phone.
That tide has been turning recently – so slowly you wouldn’t have noticed it unless you were examining our family traditions. Because we didn’t have any, and now we do. Suddenly we’re the sort of family that goes swimming together every Sunday. One evening a month we’ll relax our bedtime rules, put on pyjamas (sometimes matching pyjamas), break out the popcorn and marshmallows, and have a “movie night”.
And then there’s Birthday Week. Birthday Week occurs in August and begins with my husband’s birthday; a few days later (as of two years ago) it’s our younger son’s birthday – then, so our older, January-born son doesn’t feel left out, we celebrate his “half birthday” – and finally the week culminates with my birthday.
Now, by the time it rolls around everyone’s had far too much cake, and the Bank Holiday weekend is generally upon us – so we spend the day doing some fun family activity. Last year, we went to the zoo. This year, it was a theme park.
“It’s really good of you to sacrifice your birthday like this,” my husband has told me, for two years running. “I know how important it is to you to have a relaxing birthday.”
And he’s right. For most of my life I’ve enforced a hard-and-fast birthday rule that, on the day itself, I must be left alone with a book “unless you are bringing me food, booze, or are visiting in your capacity as a professional spa masseuse”.
I’ve always joked that it’s because I’m solitary and cynical, but the truth is – with a father long-dead and the rest of my family not really in my life anymore – my birthday has been much easier to tolerate this way.
Honestly the idea now of being all “okay, bye kids” and sloping off to spend the Bank Holiday alone in some spa sounds horrifying. I think I only ever did that sort of thing as an escape from my life.
And, while I still enjoy a massage and I’ll take a couple of hours alone with a book if you’re offering, I no longer feel the need to escape. Because my family is my escape.