‘It’s not how I imagined raising my girls, missing their birthdays’

Portrait of writer and campaigner Anna Whitehouse
'It’s these moments of celebration that leave, perhaps, the biggest holes post-divorce' - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

I was in a supermarket this week with my youngest and she saw a mermaid cake in the confection aisle. Christmas is barely behind us and she’s onto her birthday, which is five months away. Easter tends to get bypassed for lack of presents. But themes for her birthday usually get touted as soon as the last bit of tinsel is packed away in the rafters.

While the day-to-day admin around co-parenting two children with my ex is increasingly a well-oiled machine, the big celebrations still loom slightly. Christmas Day with the four of us worked well but there was an eerie sense of familiarity to the festivities that felt fleetingly uncomfortable.

I often find myself saying “it will be good for the kids” on these occasions without thinking about the reality of how it is for the grown-ups.

After Father Christmas did his thing, we gently decided that it wasn’t a realistic plan going forward. Playing happy families when you’ve separated can lead to a subtext of sadness – despite best intentions for the kids. There’s being a united front and then there’s a distorted reality. A place where flowing hugs and kisses under the mistletoe are replaced by administrative exchanges and platonic nudges.

Waking up together and wildly opening presents is the grand opener to birthdays across the land. But this year both the girls’ big days land on my exes week with them. And I won’t be there in the morning to see their giddy excitement. Or see them madly trying to build an entire Harry Potter Lego scene before their Weetabix.

I won’t see them proudly put their ‘Happy Birthday’ badges on their school uniforms or delightedly take in a multipack of Haribo to share around, giving them God-like status for the day. There’s only so far a quick FaceTime can go and the harsh reality of missing out on core memories is hitting harder and harder.

But a change in relationship status has forced a new perspective. Instead of feeling saddened by increasing missed moments, I’m determined to soak up the five-month prelude to the kid-equivalent of Glastonbury – but with more mystical sea creatures and sprinkles.

From that moment in the supermarket, I created a folder on my phone of “7th birthday super cool stuff” (named by my daughter I hasten to add) and whenever she sees something she likes, it goes in the folder.

Currently it’s looking like a confused Spider-Man and mermaid shindig with Bluey plates and sparklers instead of candles. The £35 sequin table runner had to be vetoed.

It means the excitement builds between us instead of apart from me. I might not be part of her birthday from the start this year but I’m part of her birth year. We have a little fantastical club, a celebratory joint project – which is likely to move to Pinterest soon due to the sheer volume of inspiration – that brings joy whenever another unhinged item lands in that folder.

I also look back at the pressure I used to feel around birthdays. The frustration that built between my ex and I about who was responsible for what. How essential it is to cut the crusts off all the sandwiches; who has the mental capacity to stuff all the party bags at 11pm after an intense day at work.

The abject panic about food intolerances among their friends and if there are enough miniature Colin the Caterpillars for the troops. The celebration mental load is real and I truly believe the desperation within a couple to bring joy to offspring can sometimes create the antithesis of happiness.

There was one party where I’d overruled my ex’s decision to opt for a low-key party for my eldest. It was a few months before we decided to go our separate ways. I went all-out and just as the final helium unicorn balloon was attached to the pink metallic bouncy castle, I realised that somewhere in the fray I’d slightly lost sight of my mind – and, more importantly, what she wanted.

The harder things were between my ex and I, the more I papered over the cracks with fondant icing. Until slumped at the end of that party, I became acutely aware that she would have been happy with a packet of sausage rolls and her five best friends over a Barbieland recreation.

It’s maybe not how I imagined raising my girls, missing their seventh and eleventh birthdays respectively. But the division of labour between my ex and I – on birthdays and day-to-day – has lifted any hint of animosity. It’s clear who is on party rings and who is on homework week-by-week.

Financially it’s down the middle and when the weight of secondary school administration gets too heavy, it’s nice to chuck the occasional mermaid centrepiece in our WhatsApp group and ask “thoughts?”.

As any exhausted parent, I’ve ignored my own birthday entirely here. But that’s going to sting when it lands.

The big day for me falls on another week that I don’t have the kids and to not feel their little arms wrap around me first thing as they belt out ‘Happy Birthday’ and deliver handmade cards and wonky cakes opens up an emptiness I’m not ready to face yet.

To know I’ll see my 43rd year without them there with me leaves an ache that has nothing to do with a lack of birthday presents or fanfare. It’s these moments of celebration that leave, perhaps, the biggest holes post-divorce.

On their birthdays I am going to reframe the day. Instead of pining, I’ll take myself out for breakfast and celebrate raising two brilliant little humans who have seen happiness isn’t a day but a lifetime.

My happiness right now might mean I’m not with them but the biggest birthday gift has been giving them a blueprint of their own worth; that their happiness matters.

And when the separation anxiety hits, I only have to check my phone and be reminded of The Little Mermaid cake topper my youngest believes will make or break her big day and I’m there in spirit if not in person. Happy birthday, indeed.

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