I typically hate my birthday. Some years not so much, others years much more. This year was one of the bad ones. I cannot exactly pinpoint what leads me to so much unhappiness on this day but this one left me in tears. I was angry about it because I kept telling myself that this is the day that I should be celebrating. It is my one day – my one chance to rejoice. Instead, I cried. I cried a lot. I gave myself a headache from crying. I shut out the world and locked myself away, hoping that the unpleasantry would pass and that I would stop feeling so unhappy. It didn’t work so well. I had some moments like early in the day when I was fortunate enough to land myself in a private karate class and managed to learn a new kata, further building my growing confidence in my martial arts skills. I treated myself to a lunchtime mani/pedi and left my phone at home. I had 90 minutes of quiet time with a book and managed to not think about how unhappy I was feeling. It felt like an escape, a release from my own private torture.
In my mind, there is something about birthdays that symbolizes your value on the earth. It is a brief moment in time each year – a mere 24 hour cycle – to allow yourself to be acknowledged. Today, both my husband and best friend wrote beautiful messages on Facebook (the 21st century version of the birthday phone call) acknowledging that today is the day to celebrate my existence on the planet. Today marks the day that I was created to leave whatever footprint I am stomping into the ground. That is such a powerful notion. If it were not for this day, 46 years ago, when I was pulled from my mother’s abdomen, taking in my first breath of air, the world of the people I am so intimately intertwined with would be different. When I think about the people I love, I know how grateful I feel on their birthdays, knowing that this marks the day that allowed them to touch my life in the most magical and meaningful ways. Yet, I struggle to embrace the same about myself. My birthday should be the day to reinforce those messages and offer me the fortification of love and kindness to allow me to overcome some of the demons of my past. Yes, today should have been a magical eraser to eradicate the ghosts of birthdays past.
When i was younger, there were never any birthday parties for me. No celebrations or presents or moments that made me feel special. I was not awoken with the relish that I have for my children on their birthdays. I lean over them and breathe in their scents, grateful for what their birthdays represent to me. Thankful to have been given the gift of their lives. From the second their eyes creep open to the moment they close again many hours later, I want them to know how special they are and how much their lives mean to me and to everyone around them. I give them permission to be kings for a day because everyone deserves that annual 24-hour monarchy. For me, as a child, every year I looked forward to my day – so much so that I used to have a countdown for months leading up to it, impatiently anticipating the arrival of MY day. And, invariably, my mother, a complete narcissist, rather than bask in the sunshine of our shared specialness on that day, would do something to disrupt my joy. She would eclipse the light, rapidly shifting the focus from me to her. Year after year, my mother would host a ruse, using the occasion of my birthday to throw a summer barbecue. She portrayed it as a fete for me but she would invite all her friends, plan a nice meal and even bake a cake. But there was no invitation announcing her daughter’s birthday and I was never allowed to invite my friends. There were no gifts for me to excitedly unwrap. There was rarely a candle for me to blow out. Go ahead, try to find a picture of me in a birthday crown and a grin masked in frosting. I dare you. It was meant to be my day and the rug was pulled out from under me year after year.
Being born in July, my birthdays were often lonely. I missed out on the special days at school. I was one of the kids who were honored towards the end of the school year – that last party to offer some recognition to the poor souls who had the misfortune of being born when school was out. But, my mother never baked cookies or cupcakes. I was never carrying a tin of treats to share with the other kids. I was ashamed and sad. It was a reminder to my young psyche that I was not worth the time it took to pop some brownies in the oven. On a deep level, I felt worthless and cast aside. Center stage was not for me and, even if I had the lead role, there would be no one there to cheer me on.
Nowadays, I am a bit schizophrenic about my birthday. Part of me wants to scream as loud as I can that “THIS IS MY DAY” while another really big part of me wants to hide out under a rock until the clock strikes 12:00am on July 12. I want to be toasted and roasted and showered with gifts yet I want to be ignored and left alone because there is something that seems unbelievably comfortable and familiar about that. I want to be enveloped by the people I love the most in the world and want them to surprise me with loving reminders of what I mean to them and, conversely, I want to pretend that it is any other day. Too often this day leaves me filled with conflict and angst. And, oddly enough, with all the great words I have and my tremendous ability to communicate, I can never express this message to anyone in a way that makes sense. I feel selfish and silly and foolish and ungrateful and obnoxious and immature and, yet, completely justified because no one has lived my life or truly understands what makes me who I am.
