On Birthdays, the Rainbow Bridge, and Feelings of Inadequacy
As spring begins to threaten the mounds of snow in our neck of the Midwest, so starts birthday season in our household. All three kids turn another year older between the end of February and the beginning on May (and I do too).
When the girls were young they attended Waldorf parent-child and early childhood programs (known as kindergartens in Waldorf schools). It was in that context that I was introduced to the idea of celebrating the anniversary of a child’s birth with a fairytale hybrid version of their birth story. In the Waldorf tradition this is referred to as the Rainbow Bridge story. I have heard many iterations of this story; it’s length and complexity varying to some degree based on the age of the child and the preferences and characteristics of the story teller, but with the key themes remaining the same. As I think back, I have heard at least five different early childhood teachers tell a version of the Rainbow Bridge story to one of my children. Traditionally, the teacher sits in front of the group of classroom children with a small table on which sits a photo of the birthday child and fragrant beeswax candles to mark off the years of his or her life. A long silk in rainbow colors stretches out a path across the floor, at the end of which sits the child’s parents. Siblings are often present as well if they should happen to be available to join in for the story telling. The child is usually dressed in a special angelic outfit and listens to the telling of his or her story, which culminates with the child running across the Rainbow Bridge and into their parents’ arms, signifying the moment of their welcome to Earth and to their family.
This year is different. This past fall we sold the home where Rich and I had moved just months after we married. The home where all of our children were brought to when they were born. The home located within close proximity to the Waldorf school where I first felt a true sense of belonging and community when I was searching for connection to a like-minded group of parents, having felt like a misfit or a novelty at times amongst the parents in park district kiddie classes.
The reasons for the move were many. Too much in our life had shifted; our family had grown and our house had not, our school programming, its administration, and its financial health no longer resembled what it once had when we had started there, and our own finances had been put to the test through multiple medical challenges, extended unemployment, and other unexpected hiccups. We wanted to move closer to family and social support, but this also meant saying a final goodbye to formal Waldorf education for any of our children. I don’t regret the decision, it was overdue to be honest. We were in need of shaking off the bad juju that had seemed to have settled into our life and to make a fresh start.
Things are still up in the air in many aspects of our new chapter, and at times we cannot resist pining away for the old and familiar. That is where I found myself on a recent morning as I drove home from Asher’s birthday celebration at his new preschool class. He had donned a special paper birthday crown in pink, his favorite color. I had come and read a story to the class and had brought some gluten free pretzels to share. The children sang him the Happy Birthday song. It was a nice celebration and he had felt special. As I drove the car though it was nagging at me that this was a very different experience from what I had come to expect for my young children’s school birthdays. What struck me most was that he hadn’t heard his Rainbow Bridge story. He hadn’t run across a path on the floor marked out by a rainbow playsilk and jumped into my arms to celebrate the moment when I first held him; the moment when he was born into our family. I was missing it hard. I started to think about some way that I could recreate the experience for him, casually testing the waters by chatting with him in the backseat as we drove, “Hey Buddy, when your sisters were your age they were told a story about being born to celebrate their birthdays. What do you think about that idea?” After an unexpected discussion about what a birthday might possibly have to do with being born (I forget sometimes that the concept is not intuitive to young children), he seemed intrigued.
We got home and I immediately tried to conjure up some way to recreate the ethereal and magical Waldorf Rainbow Bridge experience, but every thought that I had was instantly met with the reality of our current situation; we do not yet have our own house. We are living with my parents at the moment while we try desperately to find a home for our family, a task that is proving to be a difficult one within the constraints of our family size and budget combined with the much higher home values in our new suburb relative to our old one. In the meantime, all of the play silks, the dress up clothes, the play arch, the toys, the birthday crowns, the beeswax candles, everything lives far away in storage. We live tucked in the spaces available with our necessities stored in bins and boxes. The mommy guilt hit and threatened to take over.
I had a thought, one of Rich’s white t-shirts could stand in for the angelic robe that the children often wore, and maybe I could find a belt or sash or something. For a fleeting moment I considered the plastic fireman’s hat that he had received on a school field trip as a suitable crown substitute. Asher however, was not impressed with my ingenuity.
He didn’t want to wear the shirt or the hat. He didn’t care that his sisters had worn robes or wings or crowns like little birthday angels. His enthusiasm was waning. The moment was slipping away. I stopped. It didn’t need to look like the vision that I had in my head. His birth story was his own unique moment to celebrate. It didn’t need to be anything more than that. I sat down on the couch and pulled him onto my lap and began his Rainbow Bridge story as best as I could remember hearing one be told….
Some time ago up high in the clouds, a little angel laughed and danced and played. The little angel loved to pretend that he was a rescuer, helping out with any troubles way up in the sky. The little angel liked to bounce on the fluffy clouds and look down onto the Earth below. The little angel watched the fish swim in the seas and the birds sing in the skies. One day the little angel peered down to Earth and saw other children as they laughed and played together. Two little girls caught the angel’s attention as the little angel watched them run through the grass, picking flowers together and balancing carefully as they walked across fallen trees in the forest. The little angel heard a woman’s voice call out, “Eva, Alina….” (“That’s my sisters! But where is me?” “Hold on Buddy, we’re not there yet.”)
The little angel turned to some of the bigger angels and said, “I want to go there, to join those girls on Earth,” but the big angels said that it was not yet time. The little angel returned to his play, forgetting about the Earth down below. One day while running through the clouds, the little angel tripped and fell, nearly slipping down through the clouds, but the big angels helped him up and watched over him closely through the autumn, the winter, and into the spring. One day the clouds parted and the little angel could peek below once more. He saw his two girls cuddled up in bed close to a woman with a big, round belly. A man sat nearby reading the girls a story. The little angel asked again, “Can I go to them now?” and the big angels said that it was time. They hugged the little angel close, kissed his cheeks, and sent him down through the clouds across a bridge of rainbows to join his new family. His mother and father held him and gave to him his first ever gift, his name Asher Miles, which means lucky, blessed, and happy because they felt so lucky and blessed to have him come to complete their family, and because they wished for him a happy life.
In his first year Asher grew and discovered so much about the world. He said his first words, and crawled, stood up all on his own, and laughed at his silly sisters.
In Asher’s second year he learned to walk and climb, always curious to see how things worked. He loved to sit on Daddy’s lap when he would make work calls, and even set up his own “office” in the play arch, taking phone calls and working hard on his play computer.
In Asher’s third year he started parent-child class and explored the woods and the classroom. He loved to dig in the sand and see his sisters at school. He flew on an airplane for the first time, visiting his Gram and Gramps in Arizona.
In Asher’s fourth year he learned to ride a tricycle and had so much fun riding around outside. He began a new adventure, moving with his family to a new home, and starting at a new school. Asher made many friends.
Now Asher begins his fifth year, which we know will be filled with more growing, and learning, and discoveries. We love you very much sweet boy, and we are so lucky, blessed, and happy that you chose our family. Happy birthday, my sweet angel.
I knew that the story was not as refined or magical as the ones that his sisters had been told, but it was a moment for me to soak up my son’s five years and consider who he is and who he has grown to be as a part of our family. I am glad that I didn’t get completely stopped by the disconnect between how I wanted things to be and the reality of how things are at the moment. We will never again have the opportunity to celebrate Asher’s five circles around the sun, and I am glad that I took the time to reflect along with him.
If you are interested in other, more classic, examples of the telling of the Rainbow Bridge birthday story in the Waldorf school tradition, here are a few:
How has the Rainbow Bridge story been used to celebrate the children in your life? What other birthday traditions are special to your family?by