Generally when it comes to internal equilibrium, I’d say I was pretty even-keeled. Aside from the occasional ‘I’ve-got-nothing-to-wear’ freakout, I approach my emotional life with balance. That is except for when it comes to birthdays. Ever since I was a little girl the creep of dread as December 6th approaches is followed by the grip of an existential crisis—or as my family have termed it, ‘Birthday Panic’.
This year was no different. After enjoying a solid night’s sleep I woke on my 33rd birthday with tears pricking in my eyes and a leaden weight in my stomach. I’d booked into a yoga class, pre-empting this wave of melancholy, only to find myself weeping silently through back bends. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to is one thing; this is something quite different.
While some people seem to look forward to their birthdays for weeks, mine looms in the calendar, the bleakest day of the bleak mid-winter. As a young woman I tried to conceal my feelings and go along with the jollity, but as I’ve got older and shared my feelings with friends and family, I’ve found plenty of strength in numbers. Newsflash: most people hate birthdays—so if it’s yours today and you feel heartbroken, know you are not alone.
The psychological explanation of why a day of supposed celebration can feel the exact opposite is rooted in our expectations of both the day itself and *inhale sharply* where we are in our lives RN. I also think it has something to do with historical experiences of your personal anniversary—a kind of birthday PTSD.
The question is: how to cope with the birthday black dog?
Firstly I think it’s really important to let your close friends and family know how you feel. I’ve tried to pretend many times and it always ends in (drunken) disaster. Imagine how you’d feel if you’d saved up, bought your girlfriend/daughters/sister (aka me) the perfect gift and helped her organise a special party only to find her incoherent and hysterical before 8pm. I have been a complete twat on my birthday to the people around me because I haven’t communicated the intense internal turmoil that was going on in my head. This was the story of every birthday of my twenties and it was not a good look.
“I’ve had birthday parties where more people have cancelled on the day than have showed up (cue violins). I wasn’t great at choosing friends as a young woman and like many of us; I let a lot people in who let me down. And there is nothing, repeat nothing worse than being let down on your birthday.”
Parties, in particular, are a no-no for me. I definitely think this is where the birthday PTSD comes in and it’s definitely because they have always felt like a popularity contest that I was losing badly. Not everyone has 57 close friends. In fact I have about 10 and half of them don’t live in the same country. And one is my mum. Of course through my job I know lots and lots of people, but I have a very British feeling that asking for people’s time is presumptuous unless you know them well. Ultimately I feel guilty asking people to my party in case they feel pressurised to come and only end up turning up out of some form of duty. Here I think the psychology would say that it’s a question of self-worth—I don’t feel worthy of their time and somewhere deep inside think they would only come out of social obligation. But it’s also manners.
When people do make it to my party I spend a good portion of time scanning their faces to gauge how much fun they are having…—is it a 3/10 or a 4/10 level smile? Do they actually want to leave? Are they getting on with my other friends? Are they judging the venue, my decorations and food, the crowd? Worse is when people don’t come. I’ve had birthday parties where more people have cancelled on the day than have showed up (cue violins). I wasn’t great at choosing friends as a young woman and like many of us, I let a lot of people in who let me down. And there is nothing, repeat nothing worse than being let down on your birthday.
I had one lovely party in recent years, which was organised as a surprise. I was overwhelmed with the love and thought put into the organisation, but found the attention excruciating with adrenaline pumping through my veins all day long. Soon I started to worry if people had regretted coming and if they were spending too much money. Then I started to feel disgustingly ungrateful. People had put so much effort in for me, why could I not just enjoy it? What was wrong with me? None of the above is fun at all. In fact it’s anti-fun, minus-fun, fun-phobic. It’s a fun-mageddon.
This year I had dinner in my favourite restaurant with my dad and my boyfriend. I didn’t judge their ‘fun faces’ out of 10 and I had a lovely, if definitely not rock ‘n’ roll experience. I will be continuing this tradition going forward. Forget the expectations that you’re meant to be Queen Bee at your own soiree. Just because you don’t have an epic birthday doesn’t mean your friends don’t love you. So release it and instead do something you know you’ll like and is guaranteed to make you feel happy.
Moving on to those even trickier expectations—where are you in your life right now? Milestone birthdays are obviously the worst for this—hitting 30, 35 and 40 are particularly challenging for women who want children, but every year comes with its own box of bad juju. Love, Family, Career, Happiness—whatever the axis values on your personal graph of success, all register an x on your birthday.
