We only had 3’s, no 8’s.
Years ago, I was entering my mid-late 20s in the South and had spent the time since my divorce trying to figure out if I wanted the things I thought I’d wanted, or if everyone had just told me I wanted them. Growing up in the early 2000’s suburban/rural town of Shetland, marrying one’s high school or college sweetheart wasn’t just the dream, but the expectation. Shetland’s welcome sign declared it A City With a Vision, but the Kasey Musgraves quote “If you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably gonna die alone,” would have been more fitting. Indeed, by the time I found myself reclaiming my maiden name on my undergraduate diploma, I was one of a dozen young divorcees from the class of 2006, most of whom did have two children. While I’d initially felt behind at 23, thumbing through all of those Facebook posts of engagement rings, wedding photos, new homes, and ultrasound pictures, I eventually came to the realization that I had it all to do over again. I could choose something different… if that’s what I actually wanted.
It was at 26, while substitute teaching an elementary school class that I realized exactly the life I desired. I didn’t like young children and only took such assignments if I was desperate for money, like when the school year was ending and I was staring down a summer with only my half-time librarian position to pay the bills. It was an easy enough day, overseeing a music class and watching Frozen on repeat, broken up by an end-of-the-year assembly in the early afternoon. “Assembly” probably wasn’t the proper term. It was more like a show, where Ronald McDonald performed childlike slapstick comedy to a crowd of children roaring with laughter, as I cynically rolled my eyes.
After ten or fifteen minutes of silly props and noises, however, I noticed that it wasn’t just the children who were laughing themselves sick. The parents in attendance were in similar hysterics at seeing their little ones so innocently amused. I looked around the gym full of kids, still lacking the affection expected by Southern women, yet suddenly more aware than ever of the enjoyment they brought their parents. That’s when it hit me that I wanted this… not because of some animalistic biological drive or archaic gender standard reinforced by life in the South, but because I wanted it for myself. I’d spent years considering more adventurous paths less traveled only to finally realize that I wanted exactly the mundane life expected of me… and that was okay. I would, however, need to get serious about dating. It was then that I began to pray, every night, for God to bring me a good, hardworking, even-tempered man, who would make a great husband and wonderful father… and most importantly to open my eyes and allow me to recognize such a man despite the fog of unreasonable expectations and my own self-sabotage.
My first date with Jake started with a pep talk, as I reminded myself that the worst that could happen was another funny story… only to sigh because I was getting awfully tired of funny stories. It had been a year since that day in my elementary school gym. As much as I had enjoyed the single stage of life, I was ready to move on to the next adventure. I was ready to fall in love and be on my way to the marriage and family I’d failed so miserably to secure previously. I didn’t want a romcom Meet Cute or soapy drama. I wanted someone to come home to, curl up with on the couch while I read and he did his own thing, a presence to feel in the middle of the night. I wanted to laugh, argue, grieve, and plan a life with someone. Odds were, my first date with the fluid engineer I met on Plenty of Fish would be forgettable at best, but perhaps… just maybe… it would be my last first date…
… and so it was.
It was on my first birthday with Jake that I realized he didn’t really do birthdays. When I responded with fitting horror, he explained that such occasions were for children and no one in his family really celebrated them after the age of twelve. Even so, on our three month anniversary, Jake made the trip to Shetland and joined me in a two day birthday celebration, meeting my parents for the first time and humoring all of my ridiculous 28-year-old whims. A month or so later, he indulged me once again, as I insisted we celebrate his birthday, not with all the hoopla and whimsy of mine, but by doing something he specifically wanted to do, which turned out to be Topgolf, pizza, and a movie.
Over the years, I’ve gotten no less demanding with my own birthday, insisting on celebrating the struggles and triumphs of the previous year and the excitement to come in the next. There have been numerous ice cream cakes, trips to the zoo, and even a new puppy. There was the Post-IVF Failure Quarantine Birthday of 2020, where we watched Belle Movies all day and ate takeout. There was the first birthday with our baby girls and just last month, our first family lake trip. Surprisingly enough, Jake has begun to look forward to his own birthdays over the years, as well. Friends have visited from Texas. We’ve eaten poorly made boxed carrot cake, sat through Lord of the Rings movie marathons, baked stuffed pizzas, and even unveiled a pricey gun safe in the hopes we’d need it soon, with small children running around.
Regardless, I’ve no doubt that Jake would let his birthdays slip by with little to no acknowledgement, were it not to humor me. With his quiet, stoic affection, though, he brainstorms ways to make the day special for himself, because he knows doing so is important to me. Whereas I see my own birthdays as a celebration of the adventures past and the welcoming of those to come, Jake’s are a celebration of the answering of those many fervently, even desperately, made prayers. This weekend, as Jake bathed our girls, after I sorted and folded laundry, I looked around and really acknowledged my life as it is, the life this man has helped me create.
Friday night, Jake and I hosted our bi-weekly game night, where we ate ourselves sick and laughed ourselves silly with friends in honor of his birthday. We spent Saturday getting lunch with our beautiful, hard-won babies, before hitting the local pumpkin patch, where we took pictures and all four played and laughed in a trough full of corn. We came home tired and dirty, with dried corn in our shoes, as the girls vacillated between fussing and giggling, having missed most of their naps for family fun. None of it had been a farce, staged for appearances in person or on social media. It was true contentment and joy, ending at the home we own, as a happy family unit. The house was clean and comfortable. There was plenty of food in the pantry and the bills were paid. I fed the girls and cleaned the kitchen, while Jake made soup to freeze for our new baby’s arrival. We discussed what movie we would watch and what kind of pizza we would order for our own private birthday celebration.
Compared to where I once was, my life is utter financially strained, middle-class bliss. There have been many times when I thought I would never have this. I prayed every night for half the man Jake is and God delivered. My husband is good, hardworking, funny, smart, ambitious, and an absolutely fabulous father. He’s a prideful, stubborn, know-it-all, who rarely shows any serious emotion, seldom apologizes, and drives me absolutely crazy. He’s also built a new career from the bottom, taken on every home improvement project I’ve dreamt up, financially supported us even through two rounds of IVF, and slept in an ICU chair for four days when I almost died delivering our girls. He’s gotten up in the middle of the night to clear the drains during a storm, chopped wood in freezing weather, and scraped my windshield without my asking. He’s changed countless diapers, soothed epic tantrums, and come home for lunch every day to help feed and play with his girls. He’s made it possible for me to stay home when I couldn’t handle leaving them. He’s comforted my every rational and irrational fear. Simply put, Jake is everything I ever prayed for and more.
We celebrated our first birthdays together when I turned 28, looking back on my single life; and when Jake turned 31, looking forward to new possibilities. My husband still isn’t one to anticipate his birthday with as much excitement as I do my own, but I find myself looking forward to it with increasing giddiness each passing year. I might have my very own holiday every September 9th, but every October 14th, I get to celebrate my best friend, whether that means cake and DnD or pizza and another viewing of the movie Warcraft. I get the chance to give my husband a day that’s all about him, where I can express my gratitude for the man that he is and the life he’s built with me. Jake wasn’t my way out, exactly, but he was the ultimate destination for a gal who wanted nothing more than a blissfully exhausting family life.
My mother once told me that she never minded getting older, until she no longer had anyone to do it with her. This past month, Jake and I celebrated our seventh set of birthdays together and with our girls: 35 and 38. I don’t mind those numbers even a little bit, as long as we get to celebrate the rest as a family, too.