It’s early July, yet again, and my bestie texts, “It’s almost your birthday! What do you want to do this year?”
I swallow my heart.
She offers a low-key night out. I say, “Meh. We’ll see.” There’s a patio restaurant I’ve been wanting to try, but I’ll probably wait until the birthday blues wear off.
The idea of planning a celebration, something even as simple as a dinner reservation, for myself is daunting. The idea of someone else planning a party on my behalf is even more daunting. If an ambitious friend/family member makes it happen, everyone stares and asks, “are you having fun? Do you like your gifts?” Then they sing and it feels like antifreeze is boiling in the back of my throat. All I want to do is cry.
Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating birthdays: making people feel seen, finding a unique gift, eating cake. I just don’t like mine.
Birthdays are a time for family gatherings, for the sake of togetherness, real or not, with people who aren’t always right for us. We’ve gotta trudge through the trenches with a big smile and pretend we feel special and loved.
On my fifth birthday, Mom dressed me in my best Mickey Mouse dress and even though I walked on eggshells to not set her off, she screamed every time I tucked my fluffed blond hair behind my ears. The Golden Child must look and be perfect at all times, especially when she’s the center of attention. Deep-seated conflicts were painted pink in the backyard and Barbie sat at the head of the table between my feuding Aunts. Dad was drinking and crying out for reassurance at the computer desk again.
A guest I got/get bad vibes from (I felt energy deeply even at age 5) came storming in for a hug. When I refused, she lifted me up by the left arm, dislocating my shoulder. Happy Birthday to me! If this doesn’t symbolize the forced togetherness I’m talking about, I don’t know what does.
Every birthday after that has been quite similar. This year, though, I’m laying low with my husband and dogs on a hiking trail.
Birthdays, like New Year’s Eve, is a time for reflection. And each year my family probes me on every aspect of my existence: what are you doing with your life? When are you having Kids? Do you think College was a waste of money now? Why do you live your life the way you do?
Every year I’m reminded that I’m not where I want to be—yet. I shouldn’t have taken a break from grad school. Should I really have kids? I should “fake it till I make it.” I should know how to cope by now. I should. . .
Unsolicited advice, even from a good place, reminds that I’m not enough and that I’m taking too long. Imposter Syndrome sets in, and tells me I don’t deserve what I have and shouldn’t move forward. Feeling like a failure triggers my anxiety and trauma, and so I retreat to the shadows in my mind—which takes days or weeks or months to crawl out of if I’m not careful.
I know this mindset is unhealthy, but the “I should” social construct always has its way with me. This year I deleted my social media as a birthday present to myself. I’m also chanting: I don’t need to slay all the dragons all the time. It has helped.
My birthday has me feeling guilty for not feeling celebratory. The people who love me want to see me happy and smiley, but around this time, it’s not what I can give them. As a chronic people-pleaser, knowing I’m disappointing people makes me uncomfortable. Do I look like I’m having enough fun? Did I open the gifts with enough enthusiasm? Are my guests entertained? In reality, I doubt my loved ones are judging me in this capacity.
For many years, I thought I was the only one crying on my birthday, but I know there are many of us out there. So, this year let’s promise each other we’ll think of our day as a day to celebrate the life we have exactly where and how we are, without comparing ourselves to others. Let’s promise to respect ourselves enough to set boundaries and do the things we really want to do, for ourselves. Let’s promise to treat ourselves with the same compassion we give our friends on their birthdays.
This year my birthday will be different. I’m on this new journey, taking on new perspectives and reminding myself to think positively. This year I’m going to uphold those promises to myself.
Do you have the birthday blues? What does it stem from? How do you grapple with the anxiety it brings?