What a jumble of emotion the birthday can bring.

It’s not a big, milestone year—46—and my husband’s away, as is one son. So, I’m solo parent with three kids, meaning quite plainly, the birthday’s not a “day off.” The have-to list won’t disappear, nor the laundry. And no one will swoop in to take them from me (although I’ll have help from Kathryn, our friend/housemate/childcare person and Saskia’s most devoted and capable hair stylist). On the other hand, we’ll go swimming and we’ll get some ice cream after Ezekiel’s dance class and cards and messages have already trickled in. It’ll be a nice day.

Last year at this time, I was in the throes of abject, terrified desperation. Having waited for months for Saskia’s birth father to either contest the adoption—as he vowed to do—or simply let it go through without his explicit consent, it seemed that we were about to meet intractable legal problems, because Ruel had showed up in court on the last possible day for formally signal his intention to contest. This occurred just two days before my birthday. In early June, also on the last possible day, he’d sent the family court a letter to the same effect. In the interim, he hadn’t followed through on obtaining a DNA test or doing any of the other official tasks necessary to seek custody. By our lawyer’s account, this judge was less than impressed by Ruel’s inaction nearly seven months later and so gave Ruel two weeks to file papers. At the time, I was some version of numb, and I was devastated. My birthday almost didn’t exist and it certainly didn’t matter. I just felt like clinging to our six month-old for dear life.

Since the couple of days after Labor Day last year, when we learned first that Ruel had not followed through and next that the judge would terminate Ruel’s parental rights (there was then a pro forma thirty-day waiting period, in case Ruel contested this ruling), the knotted tangle of fear has gradually subsided. For a very long time—even after the adoption was finalized in December—I didn’t quite believe we were okay. It was as if the reflex that clamps down to protect had barely released at all. Despite efforts to relax, I remained, for a time, on constant alert. Some of the knots have softened by now. But this anniversary—of my birthday that came just two days after learning Ruel had showed up in court to state that he planned to contest the adoption—seized me into a distracted, fearful spasm, less in my mind than in my body. The relief, the incredible gratefulness is there, yet I feel horrible in the moment—sad for the enormity of the situation and residually scared—as if having been so scared and sad hovers in my fibers. It seems like something to be excreted, sweat out, cried out, or even shouted out. I imagine, though, it’s not something that can be definitively banished. Part of the challenge is to accept all of your experience as your own and then make your peace. The hard parts ebb away, with time, and effort. I’m trying for tenderness with myself today.

As is often true of this phenomenon, the anniversary sensation caught me by surprise, because for the most part, I feel, if not over it (I don’t, clearly) so much better and more comfortable these days. I learned something last year about gratefulness (the word now seems tepid for how strongly I feel it; I want a word that means I am appreciative from every pore of my being). I learned about how, sometimes in a crisis, all you can do is hold fast to what you love and find your belief through unimaginable and seemingly unfathomable patience. The world is being the world and you are finding stillness as its perpetual motion whirls around you. Meantime, you try to find compassion for all, because you realize that what you’re in the midst of is complex. If it were simple, you could solve the problem. So, there’s stillness and faith and holding tight and compassion, the crash course version. And you think you can eventually leave it behind, and there’s an echo of a lesson: you lived it, and it’s yours. Breathe. Feel sad. Feel grateful. You’ll move on again (and back, and on).

Just two days ago, I attended an old friend’s second wedding. It’s the union of two extroverts, and the toasts went on, tributes filled with laughter and affection and acknowledgement of the very bumpy road they’d traveled—love came with exes and children and longtime friends and extended families and two countries and nearly two languages (English)—to reach this moment, this here and now wedding celebration. The sense that life is messy and love, too, is messy, sweetens it, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I loved about this wedding—and about second weddings in general, or weddings after long relationships—the sense that we can honor a love that already is. Nothing bad about first weddings, don’t get me wrong. First weddings are hopes and wishes and dreams, and those are lovely. Regardless of any fairy tale aspirations, reality—dishes and tantrums and work and exhaustion—arrives. If you can keep and strengthen love through all that chaos and just, well, life, you’ve got something so gorgeous and dear. That’s how I feel about my relationship, that the rough edges and the worn edges contribute to its charm and comfort and love. I don’t want my love in shiny-new form; I am exceedingly delighted with the one I got.

What surprises me is how being in the middle—of everything, it would seem—is as compelling as it is. Yesterday, at dusk, Saskia and I were in the minivan (not my favorite place to be), pulling onto Route 9 from the Whole Foods complex (again, nothing bucolic there) and we had to wait for a long time at the light. Mist hovered above the green foothills beyond all the buildings. So there was this viscous steam and fading light and greenery and the rolling, gentle hills this valley nestles itself between. I realized that I’ve lived longer in this valley than anywhere else on earth. Over time, the place feels like home, and I feel as if I belong here in this valley that cradles me as it changes across seasons. It’s a good place in which to find myself in the thick of it all.