I’ve had some truly awful birthdays in the past, including one that started with my father calling me at dawn to report that my favorite uncle had had a heart attack (he’s fine now, thank God, and even quit smoking in the wake of his heart attack, so hooray!) and ended with my husband and I rushing out of dinner early to pick up Georgia from my in-laws because she had spiked a high fever and wouldn’t stop crying. 

I think, though, my hands-down winner for worst birthday would be my 27th. Ruby was 9 months old and still never slept more than an hour at a stretch. I was not loving motherhood the way I’d expected to. (Those two things are highly correlated.) And my due date for my first pregnancy, which I miscarried at 14 weeks, was also my birthday, so I was still sort of mourning the fact that I wasn’t joyously planning a double birthday party for myself and my child while simultaneously feeling guilty about mourning because I had a beautiful and healthy – if not chill and happy – 9-month-old. 

Add to that the fact that my now-ex-husband decided that it was the perfect day for him to go buy a demolition derby car with money that we didn’t have – then add in the fact that it took him three hours longer to buy the car than expected because he managed to wreck a friend’s truck that he had borrowed to tow the demolition derby car home, thus meaning it got so late that we had to cancel our dinner plans and were now on the hook for the cost of the derby car and our friend’s deductible. 

Now finally add in the fact that I was trying to clean the house for the babysitter (whom we ended up canceling; see above) and Ruby refused to nap, so I was alternating between putting her in her crib and letting her scream for as long as I could stand it and trying to clean while wearing her strapped to my chest in a sling. Near dusk, I put her down in her crib, and after a few minutes of shrill wailing, she was quiet. 

“Oh, my gosh,” I thought, foolishly giddy. “Maybe Cry It Out finally worked for Ruby. Maybe she is really actually finally napping in her crib.”

Too nervous to jinx it by checking on her right away, I took a blissful 10 minutes to load the dishwasher. When I peeped in the door of her nursery after that, I was horrified to see what had been keeping Ruby so quiet: not sleep but playing with her own poop. She had removed her diaper and gleefully smeared feces on every surface she could reach. Remember again: I was the only adult in the house at this point. 

I just sat down on the floor and cried. 

Now, eight years later, this story is funny. In fact, I tell it to Ruby every year, and she laughs hysterically and says, “But that was my birthday present to you, Mom! I was trying to paint you a picture! With my poop!” And then she laughs some more until she can’t breathe.

But it was not funny at the time. It was not cause for laughter; it was cause for Lysol.

This year, though, I turned 35, and I had the best birthday I’ve had in a very long time. My life looks very, very different now than it did back in 2007, and I couldn’t be happier with it. 

And being able to look back on previous bad situations and able to share a laugh with your kid? Well, I am pretty sure that is the best birthday present anyone could ever hope to have: the gift of perspective, the gift of humor, the gift of shared memories.

Thank you, Ruby – for all of it. 

(Thanks to the rest of my family and friends, too, for making my 35th birthday so terrific.)