I am a non-birthday person. I don’t think that was always the case, but sometime in my early teens I started to dread my birthday.
I bring this up because my birthday is approaching, November 26th to be exact. Reflection on why some people really enjoy their birthdays, and I do not, usually happens about this time of year. I do appreciate it when people send well wishes, as it tells me that they ARE birthday people and I make a mental note to acknowledge their birthdays in the future. I don’t expect birthday wishes, and in fact would really appreciate it if the day passed as any other day.
Birthday people are likely to be aghast while reading that paragraph. They may think I’m making a humble-brag-like post in an attempt to gain more attention toward my birthday or feel guilty for not paying more attention to my birthday in the past. But seriously, I’m good. If you would like an excuse to get together for cake and wine, I don’t need to wait until my birthday. Let’s go have some cake and wine! Right now! Heck, we can even get ourselves some candles and tip the waiters to come sing ‘Happy Birthday” for us if you want. I promise they won’t check ID’s to confirm that it is indeed a birthday celebration. I used to work at Olive Garden and never once asked for proof of a birthday before being forced to sing that stupid made-up birthday song en mass with my fellow servers. Let’s do it, it’ll be fun.
As a child, I think I looked forward to my birthday because my mom would make a big deal out of it. She’s a birthday person, by the way. A week after her most recent birthday passes, she reminds me (and everyone else for that matter) that is only 358 days left until her next birthday. I’ve never forgotten my mom’s birthday. I’m pretty sure that should I develop dementia in my old age (God forbid!), I’d have a muscle memory surrounding June 19th and begin baking a cake and shopping for cards and flowers while not understanding why I should want to do such a thing.
I think it was my 13th birthday that I began to feel strange about it. My birthday fell on Black Friday, the traditional heavy shopping day after Thanksgiving. My propensity for mouthing off to my over-stressed and economically challenged parents had my dad deciding that my birthday would go unacknowledged that year. In other words, I was grounded from my birthday. My mom was not 100% on board with that decision, but couldn’t come up with a reasonable excuse why my dad was being unreasonable. He’d retort with statements like, “Maybe next time she’ll think twice before running her smart mouth.” or “Going without cake and presents isn’t exactly corporal punishment.”
When I returned to school and told my friends that I was grounded from my birthday, they responded as if I was being shipped off to reform school. No birthday? How is that even possible? I forced my peers to confront the fact that birthday celebrations aren’t constitutionally protected rights of children. We kinda knew that parents are under no obligation to annually bestow on their children gifts and dessert treats. Jehovah’s witnesses were common in my neighborhood, but we figured that there was some kind of weird exception for religious people and that they probably did celebrate anyway, they just kept it secret. My peers did not accept the reality that my non-Jehovah’s-Witness parents were canceling my birthday. They were not ready to confront their powerlessness in the presence of parents. They hadn’t even considered that their parents could make that decision for them. There were many statements of “That’s not fair!” and “I’m sure they are bluffing. No mom and dad would ever do that!” But sure enough, I had only the tiniest of birthday celebrations. I got a piece of leftover pumpkin pie with a candle in it, and my mom sang happy birthday to me before my dad got home from work.
Happy Birthday, indeed.
To say that I felt awkward would be an understatement. Of course I didn’t say no to the pumpkin pie. I love pie! I did confront a lot of grown up feelings that day. Although I didn’t feel guilty for questioning my parents’ judgement on what was appropriate language (I was mostly grounded for doing things like cursing or vehemently disagreeing with my chores assignment through the use of cursing), I didn’t “learn my lesson” about questioning authority and using colorful language. What I did feel was being the object of pity. As a child, people may show you pity from time to time, but due to the oblivious and narcissistic nature of childhood, generally it goes unremarked upon in the psyche. This was the first time I was aware that an adult was showing me pity. It sucked.
It sucked because I had to confront my own powerlessness over my life. I became aware that I was at the mercy of others to near exclusivity. This was counter to what I had been told all my life. Because I was a girl living in the post-feminist movement world, I heard time and again that I could be anything I wanted. I could have it all. There was nothing stopping me from becoming President or an astronaut or a policeman (man?) all the while being a loving wife and mother if I so choose.
But I couldn’t have a day pass from my grounding for my birthday. It was my first day as a teenager, which by the way is a really huge deal!
