Celebrating milestones

In our family, birthday season lasts from August to November and, if we count kids and adults alike, we’re packing six birthdays into a few short months (my efforts to conceive at least one spring baby obviously were futile). This means we celebrate someone’s birthday every few weeks. With so many birthdays clustered together, it can feel, frankly, overwhelming.

In years past, there were parties with homemade play dough favors, themed birthday cakes, and complicated obstacle courses and crafts. That was when there were fewer children, a younger me, a less hectic life. But such a pace can’t be maintained forever, and I admit I felt relieved when we moved to Japan, where birthday party culture doesn’t really exist and we were able to move on to a simpler, more intimate routine – a small homemade cake, a few gifts, a quiet family dinner. I prided myself on having chosen the less stressful path for our family.

As my fourth (and last) child’s first birthday approached, though, I had this nagging feeling that perhaps we really ought to give her a Korean first birthday party.

All three of our other children’s first birthdays were celebrated with a dol, the traditional ceremony that celebrates a Korean baby’s first year of life. For Koreans (I’m Korean-American), the first birthday is considered one of the most important birthdays in a person’s life. But we were near our relatives then, who swooped in and took care of everything – the elaborate, colorful Korean dress, the piles of rice cakes, the low table decorated with the various items which, according to tradition, would represent all the possibilities for the birthday baby’s future life. This time, I found it utterly daunting to think of trying to do this by myself, so far from the extended family I missed so. And so I told myself that baby Anna wouldn’t really notice if we skipped it.

But there’s something to be said for celebrating certain, important milestones, isn’t there? For taking a bit of time out of a demand-filled life to pause, and mark the passage from one stage to another. Not just for myself (it felt like a celebration, as well as a bittersweet acknowledgment that my life as the mother of an infant was over), not just for Anna either (celebrating the only first birthday she’d ever have), but for our other children, too, so they could see that taking time and care to celebrate a milestone is a joyful thing for a family to do together.

So at the last minute, we decided to call a few friends. The kids and I made tissue paper flowers and autumn leaf garlands and lavishly decorated the low table with fruit and rice cakes, symbols of abundance. People gathered round, cameras snapped, and my girl hesitated just for a moment, then chose the item which represented longevity. Everyone clapped and cheered.

Aftewards, there were dishes to wash, a mess to clean up, tired, overexcited children to bathe and put to bed. But in the end, the day was about more than just a birthday party. As I watched my daughter at her little throne, I remembered my other little ones at the same age, in front of a similar, hope-laden table, and marveled at how impossibly big they’d now become, how far we’d all come on our family journey. I was grateful, despite my initial reluctance, for a celebration which got me to stop hustling and bustling for just one afternoon, a celebration which wove so many threads of my life together in a beautiful tableau: family, memory, tradition, love, and nostalgia.

How do you celebrate special birthdays in your family? What other milestones are important to you and how do you celebrate them?

Christine Gross-Loh is a writer and crafter who has written feature articles for Mothering. Her book, The Diaper-Free Baby (HarperCollins 2006), is a how-to guide on elimination communication, and her craft book and kit on origami suncatchers will be out in February, 2011.

Visit her blog, where she writes on natural parenting, family creativity, and raising global kids.

About Christine Gross-Loh