“None of the above is fun at all. In fact it’s anti-fun, minus-fun, fun-phobic. It’s a fun-mageddon.”
So what are you going to do? If you hate your job or missed a promotion this year, you wouldn’t be ‘living in truth’ if you pretended all was great. But stop for a minute and look back at your CV. Make a note of the opportunities that you’ve had, the things you’ve learnt and the people you’ve met through your career. If you can’t bear your job, but it afforded you the chance to get on the property ladder, for example, focus on that. When it comes to career, while ambition and aspirations are amazing, it’s so easy to lose sight of how far you’ve come when you’re so focused on the next rung up. Yep, you’ve got it: basically, turn that frown upside down and congratulate yourself for the wins instead of harping on about the losses.
There’s no doubt about it, birthdays are a tough time to be single. My ex-husband left me a fortnight before my 30th birthday and I literally sobbed in the restaurant bathroom as my family sat watching my food go cold. While I was pretty sad about the incoming divorce, I was also crushed to be without the cocoon of security that having a partner can offer on your birthday. If it’s not that infamous, wild shindig you envisage for your birthday, it’s a romantic meal a deux complete with special gifts and meaningful messages written in carefully selected cards. But here’s the thing: that only works if it’s the right person. It also only works if that right person is good at demonstrable romance. Basically these expectations are incredibly fragile and can be shattered by break ups, boyfriends that aren’t good with romance, being with the wrong person, going through rough patches or dating deserts—pretty much 95% of all probable relationship situations. We can only control how we feel about ourselves and not how a partner will make us feel, yada yada. But it is actually true, meaning this one should be binned from the expectations list, moving on.
The family expectation is biting me hard at the moment. I thought I’d be a mum by 33, I’d actually really like to be pregnant. Because I was married seven years ago, I’d planned to have ‘completed’ my family of two kids by now. But guess what? It hasn’t worked out that way. When you’re being battered by impending cries of ‘geriatric motherhood’—two years away, people! —on one side and your friends with their perfect bundles of joy on Instagram on the other, birthdays can feel like a countdown (or more accurately, count up) to a lifelong empty nest.
The thing to note here is that we have options. Options our mothers and their mothers never had. In 2015, 21% of ALL births were to women over the age of 35. That’s more than one fifth of all babies. While I don’t want to demean the struggles and fertility journeys that many couples encounter, the spiralling fear of never having a family felt by women of my age and younger isn’t rooted in probability or opportunity. Even after the age of 40 or—gasp—50, the road is not necessarily irrevocably blocked and there are practical measures you can take—including freezing your eggs to broaden your options for the future. You may have to accept that your route to motherhood will be more circuitous than three trimesters, but IVF, surrogacy and adoption—while time consuming and expensive—mean that this anxiety shouldn’t ruin your birthday. Sure, sign up to a dating site. But you can’t magic a partner or a baby; you can only do your best to be ready for them when and if they arrive. And if they don’t find you on time, make another plan (admittedly, something best thrashed out on another day).
Finally happiness. Jeez, it’s a thorny one isn’t it? About eight years ago I was deeply miserable with my job, but on occasion fabulous things would happen and I would suddenly forget the misery and decide things were actually rosy. I would say my relationship during that time could be similarly classified as miserable with rosy patches. I’ve always struggled with how to work out if you are actually happy. What is the percentage of time you have to be happy to ‘be happy’? And do you have to be 10/10 happy, or is like, 6/10 happy all we can really expect? Staring into the abyss of fast-advancing death (hiya, existential crisis) on your birthday may make you feel low, but are you actually often full of lols?
That word expectation is key again and I reckon I’m slowly getting more of a hang of what is and isn’t happy. If you moderate your extreme down moments with the extreme high moments and plot the mid-point, you’re probably hitting happiness. If most of the time you find yourself in the mid-zone, you’re pretty happy. If most of the time is spend sub-mid, things could improve. Prioritise doing things you love (if you’re like me, that doesn’t include a birthday party), plan a day of yoga, galleries, acupuncture, climbing walls, wine tasting—whatever floats your boat. Make your day fabulous and all about you. So even if you are a bit mis overall, you can be sure your birthday will be a patch of rosy.
So the message is: park your worries, ditch the parties and plan a lovely day doing what you really want with your time. If friends want to be a part of it, ask them along to join your activities, but don’t base your enjoyment on of the day on anyone else but yourself. Also: handbags are great for self-gifting, just sayin’.