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How to have a birthday party in a pandemic
Hint: Order supplies way in advance
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that’s not crying, you’re crying.
I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them.
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My son’s birthday always brings with it a mixture of emotions. Joy that he’s here. Amazement that he’s growing so much and so quickly. And, still, some sadness and pain over everything he (and we) endured to get here.
My son was born ten weeks early, and he stayed in the hospital for ten weeks total — nine when he was born, and another week for his open-heart surgery a few months later.
It was hard. Really hard.
Each birthday brings it back — the terror of going into labor so early, the fear over his diagnoses. For preemie parents, birthdays are a reminder of everything we went through.
But they also mark the distance, with each passing year, from where we started. Each birthday, I marvel at memories from previous years. Every achievement is a constant source of amazement. He’s a whirlwind of energy and ideas and creativity, and I can’t believe our good fortune.
And his birthday is an excellent opportunity to celebrate all of that with friends and family.
But what happens during a pandemic?
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I’ll fully admit it: at my kid’s age, the birthday party is for me. He doesn’t know yet that his birthday happens every year, and he has zero expectations for it.
But I love throwing parties. I love hosting, I love sharing food and drinks, I love introducing people I love to other people I love. (I especially love taco parties.)
Image: Dark Dwarf/Flickr
I don’t throw many parties these days, with a young kid at home. So that makes birthday parties even more exciting for me.
But as his birthday approached this year and our world contracted more and more, we knew a party wasn’t in the cards — at least, not right now.
I thought I was okay with it. I’d known for months it wasn’t likely to happen. But the night before, I found myself in a deep funk.
I was mourning — not just the loss of memories made with loved ones, but also the loss of normalcy.
What kind of a childhood is he having? How will he remember this pandemic? Will it affect his long-term development and social skills? How long can we keep him here, safe but isolated from the rest of the world?
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The day of his birthday dawned cool and crisp, and the kiddo and his dad let me sleep in for a little. By the time I woke up, our kid was a bundle of joy and energy — as he is every single day.
“Happy birthday to me, Mama!” he shouted, jumping into the bed.
He had no expectations for the day, and so we set aside ours, too.
He asked for a fire, so we set up the fire-pit in the backyard and roasted marshmallows. We went on a walk in his favorite park. We let him wear his dinosaur pajamas all day long.
We opened presents and blew on noise makers (thank goodness I’d remembered to order them weeks earlier). We ate WAY TOO MANY cupcakes (thank goodness my in-laws could bring over eggs when we forgot to order them).
My son’s best friends came over and stood on the edge of our front yard, holding signs and singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs. I cried, but they were happy tears — grateful tears.
We had an amazing day.
It was just the three of us, but we tried to make it as magical as possible. When we set aside our worries and expectations, we had the best birthday yet.
One day, we’re going to need to explain what’s happening. He’s young enough not to ask questions, but the flip side of that is he struggles sometimes to know why so much has changed.
But I hope, when we look back on pictures of this day, we think not about the limitations we were under but all of the joy we found.
And we look forward to whatever the next year will bring.
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I’ve mentioned before (like, um, in the intro above) that I’m editing an anthology about premature birth. What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories of Premature Birth will feature essays kinda like today’s update — but way more polished and insightful and, you know, good.
Each year, about 400,000 families in the United States alone welcome their babies a little early. What helped us in that time was reading and sharing stories — about having a preemie, about being a preemie, and the ways the experience shapes families and identities.
I hope you’ll consider preordering the book from your local independent bookstore!
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to edit this collection, and these astoundingly talented writers, because the stories lift me up on the low days.
In many ways, this pandemic has reminded me of those stressful, terrifying early months, and the gradual easing up on fear and uncertainty as time passed.
It was the most difficult experience of our lives, but we made it through. We’ll do it again.
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As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or stories of the way you and your family are adjusting to these turbulent times, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you know someone who might appreciate this newsletter, please forward it to them and share the love.