My son’s mostly virtual first birthday

As my son’s first birthday approached, I knew what had to be done: I started looking up simple cake recipes. Cake is important to me on a deep level, but in this case, it was more than just my passion for pastries pushing me. The cake, I knew, was going to be one of the few traditional things we could offer him.

I live in Paris, thousands of miles from my American family and friends. My husband is French, but, like many Parisians, he’s a transplant. His family also lives hours from us. And, also like many Parisians, we’ve experienced the exodus of our local friends (also transplants) back to their native lands over the years. Today, we have lots of long-distance pals and loved ones, but only a few local acquaintances and one couple we see socially on a somewhat regular basis in real life.

Part of it’s circumstance, and part of it’s choice; we probably could find other Paris-based friends or get to know co-workers or acquaintances better, but as two introverts, we cherish our alone time. The thought of making friends, no matter how valuable or even helpful it might be, is a bit overwhelming. And even then, how close do you have to be to someone to consider them like family, to help each other out even with the challenging task of watching each other’s kids if necessary? We get by with babysitters and our emergency plan of my husband taking off work if I’m ever too sick to get out of bed, like when I got the flu a few weeks ago.

Still, it’s a lonely life in a lot of ways. Being from a big Italian/Jewish north New Jersey family makes the sting worse; there, it would be almost impossible to imagine that you’d wake up one day with the flu and not be able to find a relative or in-law who could watch your baby while you recovered.

Most of the cake recipes I looked up were included in articles about a baby’s first birthday. These articles referred to the party itself, as it’s typically celebrated in the US or in France: with lots of family and friends there to celebrate the milestone. Since none of our friends in Paris have kids, our “party” was going to consist of me, my husband, our son, and our cat (who is, lucky for us, the most intriguing, entertaining creature my son knows — no need to consider hiring a clown or anything).

Then again, our families were going to be present, in a way. It started at 10am, when my husband’s mother and brother facetimed us. I hastily threw off my pajamas, put on some clothes, and answered.

The US calls started in the evening. My brother and sister-in-law, my mother, my father, my stepmom, all while I was trying to bake that aforementioned cake and my son was getting restless. When it was ready, we brought it out, my father singing “Happy Birthday” along with us (for the round in English) from the iPad screen that was propped on the table.

We gave my son a piece of cake and he gleefully smashed it as I took photos and juggled calls, emails, e-cards, and iMessages from family friends and siblings, while also trying to get back in touch with my mom and one of my aunts, who were having internet connection problems but desperately wanted to see the cake smashing.

After just a few hours, my son, my husband, and I felt happy, but very tired.

It’s one of those “What times we live in!” revelations, and I’m still sort of marveling over it: The typical first birthday party teems with relatives and a sort of joyful chaos. The parents play host, making sure everyone is comfortable and has what they need. And that, it turns out, was pretty much exactly what my son’s first birthday had been like. Sure, it was mostly virtual — but it was just as full of energy — and just as exhausting.


In a way, this post is sort of a birthday gift for my son: if he comes across it one day when he’s older, he’ll probably have a good laugh at how amazed I was by the technology of my time, while he fiddles around with his hologram watch and teleports a pizza to his house or something.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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