Care and Feeding

My Father Died on My Son’s Birthday

How can I make my son’s birthday joyful again?

A little boy wearing a birthday hat closing his eyes as he blows out a single candle on a cupcake
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Two years ago, as my son’s first birthday neared, I was told that my father, who had been ill, had taken a turn for the worse and wouldn’t live for a few more months or years, as we had expected, but days. I stopped making cupcakes and put away the decorations, and we got on the first cross-country flight available, arriving in Florida on my son’s birthday, just in time to see my father being kept alive with tubes and wires, but not soon enough to ever get to see his eyes or hear his voice again. I held the phone up to him while my siblings said goodbyes he couldn’t hear. And as I tried to get my son to fall asleep at 11 p.m. after this long and painful day, my father died.

We celebrated the birthday with cupcakes a few days later, but no one could really “celebrate.” Last year, when my son turned 2, we had a small family get-together, but no one knew how to manage both sets of feelings. This year, when he turns 3 in a few days, we won’t see anyone due to the pandemic. And I keep thinking: Every year he gets closer to understanding, and every year, right alongside remembering his first breaths, I remember my father’s last ones. How can I handle this moving forward? How can I make sure this doesn’t hurt my son as he gets older, and sees that I cry every year on his birthday? How can I make one day hold two such different feelings? I want my son to always feel loved and know how much he matters. I want him to have the birthday he deserves, the kind of birthday everyone else has, but I don’t know how.

—Can’t Blow Out Candles While Crying

Dear Can’t,

I am so sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry too that it has cast a pall over a celebratory occasion. It’s a shocking fact of life that in the midst of the greatest joy there is often deep sadness. And the anniversary of your father’s death may indeed always stir up grief for you—and because it’s so inextricably tied for you with your son’s birthday, the birthday itself may always remind you how much you miss your father. So let’s try to reframe this experience if we can.

The anniversary of your father’s death is also the anniversary of your son’s birth—one of your most joyous days, was it not? Perhaps in time you can come to think of this day less as a happy occasion (a birthday celebration!) that is marred by the memory of an awful one, and more as a day that marks a great loss but that also marks the day that something wonderful, gloriously life-changing, and a continuing source of happiness for you occurred. In other words: See if you can let the good transform the terrible, instead of letting the terrible take over the good.

I am willing to bet that this will get easier as time passes. I lost my father 6½ years ago, and while I still miss him every day, the anniversary of his death has become less painful with each passing year. Still, this day will always hold two profoundly different feelings. As life does. Make certain that your son “knows” his grandfather (through the stories you tell him, and photos you show him—which I would start doing now, if you haven’t already). My daughter sometimes forgets she didn’t ever know my grandmother, who died when she was only 3 months old, because stories and photos of her were so much a part of her life throughout her childhood. As your son gets older, there’s no reason on earth not to explicitly share with him that you are sad as well as happy on this special day each year. You’re not taking anything away from your child by being honest with him about your own feelings. Besides, there are a thousand other ways you are making him feel loved and letting him know that he matters, having nothing whatsoever to do with birthday celebrations.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Eight years ago, I married a wonderful man, “Ben,” a widower who is 12 years my senior. At the time we got married, Ben had two teenage daughters. They’ve always been pretty good kids, but I felt they were a little spoiled. Once they both went off to college, Ben and I realized neither of us liked working, and we set a plan to semi-retire by saving up a safety net and then running some online businesses, one of which is travel-related. COVID has put our travel plans on hold, which is hard, but we’ve been diligent about saving money, and we will be able to “retire” in one to two years, and, we hope, will be able to safely travel by then. We’ve been making plans about this for months. Recently, one of his daughters told us she was pregnant. She has a good job and a fiancé she would have married already if not for the pandemic, so I’m not worried about her financial stability. The problem is that Ben has told her about our plan to semi-retire, and now she’s been hinting about getting free child care from us. I’d be fine helping out sometimes, but I never wanted to have children of my own because of the responsibility. I like sleeping in. I like being able to pick up and go on a road trip at the last minute. Now Ben is waffling on what he wants to do. He’s considering putting our travel plans on hold to help care for his grandchild. I know this daughter wants to have more kids, and his other daughter wants kids as well, and I’m worried this is going to turn into 10 to 15 years of us taking care of the grandkids instead of living our dreams.

Ben is constantly trying to make up for the fact that their mother died when these girls were young, and I think they have always tried to take advantage of him to some extent. They don’t seem to realize how much of a dream it is for him to travel as we’ve planned or that we will still be working when we “retire.” Plus, his daughters have resented me a little after we told them they had to get jobs to pay for all the things they used to get—or thought they would get—from their father before I married him.

We have crunched the numbers and just can’t afford to help them pay for child care. I know if Ben had another way to help his daughter out, he wouldn’t be waffling so much. Is there some other way of helping that I’m missing? Is there some way of telling Ben’s daughter that we have other plans for our semi-retirement without seeming selfish?

—Wanting to Travel

Dear Wanting,

I can’t help wondering if you’re sure you and Ben are on the same page about this (and about his daughters in general—who, after all, are your own stepdaughters, though you never refer to them as such). From the start of your marriage, you considered these young women to be “a little spoiled,” and your assessment of their father’s doting on them strikes me as rather hardhearted—which makes me wonder about the shift that occurred around money when you and Ben first got together. Did you and Ben decide together that it was time for the teenagers to start paying their own way? Or was this something you put your foot down about and he went along with, because he was so madly in love with you? (And what kinds of things are we talking about that they used to “get,” or imagined they would get, from their dad? They’re his children, after all. Fathers give their children stuff.)

