Anna Ford is the Head of PR for charity CAFOD. She turned 40 in April 2020 while the UK was in its first lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here, she shares how she spent the day, along with lockdown birthday ideas and tips for making a milestone birthday in isolation memorable.
I was supposed to be lounging at a rooftop bar with a swimming pool in one of Europe’s most stunning cities. My mum and sister had been drafted in to look after our three young daughters and my husband, John-Paul, was whisking me off to Barcelona for our first child-free getaway in nearly nine years.
I had planned to celebrate my 40th birthday eating tapas, drinking cocktails and relaxing in our adult-only hotel next to the striking Sagrada Familia. But instead, I found myself in lockdown with my family at our home in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Anxiety about leaving my thirties behind – which I had been experiencing for several months – suddenly felt self-indulgent. As coronavirus swept across Europe my concerns about getting more lines faded into insignificance, as the full horror of COVID-19 was laid bare.
As dramatic and as morbid as it sounds, when I woke up on my birthday I felt overwhelmingly grateful to have made it to 40 and to have my family with me. It turned out to be one of the loveliest birthdays I have had.
From being woken first thing by my children singing happy birthday and presenting me with their home-made cards in bed, to tucking into my favourite homemade cake (Delia Smith’s coffee and walnut), it was a day of simple pleasures.
Count your blessings
I had been lucky enough to secure a supermarket delivery slot and just after 9am the champagne and croissants arrived on our doorstep – hurrah! – along with the rest of our food for the week including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
My husband and I then watched mass online. We normally go to church every Sunday as we are Catholic. Tuning in while sitting on our sofa, knowing that hundreds of thousands of other families around the world have been doing exactly the same, has been really uplifting during the lockdown.
I work for Catholic charity CAFOD which has just launched a coronavirus appeal (find out more here) for developing countries. Millions of people in poor communities face devastation from the illness so we are doing all we can to provide food, clean water and advice through our local experts.
Knowing what ordinary families like mine are facing, but without our brilliant NHS or, in most cases, even the most basic healthcare, makes me really count my blessings.
Take care of yourself
Whether you want to celebrate your birthday or try and forget it, make sure you spend some of the day taking care of yourself – something we all need to do now more than ever.
My guilty pleasure is elevenses – and my daughters, Lupita, 9, Anamaria, 6 and Isabel, 3, love it too – so mid-morning we tucked into croissants and jam in the garden while enjoying the spring sunshine.
Not long afterwards we had lunch al fresco as well; salmon and cream cheese bagels followed by Nigella’s emergency chocolate brownies which I had baked with the children the day before.
In the afternoon we popped out the local deer park for our daily exercise. We didn’t go for long or sit down – which would have been nice – but it was lovely just being out in the open and able to appreciate the beauty of nature.
Back at home I did half an hour’s relaxing yoga practice using the brilliant Down Dog app.
Connect with friends and family
I missed my parents – who are in lockdown in Hampshire – more than ever on my birthday. I normally see them once a week as they help out with childcare and felt quite emotional when I opened the card they had sent signed “From your aged parents x” which had a photo of me as a baby inside.
Surrounded by my own children, it really hit home how short life is. I slipped away into the garden and phoned my mum, dad and sister and WhatsApped my brothers.
I had already made a conscious decision to avoid a Zoom call with family on my birthday because my daughters tend to get so over-excited when they see their grandparents, that they normally spend the full 40 minutes screaming or giggling and no one can hold a conversation. There was something reassuring about speaking to my parents on the phone, one-to-one, just like we used to before the world was in the grip of a global pandemic.
If you do want to embrace technology though – like many of my friends who have also had lockdown birthdays have done – there are some really fun ways to connect with loved ones.
One friend had a virtual house party where everyone turned up with their own drink, another enjoyed web-based charades, while a third played bingo and aced a Tina Turner tribute act during online karaoke.
In addition to going to Barcelona, I had been due to have a party at a London karaoke club for my birthday but I just didn’t fancy singing my heart out at a computer screen (minus the cocktails) so that is on hold until after lockdown too. It just means I have more time to perfect my singing in the shower!
Other online ideas include a Desert Island Discs-style video call with family, where you play your favourites pieces of music and explain why they are so special to you or booking a personal online cookery class with a chef.
Don’t worry if the day doesn’t go to plan
But for all the planning and preparation, if this birthday has taught me anything it is that sometimes things just don’t go to plan.
I never expected to be curled up on my sofa at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on my 40th birthday watching a film adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It surrounded by my husband and daughters but, honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
It was a brilliant day but, more than anything else, I felt blessed to have my health and my family. What’s more, having a birthday during lockdown doesn’t really count. So I am still 39! I will have a party when lockdown is over. Won’t we all.
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