Last summer was my daughter’s golden birthday — when her age matched her birth date — her fifteenth birthday on the fifteenth of the month.
It was not golden to her. The fact that it was also Day 15 of a not-so-whirlwind tour of the United States pretty much took the shine off.
She is a military child with a travel-season birthday, and as such has celebrated quite a few birthdays in hotel rooms and empty houses.
On her thirteenth birthday, three days after our arrival in Germany, we took her to a castle. She was not a happy princess. She pointed out that the castle was a ruin, appropriate for her birthday mood.
We had just moved halfway around the world, leaving her closest friends behind in California. She did the math on the spot and realized her the next milestone birthday, Sweet Sixteen, would coincide with our next move.
The numbers don’t lie. The birthday and the move are now upon us. Her birthday arrives before the packers this time. She has planned a party, which will double as a farewell gathering of her friends, another PCS birthday pitfall.
Of course, my daughter is not alone in these birthday woes, as any military child born in the summer knows. Here are suggestions from other military spouses for making the most of bittersweet celebrations:
Differing dates: Set a precedent for celebrating birthdays occasionally on alternate dates, even in non-moving seasons. This may take some of the edge off when parties clash with packing.
"This will be hitting two of my little girls this summer," said Katy Howard of Los Angeles Air Force Base. "We are solving the problem by having an early party for the soon-to-be three-year-old here with her local friends."
For her older daughter, turning 7, Katy has planned a slumber party with friends at their new location.
"So far, the girls don’t mind celebrating with a party not on the exact day," she said.
Emphasize family: Have a family celebration on the big day, especially when kids are young. This forms a tradition that can help ease the pain when friends are far away.
Katy said her children get to choose a favorite meal and share a small cake with just their family on their exact birth date. When you’re in TLF with no friends, this tradition is still accessible.
Shock value: Kathie Hightower, a military spouse and author, suggested the element of surprise.
"It might only really work once, but what about a surprise birthday for your daughter … before the move and her real birthday?" she suggested.
"My high school friends once threw me a surprise party, and since it wasn’t on my birthday … I wasn’t expecting it and literally fell down the stairs when they all yelled ‘Surprise!’" she remembered. "Luckily, it was only three steps."
No forced fun: Sometimes no creative suggestion or party plan will help alleviate the pain your child feels. Leaving friends is tough and gets tougher as your child grows. Throw in a birthday, and the loss is more poignant.
A castle is no substitute for a close friend, and no amount of cajoling or lecturing can make it so. Trust me, I tried it. I realize now that to expect joy when a child can’t muster it is unreasonable. Sometimes permission to grieve the absence of friends is the most appropriate gift.
I can bake the cake, but I’ve learned I can’t promise my daughter that birthdays or life will be without disappointment. The best I can do is to love her and light up the candles.
Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany. Her column appears weekly in Stars and Stripes. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see the Spouse Calls blog here.