“Birthdays are dumb,” said my husband, on his birthday. “Why would you celebrate? It’s not like being a year older is that impressive of an accomplishment.”
I agreed, but also didn’t. I don’t think birthdays should necessarily be celebrated as an accomplishment in and of themselves, but I do think they can serve a beautiful purpose if used well.
My husband is several years older than I am, but our birthdays fall within the same month. Mine is a few days before his, and this year on the evening before my birthday it occurred to me to wonder if he would remember it was my birthday – we hadn’t talked about it recently and he’s not big on holidays in general. I thought, If I really want him to remember, I better say something to him. But on second thought, it seemed more amusing to see if he would forget.
A note: I suspect some husbands just cringed because of Very Uncomfortable Experiences they’ve had when their wives have decided to see if they would remember some important occasion. And I’m not suggesting this is a good idea for everyone. If you’re going to play games with your husband, you better be sure that it really is a game and you’re having fun, and that it’s not actually a test which if he fails you will choose to be hurt by and consequently punish him for it.
The next morning, he didn’t remember. We had a normal nice morning and he went to work, and then suddenly he called me and was apologetic and slightly horrified about it and I laughed at him and then we hung up and I went about my day.
And later I thought about that and I realized that a few years ago, I couldn’t have done that – or at least, I shouldn’t have. Because a few years ago I might have pretended that I didn’t mind, even to myself, but deep down in my stomach I would’ve been hurt.
For most of my life, I didn’t like my birthday.
Not because of any horror of getting older – on the contrary, for the first part of my life I was always straining towards the future. I think this was partly because I had three older sisters, and I spent a lot of time wanting to be them – to do what they did, to have what they had – and because I was younger, I also spent a lot of time hearing “You’re too little.” Perhaps too, part of it may have been that I felt that the thoughts and beliefs of children and teenagers carried no weight in my culture and I had a small hope that things might be slightly better as an adult, even if I would only be a woman. But mostly I think it was because I did not fully like the person that I was and, like most unhappy immature people, I expected external changes to fix my internal issues.
It’s ironic, because I’m almost entirely opposite now – more days than not, I enjoy my life so much that I struggle to make any changes that require me to give up a single shade that colors my days. Even while I work hard to grow, I understand that for every yes I speak, there comes with it a thousand nos (She Said Yes! they say, when a girl agrees to marry a man. What they don’t say is She Said No! Even though by saying yes to one man, she has effectively said no to a billion others.). And now some of the things I am saying no to are things that I once said yes to because I wanted them then, and I still remember why I wanted them and there are things in them that are worth even more to me now than they were then.
I didn’t expect this, when I started on this journey of building myself and subsequently my life into something that I like. I didn’t realize that once I got past the part where I really didn’t like myself and my life, once I’d learned to appreciate the life I had and once I’d become someone I liked to be, that after that every stage of growth would also feel like a little death because it meant giving up a person I had loved being and a life I had loved living.
So, no, my dislike of my birthday wasn’t rooted in a fear of getting older then, and I still have little fear of getting older now – because I think that once you’re legally ‘of age’, your age becomes largely irrelevant beyond what you make it mean. I mean yes, I’m aware that your body breaks down with the passing of time, but I’m also aware that some people are physically stronger and healthier at 80 than others are at 40, and since I choose to believe that for the most part my health is a result of my choices, the number of years which I have been breathing becomes once again the less important part of the equation.
No, I didn’t like my birthday because it was inevitably a day of unmet expectations for me. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that what I got wasn’t it. So I tried to convince myself that I wanted nothing, but I ended almost every birthday disappointed and sad anyway.
To be clear, I don’t blame my family or my husband or my friends for this at all – it’s not like my birthdays were ever ignored; it’s just that it’s difficult to give a person what she wants if she doesn’t know what she wants, and if I didn’t want to bother figure out what I wanted, then it was rather ridiculous of me to ask anyone else to.
This only changed after one year I sat down and wrote about it, because writing holds revelation. That’s how He speaks to me. And I learned: first, that I wanted celebration, to feel like I mattered; and second, that I was waiting for someone else to do it for me; and third, that this was rather ridiculous of me because my birthday really had nothing to do with them. For me to say that the anniversary of my life (casually ignoring that I actually was alive for months before the day I was born) is a day that other people should celebrate me is astonishingly arrogant – as though I deserve applause for doing nothing more impressive than existing, especially when, as far as I’m aware, I didn’t even choose whether or not I would exist.
It’s worth noting that I don’t think it’s wrong to celebrate other people’s birthdays. There are many people whose existence in the same moment of space and time as mine is a great gift to me and I definitely think that should be acknowledged at least once a year, and I think it’s nice that we have a designated day to do that.
But other people celebrating you should be a gift, received with gratitude and delight, never demanded. If you have to demand that people celebrate you, maybe it’s time to ask whether you are worth being celebrated. And of course there is a difference between asking for something and demanding it. Inviting people to your birthday party is a lovely way of saying, “You are someone I think of when I’m celebrating what my life is”; but punishing them for weeks if they didn’t come or if they didn’t bring a gift or if they didn’t somehow make you feel as special as you wanted to feel turns that lovely invitation into an ugly, entitled demand.
Rather than a day of being celebrated by others, I wrote, if I like to exist even a little bit, it’s more logical that my birthday would be a day of gratitude to others. First and foremost to the One who gave me Life, and then to the two who gave me life – my parents, who sacrificed more than my childless self can know to bring me into the world and take care of me for those first 19 years. And then to everyone around me who now does or who ever did make my life better.
And it’s a day where I take a moment to notice – to notice the passing of time, to notice what has changed in me and in my life over the last year, to think about what my child self would think of my current self, and to consider who I want my future self to be.
So some years for me celebrating my birthday looks like taking the day off and doing things like getting my nails done in the morning and eating lunch all by myself in a restaurant and getting my hair done in the afternoon, and then going to a party in the evening because I do have beautiful, generous people in my life who occasionally choose to do things like that for me.
But some years it looks like working all day and coming home to a late supper of takeout pizza with my husband, and relishing it doubly because I know there’s nowhere I would rather be on my birthday; I do work that I enjoy with people that I enjoy and I share a house with my favorite person, and that means I don’t need to escape from my ordinary life in order to have a beautiful day. Is there a better way to celebrate the life you’ve built than to live it?
So although I think my husband has a point, I don’t really agree with his original statement. I used to feel like my birthday was dumb, but really the birthday was never the problem. I just needed a different way to look at it.
It’s a day to celebrate, not a day to be celebrated.
A day to look inward and give out, not a day to look outward and grasp in.
And I’ve enjoyed it ever since.