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How Leap Day babies mark their birthdays

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH, Times Correspondent
Published February 29, 2004

Katlyn Childress celebrates her third birthday today. She's in the sixth grade.

"It's really cool because nobody else in my class is 3 years old," she told me. Katlyn was born on Feb. 29, Leap Day, 12 years ago. She's one of a select group of people who see their birthday appear on the calendar only every four years.

"It's special because nobody ever forgets her birthday. It's like having a birthday on Christmas," said Katlyn's mom, Melissa Childress of Seminole. "Every leap year birthday we do it up big, and the other years we still celebrate."

She has a tradition of giving her daughter one present on each "real" birthday that is suitable for the younger age her limited birthdays dictate.

"This year I'm going to buy her a 3-year-old gift, probably a baby doll," Childress said.

Cody Dustin of Pinellas Park is also turning 3, or rather 12, today.

"He thinks it's pretty cool," said his mother, Deanna Dustin. "He told me: "When I'm older I can lie about my age and still be telling the truth.' "

The Dustins celebrate Cody's birthday on Feb. 28 and have a party on whatever weekend is closest to that date. For his Leap Day birthdays they let him pick somewhere special to go, such as Disney World.

Cody almost had a typical birthday. He was born at 12:50 a.m. on Feb. 29, 1992.

"I was in labor for 70 hours and when he was born on the 29th I was like, "No way,' " Dustin recalled.

My best friend in Raleigh, N.C., can relate. Beth Williamson's labor was induced at 8 a.m. on Feb. 28, four years ago. She was 10 days past her due date. Her husband, a rabid University of North Carolina fan, was thrilled their first child would share a birthday with Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the winning Tar Heels basketball team.

"As the sun set on Feb. 28 (her husband) started to panic. He asked the doctor: "She is going to have the baby today, isn't she?' "

But no, their daughter made a grand entrance at 3:03 a.m. on Feb. 29. Less than two hours later a local news crew called Williamson from the hospital lobby asking if they could come film the first Leap Day baby of the new millennium born in the Raleigh area.

Most mothers would agree that those hours after giving birth are some of the happiest in their lives, but appearing on live television is not on the to-do list. My friend quickly declined the TV interview, but her husband convinced her to reconsider. It would mean a lot in years to come, he said, and besides nobody watches the 5 a.m. news.

"But as it turns out we were lucky enough to have it replayed on the 6 o'clock news. I heard my voice and looked up at the TV and said: "Who is that?' " After 19 hours of labor, she didn't recognize herself.

Now four years later, their daughter, Serpell, is celebrating her first real birthday. Believe it or not, she has two other friends who will also turn 4 today. They're having a joint party. The invitation reads: "I hope y'all come and have some fun because after four years we're finally one."

Williamson hasn't yet tried to explain to her daughter what a Leap Day birthday means. Dustin and Childress said their kids started to understand it in kindergarten or first grade, when teachers taught the calendar. Until then, it was hard for a preschooler to grasp the concept that it really takes the Earth 3651/4 days to rotate around the sun, so you have to add an extra day every four years.

Like the other moms I talked with, my friend Beth has decided to celebrate her daughter's birthday on Feb. 28 in the years when Feb. 29 doesn't occur. That way at least it's in the same month as the true birthday, she reasoned. Or as Katlyn Childress put it: "I get to celebrate a day early."

St. Petersburg resident Jennifer Lewis, who turn 36 today, first grasped the concept of having a Leap Day birthday when she was 7.

"My parents told me I didn't have a birthday this year so I wasn't having a party. I freaked out," Lewis recalled. They were only joking. She did have parties on the off-years but tended to do a little more for the Leap Day parties. Her friends gave her a big surprise party on her 16th birthday. Her husband gave her a surprise birthday four years ago when she turned "8."

Several years ago, her sister-in-law, a third-grade teacher, told her students about Lewis when she taught them about Leap Day. They wrote her letters asking things like: How tall are you if you're a grownup and you're 7?

Lewis likes the fact that she can always claim to be years younger than she is. But a Leap Day birthday can also be frustrating in the age of computers.

"Sometimes if I'm doing something on the Internet and they ask me to type in my birthday, it kicks it back and says Feb. 29 is not a day."

Well to all those today who have the birth certificate to prove it most certainly is a day, happy birthday.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this column. You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmith@verizon.net or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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