The day after his big brother started fourth grade, my 3-year-old, Theo, turned 4, even though he desperately didn't want to. He'd cried about it in the days leading up to his birthday. And on the morning of the big day, when we tried to coax him awake with, "Lovebug, it's your birthday -- we have presents for you," he still wasn't having it.
"I hate my birfday. I don't want to have a birfday. I want to stay fwee for a long time ago," Theo yelled. And then he had an epic meltdown.
At preschool drop-off, anyone who wished him a happy birthday was met with the same sentiment. Fast-forward to dinnertime. When the grandparents called, it was still "I hate birfdays."
The attitude wasn't exactly shocking, given that this pint-size contrarian hates pretty much everything. (Inquiring adult: "How was that ice cream that you just devoured in 30 seconds?" Tempestuous toddler: "BAD!") But his attitude toward birthdays is not your usual kid fare. His issues with birthdays run deep.
For starters, Theo does not believe in chronology, or biology for that matter. He insists that he was born before his older brother, Saul, and often recalls things that he did when he was 7, when Saul was still in Mommy's tummy. He's also been known to reminisce about a time when "Mommy and Daddy were still in Mommy's tummy." The kid is constantly talking about his glory days, except his memories are typically of things he has never actually done, such as when he played for the Green Bay Packers. (This was "a long time ago.")
The situation was so dire on his birthday that he didn't even want a present. He did ultimately deign to accept it late in the evening, though, after his exasperated dad said, "That's fine. If you don't want it, we'll take it back to the store." Reverse psychology: the best parenting tool in the kit.
The gift, a mic that allows him to croon to his favorite songs, ranging from the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," was a hit (a first, for the child who hates everything) and he started playing with it immediately.
Saul, meanwhile, happened to be on the hunt for baby photos of everyone in the family for a school project. He was busy filling up a "Me Envelope," one of those classic beginning-of-the school-year assignments. In between verses of "I will survive ... I will get by," the boys and I looked through the photos together, until we arrived at a picture of my older son holding my younger son as a teeny baby on this very day four years before.
"Look -- it's you, kiddo! On your actual birth day," I pointed out to Theo, hoping that this photographic evidence of the aging process might change his attitude about birthdays and maybe even educate him about birth order.
Uninterested, he went back to singing. Then Saul disappeared somewhere and I returned to the photos, lamenting how young I looked then, how old I felt now. I realized that my son had a point: Birfdays are for the birds.
Saul reappeared. "Am I going to be good in fourth grade?" he asked. He was teary-eyed. "I don't want to be in fourth grade."
Et toi? But I couldn't blame him. It was getting late, and emotions were running wild. We had been out until 9 p.m., watching their dad play softball -- an act of regression if ever there was one: a bunch of middle-aged men-children reliving Little League in the dog days of summer.
If you're counting, that made it three boys and one girl: a whole family who doesn't want to grow up. What was wrong with us?
It was nearing 10 p.m. I had stupidly let the birthday boy have a cupcake at 9:30, so he was completely wired. Big brother was mopey and irritable. We were in that messy, blurry, pathetic time zone, when no child wants to own up to his exhaustion and no adult wants to parent.
My husband was sacked out on the sofa. I was on my hands and knees cleaning a posse of ants off the floor in the area where the evening's headliner had consumed his cupcake. Those ants always seem to know where the party is. "But someone just called the cops, suckers," I said.
Yeah, I was talking to ants. This day needed to end.
Except now Theo was having a ball. He had found his calling with that microphone. After the last verse of "Yesterday" ended (yep, it really was part of his set list), he sauntered over to me and tapped me on the shoulder. He leaned in, put his wet, frosting-smeared lips to my ear and whispered, "I like my birfday now."
Had he found a purpose in life? Had he matured in a mere 12 hours? Or had nothing really changed at all? It was hard to say, but I hoped from now on he wouldn't take birthdays as hard.
Not that he'll ever find growing up easy.
Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.