Rethinking Birthdays

Senior Editor’s note: With regard to the 2015 Synod on the Family, we might say it’s all over but the shouting. We don’t know yet what was in the Final Document, released late yesterday afternoon in Rome, but Robert Royal – on the ground in the Eternal City – reports in his latest dispatch that while the Synod Fathers talked a great deal about all sorts of things, “the crucial questions of recreating a vibrant Catholic culture, and spaces where it can survive, were muted.” Dr. Royal’s reports will continue on Saturday and Sunday and culminate with a wrap up on Monday. Of all the remarkable reports he has given us, today’s, “Where Was Our Catholic Culture?” (click here to read it), is the one that has most affected me. Let’s all pray for the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. – Brad Miner

My wife got me a new phone that has an odd way of notifying me of people’s birthdays. At the bottom of the screen, a message appears that says something like this:

Catherine Peters birthday
Tomorrow: All day

When I see these messages, I can’t help thinking: Her birthday is all day tomorrow? Isn’t that a bit extreme? Isn’t a decent length for a birthday an hour or two?

But perhaps I am just being stingy. After all, Catherine’s mother undoubtedly spent more than just an hour or two giving birth to her.

But I wonder: why are we celebrating Catherine Peters and not her mother? Catherine Peters did nothing heroic or even especially strenuous on that fateful, glorious night. But her mother did. (Her father is a very nice man from all I can tell and one of the most well-versed canon lawyers in the country, but we all know that, however good fathers are, they don’t really do all that much. We’re men: we pace around, we look concerned, we say “breathe, breathe,” but other than that, we’re pretty useless.)

So why on a person’s birthday don’t we celebrating that person’s mother? Why don’t we send along a little gift to mom with a card saying, “Job well done.” Or something with Snoopy on the front that says: “I wasn’t able to shoot down the Red Baron, but you gave birth to a living human being.”

The more I thought about it, the crazier our current practice seemed. Why aren’t children giving gifts to their mothers on their birthday? And why doesn’t my Facebook post read:

Catherine Peters birthday
Mother: twelve hours in labor; 8 pound, 2 ounce baby
Truly amazing

You might say, “But don’t we have Mother’s Day for that sort of thing?” But think about it: one day, for every mother? What if we said we’re going to have only one day during the year when all children get presents. We’ll call it “Christmas.” How well would that go over?

And what about mothers with seven or eight children? They still only get one day? Shouldn’t they get seven or eight celebrations? If you won four events in the Olympics, but they only gave you one medal, you’d feel cheated. You won four events; you want four medals. So too, a woman who gave birth to four living human beings – which is a lot more impressive than synchronized swimming or doing a few hurdles – shouldn’t she get four celebrations, one for each?

“Mother and Child” by Frederic Leighton, 1865

I worry that our present practices help foster in us the sort of foolish autonomous individualism that so bedevils our society. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau wrote of man’s “natural” state as though human beings came into this world fully developed, like Athena springing forth from the head of Zeus. One thing conspicuously missing from the accounts of all these deep thinkers is any recognition of the importance of mothers.

Dr. Leon Kass suggests that we should notice two significant parts of our body: our belly button and our reproductive organs. Our belly button should remind us that we came from someone else’s body, while our reproductive organs should remind us that we will in time be replaced by someone else. In this way, our bodies should remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe to those who came before us and the similar debt of obligation we owe to those who will come after us.

Cultures develop special rituals to celebrate the birth of a child, as they also develop another set of rituals to commemorate the death of a loved one. Such rituals are important because they remind us we owe our existence to others, as others will depend upon us for theirs. To whom much has been given, much will be expected.

Mothers should be celebrated on their children’s birthdays, not only by their children, but by the whole community. Each child is another gift some woman gave us with her long labor.

And fathers, what about them? My first reaction is to say that fathers already have their gift and that all fathers really want is for their wife and children to be happy. You can give a man no greater gift than to let him know that he has made his family happy, healthy, and well off. If he wants a fishing pole or a tie or some golf clubs, he’ll buy them himself.

But the problem is that if we don’t ritually celebrate fathers in some way, then the culture can get the odd idea that fathers are optional and unimportant and we can just do without them.

So I suggest that on a child’s birthday, neighbors from the community should present gifts to the mother and make a big deal about the birth of her child as a tremendous gift to the community. Then, at a certain point, as the festivities are winding down, the men should remove themselves to a place where adult beverages can be consumed, and after time allowed for the father to sip some good bourbon, stare off into the distance in silence and think for a bit, the oldest member of the group should break the silence and toast him saying: “Well, you got the kid through another year. Here’s to ya’.” Raising children in America, he’ll likely need a drink. I suggest bourbon for this purpose for what Walker Percy called its power of “evocation of time and memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world.”

In a culture so dominated by autonomous individualism, so divorced from its origins and so devoted to the project of subjective self-creation, we might do well to think of birthdays not as a celebration of me and all I’ve become, but as a celebration of those who made possible who I am and a remembrance of the debts I owe to them, which can only be paid forward to others.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.