The Birthday Countdown
I used to use my birthday to gauge how loved I was by the world.
Would my father remember to send something on time this year? (Sadly, no.)
Would anyone at school remember? (Some, but never enough.)
Would it be another day of crushing disappointment where I weighed everything that my mothers and friends actually did against my perceived expectations and unrealistic hopes? (Yes, most certainly.)
My two moms always did everything they could to give me the best birthdays ever. We had two parties every year - a friend birthday party and an immediate family party. Both had cake and ice cream and presents, and my moms spent a lot of effort trying to make everything nice.
Birthdays peak sometime in late adolescence. Rollerskating parties, sleepovers, parties where you explode chemistry experiments all over your guests' best dresses…all that ends when you enter your teen years. My last greatest birthday party was the year I turned 14.
My Best Birthday Ever
For once, I didn't invite any school friends, instead inviting all my church friends. We went to a park and ran around and swam in our clothes (this was lake Ontario in September, so not remotely close to seasonally appropriate) and I kissed boys and ignored half of my guests - the ones that were sensible enough not to swim in the lake in September in their only dry clothes - and my mothers didn't even yell at me for my outrageously bad behavior, not even when I decided to do a baby's first birthday reenactment and smash my face into my piece of cake. I think the greatest gift she gave me that year was tolerance.
My mother let me pick out my own cake every year which was a big part of building birthday anticipation, and which later I criticized her for, saying that she should have picked it out for me to make it part of the surprise. I started resenting picking out my own cake at about 12 or 13 or whatever age everything my mother did was "not enough" and when my parents became the source of blame for everything that ever went wrong in my life. (External locus of control they call that. Bitchy Daughter Syndrome is probably a more apt name.)
When I was thirteen, I ordered a cake with a giant red lobster on it, because it was the most ridiculous thing I could find in the cake decorating book at Wegmans. When the lady asked me what I wanted my cake to say, I glared at my mother, mentally sending her ESP that she was supposed to be the one doing this, and told the lady, "Happy 47th Wedding Anniversary Joe and Mabel."
My obnoxious answer resulted in the most hysterical cake I ever had, and my friends all thought it was funny. Well, the half of the guests who swam in the lake with me did. The half of the guests who stayed dry on the beach later told me that they thought I got the cake on sale because no one came to pick it up.
I remember being surprised that people came to the party, and even more surprised that they brought me gifts, because I think I invited them a week before. I was touched by the pretty earrings and shiny paper, but I am sure I didn't acknowledge it properly. As I may have mentioned, this was Hedonistic Brat Day.
I really hadn't expected them to buy me presents, and I was moved and touched in a way that 14 year olds rarely acknowledge. I don't know why, as every other party I had involved presents, but these people weren't my school friends. They were the kids from church, and it was the first time 90% of them had been invited over. I didn't really have school friends that year that I was particularly close to, and I was moving to Alaska in October and didn't want to bother bonding with new friends anyway. Church friends were more like once-a-week family. I saw them every week and we knew each other since we were in diapers, but never invited them over. The expectation was somehow different. Their rising to the occasion touched me in a way I still haven't gotten over.
My Worst Birthday Ever
When I was sixteen my mother had a sweet sixteen party for me, inviting all 80-odd girls in my class at school. I was back in New York and attending an all-girls Catholic school, and didn't have many friends there. We decided to not invite my few male friends and just make it an all girls party. My parents rented a cabin and hired a band and ordered a lot of food. Less than 20 people showed up, and the ones that came from school were not the ones I was particularly close with. I did not use the opportunity to bond with them, and I wasn't a particularly gracious host; I was too hurt by the 60 or so no-shows.
That was my last birthday party in high school. I refused to have one again, only inviting my boyfriend and best friend over for dinner on the actual day. When my mother pressed me to have a graduation party I only invited my mother's friends and significant adults from my childhood; no friends allowed.
My college roommate knew my 16th birthday horror story and convinced me that maybe it was OK to have a party.She knew that I was estranged from my parents and that I didn't have a lot of friends. I had her, my boyfriend, and my boyfriend's friends, but I no longer had a group of people to invite. She said that she would take care of it, and she did. She managed to round up ten or twenty people - enough to crowd our living room - to sit on the floor and play cards, passing around cake without forks (eat with your hands! We told them, which sounded better than We only own four forks!) and several containers of Ben and Jerry's. Most people got their own spoons, and no one was offered a bowl. Less to wash that way. I felt loved. I didn't need to fear my birthday anymore.
A few years later I realized that I had control over people forgetting my birthday. If I didn't want to feel bad because no one knew it was my birthday, I only had to tell them. If you give people a little knowledge, they mostly want to do the polite thing. I started telling everyone that I came in contact with that it was my birthday.
(The obnoxious birthday behavior has never been tamed out of me.)
When I say I told everyone, I mean everyone. I'd tell the checker at the grocery store. I'd answer the phone at work with, "Thanks for calling ______ it's my birthday today!" I would also wish people a "Happy Only-Mama's Birthday!"
OK, i used my given name, because I wasn't Only-Mama then.
People would smile. People would laugh. People would think I was a little crazy, but also see my childish enthusiasm. And every single one would reply with, "Happy Birthday!"
When I worked in a large government office we took birthdays seriously. People would bring in a whole buffet of food and sing to you, even. It was as close to a childhood birthday in terms of my excitement level as anything had ever been. In that large government office we had to go to boring meetings every week, where everyone talked in acronyms about things I barely understood, but every week I was asked to give a report and later asked if I had anything to add before we closed the meeting.
The birthday countdown was born. Starting a month before my birthday, when I was asked if I had anything else to contribute, I would inform them that they had "thirty days until my birthday," or whatever date was accurate. I felt it ended the meeting on an up note. Others might have found it bratty and attention-seeking. I am sensing a theme here. Apparently the difference between Childish Enthusiasm and Narcissistic Brattiness is in the eye of the beholder.
I have continued the countdown clock for a decade, now, and I still like it. I think we need more childish enthusiasm about our birthdays. I am turning forty this year, and anyone who doesn't know that already must be a new reader, because I mention it often. Forty is a big number and filled with expectations of birthday partitude, and I decided that once again I didn't need to use it as a test of people's love.
This time, I told my most significant people what I wanted to do for my birthday. I spent a lot of time thinking of how I wanted to spent my day, and whom I wanted around. I chose locations and activities. I bought a dress months in advance so I could look at it in the closet and let the anticipation build.
Will it be perfect? Nothing is perfect, but I certainly am owning my special day. Isn't that better than standing by and sending ESP messages to people to let them know what your emotional needs are? And if they find my enthusiasm irritating and self-serving, they will probably still wish me a "happy birthday." It's only polite, after all.
This post was originally published on BlogHer