Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Bylines: Starbucks Birthday

By Robin Dutton-Cookston

Birthday expectations get lowered when one becomes a parent.

When I turned 22, my college roommates went berserk and threw me a huge surprise party. Our flat overflowed with about 70 of my closest friends, all jostling to make a big fuss over me. (And I desperately needed the attention.) Bouquets of fresh flowers jazzed up our hand-me-down end tables, and sarcastic hand-lettered posters poked fun at the birthday girl from walls in every room. With all of the unbridled lust and hyperactivity of your typical red-blooded liberal arts majors, we devoured a giant cake and floated a keg of Shiner Bock in about 47 minutes. I loved it.

What a difference a decade makes.

When I turned 32, I met a gang of friends at the Starbucks on 24th Street the night before my birthday to discuss plans for a childcare cooperative. We didn't mean for it to be an impromptu celebration of my existence, but it was the best I could hope for at this juncture.

There were many reasons I couldn't party like it was 1999. My family's bank account (or lack thereof) provided only enough babysitting cash to hire an escaped convict or a financially clueless golden retriever. This situation long ago booted us out of the realm of decent affordable nighttime childcare.

Grandparents were too far away to come over and help out while mama and daddy dined someplace fancy. We didn't have enough old friends in San Francisco to throw me a shindig. Those who had the intentions sure as heck didn't have the time--too busy wrangling kiddos, work, and chaos of their own.

(And who wants to get drunk these days anyway? No matter what time I go to bed, my daughter, Grace, will still start hitting me in the face at 6:30 a.m., yelling, "MOMMY, get up! No get up, Daddy! MOOOOmy! Get up now!")

With this in mind, I interrupted our co-op discussion on the appropriate filling for the toddlers' organic, whole-wheat, hormone-free sandwiches to declare our corporate coffeehouse gathering the site of my official birthday party. A Starbucks bash! Almost as cool as having your age-10 fete at McDonald's, except the coffeeshop party seemed a trifle more pathetic.

I put aside the lack of hipness and focused on the inherent joy of being out of the house after dark and during a time when I usually fold a month's worth of underwear or pass out in front of hubby Jeff's TiVo-ed University of Texas basketball games. Empowered by my proclamation, I sat back and silently congratulated myself on doing what all the mama self-help books say by "taking care of me."

We had no cake. No keg. No witty limericks on the bathroom walls paying homage to my very being. Yet I felt as much gaiety as I did 10 years prior. Just being out in the world after 6:30 p.m. thrilled me no end. The stale decaf and crusty end-of-the-day baked goods at Starbucks evoked much more satisfaction than, say, the fourth cup of flat Schlitz on an empty collegiate stomach.

I mused that as my comrades and I cross the border into Grown-Up Land and accumulate more responsibilities, we can more deeply appreciate the few snatches of adults-only fun we manage to gather. In college, I frolicked all day long, taking time in between parties and sorority business to attend class or work at my 15-hour-a-week job. I was lucky. True obligations were few and far between.

But I am lucky now too, I thought, and smiled across the table at the funky, clever mamas with whom I spend a great deal of my time.

Starbucks kicked us out at 10 o'clock, but the night was young. It was way too early to go home to sleeping tots and computer-zombie spouses. No one wanted our big night to end, but two of my partners in nightlife were pregnant, and another one was nursing a 6-month-old. We weren't exactly martini material.

So we stood outside of Starbucks for two hours and babbled at each other, jumping around to stay warm and comfortable on tired feet. Finally, a delivery truck pulled up, and the stink of its exhaust drove us away.

At the end of the evening, I shuffled up Sanchez Street, sober and alert, craning my neck to gaze at the starry sky with gratitude and amazement. A deep sense of serenity washed over me, like I had just found one of my post-cesarean Vicodins. It felt good to realize that I needed a lot less fussing over than on previous birthdays, that I could find a calm satisfaction in the many rich blessings of my life: good home, good family, good friends.

I crept in the front door to see Jeff hunched over the laptop, doing his part to keep us financially afloat in a city where one month's rent can feed a family in Pakistan for a year. Grace snoozed peacefully in her bed, her cherubic lips and rosy cheeks puffed out, just like when she was a newborn.

Nah, I don't have lowered expectations for my birthday. I already have everything I need.

Cesar Chavez Street resident Robin Dutton-Cookston first appeared in the Noe Valley Voice in the December 2004/January 2005 issue. She also writes a column, "The Foggiest Idea," for, a web zine for parents who need to laugh so they won't scream.

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