Thirty-five years ago today I arrived, at 12:15 am. I was born twenty minutes later than my twin brother, into a whole new day. Having my very own, separate birthday seemed a sign that I was unique. My life would follow an individualistic, uncharted path. This unique and super-special path wound up including becoming an actor, acting teacher, wife—then divorcee and single mother who has moved back in with her parents.
This year, my birthday falls on a Wednesday. I’m determined to drive my four-year-old daughter to school and still make it on time to the elementary school in Hoboken, New Jersey, where I teach theater. Usually my mother drops off my daughter, but it's my birthday, and I want to start the day with an extra goodbye hug. If I’m late? Well, it’s my birthday, and I vowed not to be sad on my birthday ever again.
My birthday three years ago was my lowest point ever. I’d just begun the separation process from my husband. We were still living together, but on separate floors, rarely seeing each other. I was alone with my baby, not celebrating. My soon to be ex didn’t even mutter “happy birthday” as he passed me to use the bathroom. My friends and family lived more than an hour away, and I didn’t manage to celebrate with them—on a weeknight, with a baby at home.
In previous years, I’d always celebrated my birthday with lots of pomp and circumstance. I live for celebrations, especially an event honoring something special in my life.
I am the opposite of the person who doesn’t want anyone to “make a big deal” of her birthday. I want a big deal. I want surprises, flowers, drinks, food. But in the years leading up to my divorce, my birthday had begun to be a reflection of the state of my marriage, isolated and broken.
By the time we separated, I hadn’t been celebrating my birthday in a big way for years. At 32, I felt lost and so sad to realize that I’d reached such a quiet birthday place. My parents went out and bought a small cake from a store for me a week later. My mother looked at my exhausted, strained face and said, “This is the last birthday you will be sad.”
I tried to live up to her words. Over the next three birthdays, I celebrated each new year of my life with fancy dinners and drinks in New York City with family and friends.
This year, at 35? I’m not in an isolated place anymore but something different, something that feels like the heat of pursuit. I’m in pursuit of happiness in love, career, and family. Today, I’m excited by the work and life opportunities I’m pursuing: I’m studying to get certified to be an elementary school principal; I’m acting again in New York City, and I’m preparing to buy a condo on my own. I’m also dealing with sadness. I fell in love again this year, and it ended because he was “not ready.” I felt devastated. I hurt daily. I still do. I feel like I’m in the heat of my life. I’ve never felt more alive and motivated. But I also sometimes plunge into loneliness and frustration. I’m not there. I haven’t arrived. I’m striving.
My preconceived thoughts of my daughter being excited and happy that Mommy would drive her school were quickly dashed as she complained about my choice of Rice Krispies for breakfast. Instead of a hug, I received an arm fold and crisscross eyebrow stare as I exited her classroom and rushed to my car. As I started driving to work, the coolant light came on in my 10-year-old Jetta. I’d have to figure out how to make that light disappear before heading back home after work. The clock struck 8:10; I had only five minutes before I’d be officially late. Being late to work no longer felt like fun, carefree option. I rushed out of my car, tripped, and dropped my iPhone on the sidewalk, cracking the screen.
Ah, breathe. I’ve been through worse, I remind myself. I’ve been through a hard divorce. If I could handle that, I can manage this.
Also, it’s my birthday! (Special, unique me!) I am going make this day great . . . even if my car breaks down and my phone dies.
I devise a plan. I beg the custodian for help with my car, and tape my cracked phone screen. It’s still working, which is what matters.
Things start looking up later that morning. I’m starting to feel a nice birthday swing when my friends/coworkers throw me a surprise lunch, with my favorite pizza, wings, and special cupcakes. They also give me a “survival kit” that included items I love like coffee and ketchup, and supplies I’m constantly pestering them for during the work day—a phone charger, feminine products, hand lotion. My kit also included a big candy ring pop and note that says: “Because there is someone out there worthy and ready for your greatness.” I can feel myself tearing up; this isn’t a fancy restaurant in New York City, but that lunch with friends did feel like a type of pomp and circumstance, a reflection of me, as I really am, right now, at this stage in my life—working, with a young daughter, single, hopeful.
The challenge with being in the “pursuit” stage of life is that if involves a lot of work, even on special days. Although it’s an early dismissal day for students, I have to stay until 6 pm for parent-teacher conferences. Except no one conferences with the theatre teacher, so sit at my desk for five hours, alone, completing administrative tasks, lesson plans, and school work for my principal certification. I stare at my cracked phone, reading birthday texts between writing and answering emails.
The one person I want to hear from, the new love who wasn’t ready, doesn’t text. The one person I really want to spend the rest of my day with, my daughter, couldn’t be with me because I’m at work. My uplift from lunch fades into tired and lonely.
I cancel plans to have birthday drinks with coworkers in order to go home and put my daughter to bed. I’m missing her acutely. Traffic, as usual, is terrible, and by the time I reach my house, it’s even later, and I am tired and angry. I spew my frustrations on my mother, then bring my daughter, also tired, up to her bedroom to go to sleep. It’s 8 o’clock, giving us 30 minutes to get through her goodnight routine.
By 8:45, I tiptoe out of her bedroom, feeling a slew of emotions. Loved from the celebrations at work, sadness because I lashed out at my mom, still reeling over unrequited love, nervous that my hard work will not be enough to reach my goals.
I down a glass of wine. When will the peaks and valleys stop being so damn dramatic? When will I not be constantly exhausted and feel like I’m in the weeds?
I receive a text message at this moment from my godfather, my uncle, who is like a second father to me. He has seen me in every stage of my life; happy, sad, and in between. He provided support and guidance throughout my life, especially during my divorce, and is a strong force within my family. The text message reads:
I watch with amazement your patience and persistence in raising Gem. I have no doubt about your capabilities in the classroom as a teacher because as I watch you teach Gem, I’m impressed with your energy and love you give to her. You are truly a great mother and as a woman and person, any man would be very fortunate to be with you. I hope this next year brings you more happiness and good fortune. I am here to give you any support as I know your parents will be.
Tears pour down my face. I often believe the universe gives us signs when we doubt ourselves or when our world becomes too much. This was the sign: just breath. Focus on what is in front of you. Cry when you need to, laugh when you can, and remember to love every moment of yourself and your life. My life is not perfect or tear-free, but I am in a pivotal place, and very far from the isolation and sadness that I was in three years ago.