Meanwhile, I love everyone else’s birthdays – especially those closest to me like my husband, kids and dear friends. I will pull out all the stops to make sure they have their special days. It means so much to me, I suppose, because it is a way for me to show them how much I love them and how special they are to me. I delight in finding ways to honor them that reflects their uniqueness and importance in my life. I don’t expect anything back from others yet I acknowledge that I am also shutting out something that I secretly want but don’t know how to accept. To some extent, I suppose that I do not believe it is warranted or deserved. Deep down, on my birthday, more than any other day, I feel like an after thought. I am reminded of how passed over I felt in my young life. This day becomes the hallmark of every painful memory of neglect. It rarely makes me feel loved. Even with all the loving wishes that I desperately try to absorb – urging them to soak into my cells and make their way to heart and brain, I still feel like an unwanted guest in my own life. I feel invisible. I cannot seem to experience the love people have for me. It hits my force field, bounces right off and is gone. I watch as it happens and I am powerless and pained.
This year, I tried hard to fight the demons. I wanted, so much, to enjoy my day and I kept waiting for my spirits to lift. I imagined all the things that could happen to buoy me. I fantasized about my best friend appearing on my doorstep from so many miles away, knowing of course how impossible and unrealistic that was. I dreamt of some unimaginable surprise that my husband would have in store for me that, of course, would never happen. I cleaned my house in case someone unexpected came by to pay me a visit. Not that I expected any of it or was, in fact, upset that it did not happen, but I was simply praying for something to turn this year around. Instead, I dragged myself into the depths of it, shutting down, shutting everyone out and locking myself away. However, in a strange way, there was some peace and solitude that came with being alone with myself on my birthday. Perhaps I need this day to reflect. I need to sort out the chaos and recharge my batteries for the journey of the next 364 days.
Last year, when I turned 45, I threw myself a party. Like my 40th birthday party, my intention was to surround myself with the people I loved most in the world. One of my friends called it a love fest, which is exactly what I intended. I evaded the demons by using my friends and family as a shield and distracted myself with the planning and the actual festivities. I was able to escape and enjoy the outpouring that came my way. In contrast, this year was marked by deep sadness and sobbing. Deep, soulful tears. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of pain and rejection – from no one in particular. It was the buried wounds that were summoned to the surface and the pain was so real, like I was being cut over and over again. I spent moments holding my head in confusion, wondering where this was all coming from and desperately wanting to explain it to someone who could tell me how to feel better. It felt so ritualistic, in a way, an annual release of all that has tortured me yet formed me. I am a better wife, mother, friend because I know that pain and have an acute awareness of how important it is to not let others suffer the same way.
But, it was certainly not all bad. I got flowers and a card and a lovely gift and my family did everything they could to comfort me and love me and make me feel special. They bought me a new hammock – something I have wanted for years. It wasn’t a huge surprise but I loved it nonetheless. I loved that my kids were in on the planning and that my older son helped to hide the huge box that it came in so I would not see it until they had set it up in the backyard. Of course, I did my part to disrupt things because I woke up especially early this morning and derailed my husband’s plans to set it up before I arose so I would see it when I stepped out the back door to take the kids to camp. But, I loved it when I was escorted out to see it in the afternoon. Later on, we had a fun dinner out at one of our favorite local restaurants. I explained to my kids, as best I could, that my mother didn’t always make me feel good on my birthday and sometimes that makes me feel sad. I told them how I didn’t have such a great mother and my younger son, always knowing the perfect thing to say said, “Well, we got the best one.” I’d call him a manipulative little devil but I know he meant it and I know he intended it to make sure that I knew that he and his brother did not share my experience.
When we got home, we had one final celebration with my favorite birthday treat – ice cream cake. The sole candle on the cake burned low as I thought long and hard about my wishes. What would make the most sense for me this year? Should I wish for success with my growing start-up business? Should I ask for strength in my journey of getting into better shape? Was I wishing for money or health? Ultimately, I settled on the one thing that would bring me total joy. I wished that next year I could be happy on my birthday – for the full 24 hours.