Facing Birthday Grief

May 26, 2024
Facing Birthday Grief

The final “toooooo youuuuuuu” echoes around the table of the Italian restaurant. And with a huff, I close my eyes to blow out the candles. My father senses a break in the clapping, and says, "Well, old girl, at least now you can run for president." Everyone laughs. It's a joke he's been preparing to make all night —if not for years— and it was impeccably delivered. My husband brings me a slice of cake on a tiny plate with a tiny fork, kissing me on the forehead. 

I can see this moment so clearly. It’s the perfect memory. 

But it never happened. 

Instead, I’m celebrating my 35th birthday alone at a VRBO in the North Carolina mountains, with my two dogs who won't stop barking at the cicadas. It's beautiful; It's just not what I thought I'd be doing.

Thirty five was always the anchor year I had in mind: It would be the year I felt established in my career. It would be the year my husband and I would start having kids. It would be the year my dad became a grandfather. (My mother died when I was a child, so she was never featured in the 35 narrative.) 

In my marriage, I was always backwards planning to 35. I’d think about how many years I had to build the type of partnership that I wanted: one that felt stable enough to bring a kid into. Thirty five seemed far away.

But when my dad died suddenly in 2020, so much changed for me. The future I’d planned for myself wasn’t possible anymore: Dad would never get to be a grandfather. He had been my biggest cheerleader, confidant, and my moral compass, and he was just…gone. 

With my person gone, I started to reevaluate my wellness and my career in ways I never had before. I was chipping away at the narrative. I finally came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t make my marriage feel like a stable-enough partnership to care for a child. And I recognized that I needed to step away from the career path I was on to better care for myself. I ended my marriage a year after my father died, and I left my job another six months after that.  

Thirty five was still looming in my mind, though, when I put myself out into the dating world. When I found the relationship that I thought was exactly what I’d been waiting for, I started doing what I’d always done: timing things out. “Well, we need to have lived together for at least a few months before we get engaged. And if we want to start trying for kids by the time I’m 35, then we should get engaged in the fall, so we should move in together in the spring.” If I wasn’t saying this out loud to him, which I tried not to but sometimes let it slip, then I was mapping it all in my mind—constantly.

That relationship wasn’t what I was waiting for, it turns out. And when that crumbled last year, I had a reckoning with myself: Kids by 35 wasn’t going to happen. What I thought I wanted in my life, the goals I had always planned for, the people I thought would be there—my dad, a husband, children—none of that was happening on my timeline. 

So, now what?

It’s a realization I’ve had over and over again the older I’ve gotten: the rules that I’ve either established for myself or that have been established for me, keep getting broken. And when they break, I have to improvise a new reality that is outside the paradigm I’d always believed in. 

(My favorite tiny example of this is my father having told me to never ever let my gas tank get below a quarter. It was a constant source of anxiety for me, until one day when I was in my 20s, I pushed the limit when I was running late to something, and I didn’t have time to stop for gas. I let the needle dip just below the quarter mark—and the world didn’t end. The next time, I let it get a little further. I remember the first time I pushed it so far that my gas light came on, and, again, the world didn’t end. I am still, to this day, a little pleasantly surprised that the world doesn’t end when I do that.)

Today, I’m improvising what it means for me to be 35. In so many ways, I’m the most authentically me I’ve ever felt. I’ve built a new career path on my own terms: I’m the founder of a global company and community that I’m so damn proud of, and I'm able to prioritize my wellbeing while I'm doing work that is deeply meaningful to me. I feel the least anxiety I’ve ever felt, which might have something to do with the fact that this is the longest I’ve ever been single—and that’s completely by choice. Maybe at some point I’ll choose to be partnered. Maybe I’ll have kids— I’d still very much like to, but now I’m thinking about the many different ways that I could choose to be a mother. 

At 35, I feel safe. I feel at peace. I feel loved by the family I have and the friends who have become family. More than anything else, I feel like myself—like who I was supposed to be, all along. 

As I sit here, in this moment with plenty of cicadas, but no Italian restaurant and no pathway toward the presidency, I’m not at all where I thought I’d be. But I think I’m on the right track. 

Join the Grieve Leave movement

Share your info to join our Grieve Leave community. You don’t want to miss anything!