Earlier this month, I turned 42 to very little fanfare. In the age of COVID, it’s easy for people like me, who still wear masks and gloves in the grocery store, to blame our ambivalence around birthdays on public health concerns. I wouldn’t throw a big birthday party right now, but would I even if COVID didn’t exist? Probably not. The truth is, I haven’t treated my birthday very well over the past 10 years because I haven’t stopped to think about what a fulfilling birthday celebration for me would actually look like.
Some people believe in big birthdays. They set the expectation early on that there should be a party, cake and presents. There should be balloons, music and food. People should travel far and wide to celebrate with them. They might even turn their birthday into a birth week, birth month or birth season. I believe there are lessons to be learned from this outlook, namely that we don’t have to wait to achieve something to celebrate. Birthdays allow us to celebrate just because. We all need to feel like we matter. For those of us who aren’t married and don’t have children, we don’t get the benefit of wedding anniversaries or parent’s days. Thus, birthdays become one of the few moments where the fact that we’re alive can be uplifted and honored, preferably with cake and presents.
My last “big” birthday was at 30. I invited my best friends to celebrate with me in Washington, D.C. We went to an outdoor concert and had a spa day and rooftop cocktails at one of the trendy hotels in the city. Turning 30 was a milestone, and I didn’t want to let it just roll by. I needed to acknowledge it, and because it was a milestone, I felt justified in asking my friends to fly or drive in for the occasion. During another year, I invited a few people to my tiny apartment for a dinner party. About the fanciest thing I knew how to cook was blackened tuna steaks, so I asked six people into a smoke-filled 600-square-foot apartment that didn’t have a formal dining room. We ate around my coffee table. At the time, I was trying to establish friendships and a community living in D.C., and I mustered up the courage to acknowledge that I needed people around me.
Admitting my needs, however, isn’t something that comes easily. With only a few exceptions over the past decade, I’ve treated my birthday less like something to celebrate and more like something to survive. The day brings up insecurities about family and friend relationships, finances, and love – all the things I sometimes think I should have a better handle on by now. What I could stand to learn from the big birthday people is that our birthdays are like a free space on bingo. We don’t have to do anything to earn them; we just get them. If there’s one day we should fully take advantage of to celebrate who we are without self-inflicted judgment, that’s the day.
Ironically, birthday fanfare wasn’t always a thing. In an article for The Atlantic last year, writer Joe Pinsker pointed out that attention to birthdays became ubiquitous in the United States with industrialization. Before then, birthdays of the very elite class were acknowledged, but run-of-the-mill everyday people didn’t think much of them. They may not have even known when their birthday was. Industrialization ushered in the practice of keeping track of time – all those train schedules and whatnot. Tracking time during the day spilled over into tracking time in life. Add in greeting cards and consumerism, and the modern birthday was born. But even back then, birthdays induced anxiety for some, like a 46-year-old woman quoted from the book How Old Are You?: Age Consciousness in American Culture by Howard P. Chudacoff. In 1921, the woman wrote: “I lay in bed this morning thinking, ‘forty-six years old and nowhere yet.'”
Courtney – is that you?
As I mentioned earlier, my 42nd birthday wasn’t extraordinary, but I must say it felt pleasant. I took my niece to our local history museum, hoping to show her some of the murals saved from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. She became much more enamored with a display case that showcased tiny furniture. When we came home from the museum, we made a delicious gluten-free brownie cake I ate for seven days straight. It wasn’t a day filled with lots of bells and whistles, but it was filled with true emotional ease.
As I sit and think intentionally about what birthdays mean, I’m trying to untether myself from the belief that I should be “somewhere” each time my birthday rolls around. If tracking our trajectory based on age is only a 100-year-old concept, could we figure out a way to dial back the pressure cooker a bit? It might be hard to put the genie entirely back in the bottle. Still, a revolutionary approach might be to see birthdays not as an obligation to “do” something, but as a free space to take a break from overthinking, comparing and fact-checking our life’s progress. This seems like the perfect way to celebrate – unencumbered by the worries of where we think we should be or where we strive to go next.