Tomorrow is my birthday. But I’m pretending it’s not. Not because I am in denial about being 37. But, you know, really, how did I get to be 37? No: it’s because I can’t celebrate it at home. From Thursday through Saturday I am at a big work event I have co-organised over the last 18 months. Sissyboo takes birthdays VERY seriously and will be beyond cross that Mummy is away for hers. So we’re pretending it’s on Sunday.
Instead of presents, cake and a glass of bubbly, tomorrow, I will have my professional hat on, trying to be clever with 220 other people from all over the UK, Europe, North America and Australia. 220 people. I know over 190 of them and would call well over a hundred good friends. Many are friends of mine on Facebook and rallied around us in ways that are making me well up as I type this when Boo was born prematurely. The messages, encouragement, gifts and love they sent kept me going through those tough days.
But I don’t use my personal Facebook page like I do this blog. People who connect with me there know Boo was born early and have seen many more pictures of his and his sister’s gorgeous faces than readers of the blog will ever do. But I don’t bare all on Facebook, partly because so many of my friends are also work colleagues. And I feel maintaining some distinction is important. (I blogged about this over on Mum Network a few days ago.) Work colleagues don’t need to know the things about me that I freely share with you lovely folks. Some know, though. About 20 or so people at the conference are close friends, and spend time with us and the kids when they can or keep in touch via Skype. They know what’s been going on. But the vast majority don’t. And they are all going to ask aren’t they? And I have to tell them, don’t I?
Help! Stop the world, I really, really, really want to get off.
Before I went back to work, I sent an email round to all of my departmental colleagues explaining what had happened with Boo so that I could avoid impromptu conversations in the corridor that would leave me in tears explaining meningitis, brain damage, cerebral palsy, infantile spasms, developmental delay, yada, yada, yada. It worked. People have been great and talk to me about Boo but in a very different way than they might have done had I not set the terms for how to talk about him in that email.
But yesterday I found myself in a different kind of situation. I had to travel for work and find myself in another University where I saw three lovely people (one good friend who I’ve been in regular touch with over the last 16 months) and two others who knew Boo was premature but not what has happened since. I explained. I was calm and, in fact, didn’t even feel any need to hold it together at the time. I was together and upbeat. They complimented me on how strong I was, how I could cope with anything. I believed them. For a few moments, anyway.
Then today I woke up feeling like I have been run over. I am so tired that I cannot keep my eyes open, even though I slept well. I have a headache that is making me squint and I look grey, all of my nearly 37 years and then some.
This has become a horribly familiar routine. I have a day that brings some emotional challenges. I get through it well and afterwards I am floored (I do not have the words to express how awful I feel) as depression does its evil work and throws me off course again. And tomorrow, I have an experience like yesterday’s but I have to multiply that experience by 110.
I am honestly worried I will break. Not when I’m there. I’ll be the model of professionalism I aspire to be there. I will laugh and make jokes. I will have a great time. And then Sunday will come and I will start to crumble. It is inevitable. It is horrible.
But I can’t allow this happen again. Not this weekend. Sunday is my birthday-that-isn’t-my-birthday. And I am damned if I am going to spoil this day for Sissyboo, to whom it means more than it ever would to me, or to wreck the one day this week I actually get to spend hours of quality time with my kids.
How am I going to pull off this feat, you ask? Well, I’ve made a decision: I am just not going to pretend to be invincible. It is too bloody exhausting. Yes, I will turn conversations to others’ lives and work as much as possible, but if and when I am asked about Boo, I’m going to be honest.
I’m going to tell people that things are OK and we are coping, but that’s it can be so hard too. That I desperately want (and need) to continue working, but might not be able to do so. That Boo isn’t fine, in the sense they mean, even if he is in my eyes. That life is a battle and I often feel like we’re losing. And if a tear forms in my eye I won’t choke it back. Why should I? My hope is that if I can be a little bit more truthful than I often allow myself to be in a professional context, that I won’t descend into those all-too-familiar doldrums on Sunday.
Tears and sadness are not signs of weakness. They are signs that I care, that I am human and not a machine or the superwoman people, surely jokingly, tell me I am every day. (I always liked Clark Kent better than Superman, anyway.) They are signs that things are tough. Having said that, though, I laugh much, much more than I cry and I’m happy and content so much more of the time than I am sad. But life is complicated and I am not quite the same person I was pre-Boo. Deep down I know what I have before now been too frightened to test. I know they won’t mind, because these are some of the nicest, smartest and kindest people I know.
If I can pull this off and get through Thursday in one emotional piece (professional and personal me in tact) and proved to myself that I can be these two people at the same time, then I will have given myself a pretty special birthday present, indeed. But I’m still looking forward to that cake and bubbly on Sunday, though. Cheers!