You talk about why you never wanted children yourself (all of which is fair, of course, and you were wise enough not to marry someone with young children) and how you still enjoy sleeping in and spontaneous travel; you talk about the plans the two of you made for your future in a way that makes me wonder if this has been a truly mutual set of hopes and dreams. I mean, maybe it has been. You say you “know” that Ben wouldn’t be waffling about being a deeply (and daily) involved grandfather versus going ahead with these plans if only he could afford to pay for child care instead … but do you? Has he said so?

Is there a chance he wants to be involved in this way, and the distress and dread are all yours?

I’m asking because I think what happens next really depends on the answer. If you and your husband really are in complete agreement—the two of you both have no interest in helping to take care of grandchildren—then my advice is that Ben come clean about this to his daughter. I know lots of grandparents who feel this way (they raised their kids; they’re done; now it’s time for them to live their own lives). I also know lots who feel entirely differently—who very much want to be a daily part of their grandchildren’s lives, to have a role in helping to raise them, and who look forward to the deepening connection with their children as a result of it. Be very sure that Ben is not among the latter before the two of you proceed. It’s not selfish to go about your lives as you hoped to (you are entitled to live the life you want to live!)—and it’s certainly the grandchildren’s parents’ job to figure out child care; it’s not fair for them to simply expect grandparents to step in and magically solve the problem (I’ll spare you the speech for now about why we as a nation so desperately need universal child care).

But you need to have an honest conversation about this with Ben. Really, I’m surprised the two of you haven’t talked about this before now. It must have occurred to Ben that someday he would be a grandfather (and I don’t know anyone with grown children who hasn’t thought about what kind of grandparent they plan or hope to be). If he genuinely wants to help out, you two have your work cut out for you, relationship-wise. If he is utterly ambivalent, either because he wants both the life you do and to be a deeply involved grandfather—or because he wants to please you and give you the life you want, and also wants to please his beloved daughter—I don’t know what kind of compromise can be reached; I only know that the two of you will have to figure it out together, and that it won’t be easy.

Good luck to you and Ben, whatever the case may be.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I just found out we are pregnant with our first child, and I am freaking out with both excitement and extreme terror! I’m considered advanced maternal age, at 39. I’ll be 40 when the baby is born! I keep reading so much about the risk of miscarriage and birth defects at this age. What advice do you have for us as we’re entering parenthood at a later stage in life?

—Cautiously Optimistic

Dear CO,

You’ve read enough now to know that there are increased risks. There is nothing you can do to prevent a miscarriage if it turns out the pregnancy isn’t viable; there is nothing you can do to guarantee a baby born without a disability. So stop reading about risk and start allowing yourself to embrace the future. Read other things. Pick one practical book about what’s ahead—for example, Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn—and then, shortly before the baby is due, read Nina Barrett’s I Wish Someone Had Told Me. Otherwise, I suggest reading for inspiration and joy. Some books about babies and parenthood that I love: Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, Ayun Halliday’s The Big Rumpus.

I was 38 when my daughter was born, and many women are older than that when they first become mothers. Once your child is here, you will discover what I (and they) did, which is that there are advantages to being an older parent. (For example, I never once felt constrained, or that I was missing out, because of the demands of parenthood: I was able to thoroughly enjoy it in a way I know I could not have had I been 10 years younger.) For sure you will have less energy than a 25-year-old, but you will also be wiser, and better equipped to handle the many, many challenges ahead (I found this a fair trade-off).

Dear Care and Feeding,

I don’t really know anything about babies, but I’m a young person who loves to knit, and I especially enjoy knitting baby gifts for older friends and cousins when they are pregnant. So far, I have stuck to gender-neutral sweaters because I’ve been told that knitted blankets are a no-no. Is this correct? And if it’s true that such blankets cannot be used in cribs, are there other ways new parents might be able to use or appreciate a hand-knit baby blanket—or should I stick to sweaters?

—Bored of Sweaters

Dear BoS,

It’s true that we’ve known for some time now that knit blankets in a crib increase the risk of SIDS. But parents of babies still do use blankets for other purposes—wrapped around their babies while holding them, or over their lap when in a car seat or a stroller, or when setting the baby down on the floor for supervised playtime, or to cover up while nursing. Or, if it’s really pretty, as nursery décor for the time being—and who knows, it might turn into that perfect transitional object for the toddler the baby will be soon enough. Honestly, I don’t know of any new mother who wouldn’t be touched to receive a soft hand-knit blanket made by someone who loves her and will love the child who’s coming. If you have a yen to make a baby blanket, I say go for it—and include a card that says something along the lines of “I know it’s not safe to use this in the crib because of SIDS, but I thought you and your baby might enjoy having it to use outside the crib.” Just to be safe, just as a reminder.

Or—since you’re an expert-enough knitter to make a sweater (I’m impressed; I can barely manage a very messy winter scarf)—you might try your hand at a hat or booties or a set of towels made with cotton yarn. I didn’t have any friends who were knitters when my daughter was born, and you’re making me feel sorry for myself.

—Michelle

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