If you are of the XY chromosome persuasion, then you may not get what the big deal is about turning 13. But to girls, becoming a teenager is a really big deal. We are sold a bill of goods all throughout childhood about how totally awesome being a teenager is. We get dolls that depict what teenagers dream about. All wonderful things happen to teenaged girls. There are awesome clothes and pretty hair and Prom and driver’s licenses and boys. We get to do wonderful and glamorous things like wear panty hose and shop for life affirming underarm deodorant.
Okay, maybe it was just a little creepy, too:
My 13th year was a watershed year for me. I learned that I couldn’t be whatever I wanted on “Career Day” when I told the Navy Recruiter I wanted to be a fighter pilot. It appeared that a penis was required for that job. I was banned from swimming that summer during my period because using tampons somehow equaled losing my virginity. (I bought my own. Trying to figure out how to use them was a whole ‘nother adventure). I spent a good portion of the year grounded to my room thanks in no small part to my refusal to keep my opinions about the decisions that were made for me to myself. I moved in with a friend for a few weeks because spending all my spare time in my bedroom alone, shut off from the world was just too lonely for me. It took me 3 days to tell my parents I had moved out. I started smoking and drinking before my 13th birthday, but I got pretty good at it that year. Back then there was no minimum age to purchase cigarettes. Also, most people didn’t pay much attention to their liquor cabinets. Thirteen year olds aren’t interested in that stuff, right?
I also started a diary when I was 13. I still have all my diaries. I wrote a lot about sex and drugs and rock and roll. The drama of interpersonal relationships and the unfairness of the world. I can look back at those journals and I could tell by my handwriting whether I was sober or drunk or stoned while I wrote those passages. The sober entries were the most boring, by the way. By the time I hit 16 I was done with the Hunter S. Thompson career path and finally accepted life for what it was, all of it’s inequalities and how the best I could hope for was to get “discovered” like Marylin Monroe or to quietly settle down into a nondescript middle class existence. It was easy for me to envision a life of homeless desperation. I paid homeless people to buy my alcohol for me, so it was never far from my periphery. Homeless people didn’t get birthday cards or cake or presents. Some of them were so far gone that they’d be hard pressed to tell you what month it is, much less how long until their birthday.
Being born and surviving another year on this planet is not an accomplishment. It just happens. I guess once a person has reached old age, it is indeed an accomplishment. If you manage to out live nearly everyone you know, you deserve to be celebrated. Your life can be looked upon as a goal or achievement for others to reach. I’m in my 40’s. Not really a difficult age to reach if you managed to survive childhood. Maybe it’s just low self esteem, but I don’t see the fact that I’m still drawing breath as cause for celebration at this age. I haven’t done anything particularly remarkable in my lifetime. I’m nice enough, but I’m no Mother Theresa. I’m smart enough to get my bills paid on time and not accidentally eat poison, but I’ve not invented anything significant or solved any kind of major problems, and only solve the very mundane ones like how to get to work every day or what can I make out of spaghetti noodles, peanut butter, and cucumbers (Hint: Sesame Chicken Cucumber Salad). These aren’t major accomplishments. In fact, for anyone who isn’t disabled it is considered the bare minimum of effort required for success. Bare MINIMUM.
Another year has passed. I did stuff, but nothing unusual or remarkable. My actions of the last year aren’t likely to win me a Nobel prize or even “Pet Owner Of The Month” in my neighborhood. I will continue to dutifully scoop my dog’s poop anyway, because isn’t that the bare minimum of courtesy toward one’s neighbors? I do plan on taking advantage of some birthday discounts and free stuff from the Sephora counter at JC Penney’s. I’m not opposed to exploiting marketing campaigns aimed at me because I happen to know the date of my birth.
But expecting a party in my honor just because I’ve managed to traverse around the sun one more time? You can count me out. I find the idea a little humiliating. I’m happy spending some time alone with my left over pumpkin pie and some wine. Thanks.
P.S. If anyone reading this has lost someone they loved, I’m not writing this to disparage or minimize the pain you may be feeling at your loss. You may feel that every birthday is precious, but why wait for a birthday to let someone know you love them? Go get your phone right now, and send someone a text telling them you love them. Don’t wait for the calendar to tell you to. After all, if you do wait until an event such as a birthday or national holiday, it may be too late by then, right?