I'm sentimental at heart, and birthdays, well, my children's birthdays, conjure up heaping doses of nostalgia. Our family tradition on birthday mornings is to have breakfast in bed, whatever the birthday girl chooses. And then we chat about the details of her arrival and reminisce on memorable moments throughout the years. We ask her perspective on the past year, comment on the ways she's grown and what she wants as she looks ahead to the new year. And it's nothing over the top; it's about how she's gained confidence and grown up. Sometimes the nostalgia is about learning to ride a bike, losing a tooth, starting to read, doing something outside her comfort zone or making good choices about being kind or responsible. The morning is about wrapping our daughters in love, celebration and the uniqueness of who they are. It's about seeing them as they are, how they've grown.
But this sweet family tradition was altered a bit, especially this year, when my oldest children, fraternal twin girls, turned thirteen. Instead of getting up at dawn's break on their birthday morning, they want to sleep in, making breakfast in bed closer to lunch in bed. They are daughter's of a few words these days, and I'm reassured by my friends who are also raising 11, 12 and 13-year-olds, that this is par for the course.
Their thirteenth birthday was a rite of passage for everyone; for them, my husband and myself. We officially crossed the threshold into parenting in a new and unfamiliar era to us: the teenage years.
Parenting a teen feels unchartered. Mind you, as a therapist, I have worked with teens for decades, but it's different when it's your child. Perhaps it's the hormones, the shift from family to friends as a priority, the quest for independence and individuality. Perhaps it's the one-word answers and non-verbals, the sighs and eye-rolls, and the bubbling under the surface annoyance with a simple question asked of them, "how was your day?" or " I need you to..."
Several days before my twins birthday, I was feeling overwhelmed. I was emotional and nostalgic and needed to get myself together so I could celebrate and enjoy their special day. So I journaled my feelings and thoughts about the past, how fast they've grown, my favorite memories, and how I've changed profoundly as a person by mothering them. And journaling was the best thing I could have done, it allowed me to open up and release my feelings so I could celebrate this rite of passage. It was after journaling that I had a moment of creative inspiration, to create a collage of pictures from their birth to present day in the form of their birthday age: the number thirteen.
I then spent a couple of hours going through pictures for the past thirteen years, making sure to take at least a photo from each birthday. Now I will say this; thirteen years is a lot of photos to go through, so don't obsess over getting the "right" or "perfect picture." You'll never get this project done. I limited myself to two hours for searching for photos. I selected 300 pictures, granted it was for two children, and, in the end, I didn't use all of them. I ended up using about 75 photos for the number "1" and 80 photos for the number "3". Use double sided tape and give yourself about an hour to assemble. (I ended up having so many pictures I made a second set of numbers on their bedroom doors).
The night before my daughters birthday, I stayed up several hours tapping the pictures, moving from one year to the next as I made the numbers, a mosaic of memories, riding bikes, baking cookies, swimming at the beach, school plays, family vacations and everyday moments. And I said to myself, there is no doubt the love and happiness in these moments. There is no question we have a solid foundation as we prepare to weather the storm of adolescence. Be calm, be still, be compassionate. We are all doing the best we can as we navigate this new era of independence.
It has been said, "A picture is worth a thousand words" and I say, "A photo collage is a worth a burst of love and perspective." This parenting phase is only one piece of the narrative of their lives in our story together as mother and father and daughters.
The morning of my twins birthdays, they seemed a little annoyed to wear our party store "Happy Birthday" crown which we've used for over a decade on birthdays, asking, "Do I really have to wear this crown?"
"Of course not, just for the picture, but come here first, we have a birthday gift for you."
Sleepily leaving their bedroom, the twins took a look at the collage of photos and scanned the wall, each expressing overwhelm, with tears in their eyes, said, "This is the coolest gift ever, I don't know what to say, thank you, and I love you so much."
And, their two younger sisters immediately asked for a picture mosaic for their upcoming birthdays. Of course, I say, you'll have one at thirteen, perhaps eighteen and certainly at twenty-one. And with barely a word, we celebrated turning thirteen, breakfast in bed, Happy Birthday crown, optional.