Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more. "Every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things." – Tennyson
Have you ever stopped to consider whether our celebration of birthdays with parties, gifts, cards, “Happy birthday!” wishes, and other forms of attention is really the best way? I have thought about this at least once a year–on my birthday–for the past several years. And now that I’m going to be a parent (the original birthday of my twins is coming in just a few weeks, if not sooner!), I wonder more than ever if there’s a better way we could approach the celebration of birthdays.
By putting so much attention on the individual and setting up high expectations for the special day–starting with the constant refrains of “Happy birthday! Hope it’s a great day for you!”–it seems to me that we are setting up the recipient for disappointment and all the unpleasant feelings that come with focusing on one’s self, such as self-pity and discontentment.
Introverts vs. Extroverts?
Maybe this is only a risk for introverted, introspective temperaments like mine. (Or maybe I’m just a birthday Scrooge.) All I know is that for several years running, from my mid-teens to early twenties, I spent every birthday feeling depressed. Almost every year, at some point during that dreaded day, I found myself crying about something. I don’t mean crying about not getting a present I wanted, like a child might; I mean crying about some issue going on in my life that hadn’t seemed quite as bad until my birthday came around and suddenly everyone kept expecting me to feel happy. Being a compliant person, I would take those expectations to heart and begin to pity myself that I couldn’t feel happy on my birthday because of whatever larger issue/s were troubling me. I’m sure it didn’t help that my birthday is in gray and chilly February, when, most years, I was already facing a bit of seasonal depression anyway. On top of the winter blues, self-focus, and skewed expectations, all the extra social attention added to my distress too, because I’m an extreme introvert and that means that social attention always raises my stress level to some degree.
A close friend of mine who’s also an introvert says she tends to experience the same thing on her birthday (which is in the summer)–feelings of vague discontent, sadness, stress, etc. So that makes me wonder if perhaps it’s not just me, and I theorize that maybe it’s an introvert/extrovert difference: it makes sense to think that extroverts would thrive on birthday attention, while introverts would wilt under it.
Thankfully, in recent years I’ve developed strategies for dealing with my birthday so that I can manage to not only not dread it but even actually enjoy it. One strategy is to make the day more about connecting with the people in my life than about focusing on my personal happiness. For example, instead of just enduring the day passively, dreading any surprises, I proactively plan a little celebration that I know I would enjoy, such as going out to eat with close family members and/or friends. That way, my loved ones feel satisfied that they’re doing the expected thing and celebrating my birthday, while I enjoy the chance to catch up with them and eat at a nice restaurant; also, when people throughout the day wish me happy birthday and ask if I’m doing anything to celebrate, I have an answer that will satisfy them so we can then move on to another topic. I also make a point of enjoying the opportunity to connect with friends and family members I don’t get to see often when they reach out to me with birthday greetings.
Still, I would just find it so much easier if we didn’t have all these cultural expectations surrounding birthdays. But I’m pretty sure the larger culture is not going to change in this area anytime soon.
Creating New Traditions
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t create a new approach to birthdays for my children! I’d like to find ways to help them celebrate their birthdays with less of an “It’s all about me” tone and more of a “Look at all these people who love me!” tone. (Of course, having twins means they’ll have to share birthday attention anyway, but I still think it’s worthwhile to explore the question.)
One idea, which I read about in a magazine, is to enforce a rule of “toy in, toy out”: have kids choose old toys to give away to needy children whenever they themselves receive new toys. The point is to try to foster a link between giving and receiving, being cared about and caring about others. My hunch is that this might be more effective with younger kids than older ones, with whom it might become more burdensome than instructive. (It reminds me a little of Mrs. Pardiggle in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, who would give her children birthday presents of money and then force them to give their money away to charity. Then she would go around bragging about her children’s generosity, while they stood there with resentment oozing from sour little faces. Poor things!)
Another idea would be to limit gifts in number and type and shift the focus of the day to some activity instead. But with all the competitive, materialistic peer pressure kids experience these days, as well as the tendency of grandparents to spoil their grandkids, I don’t know how successful a strict gift-limiting approach would be in the long run in terms of both practicality and cultivating positive attitudes. But it’s something to consider.
One idea I like better would be to adapt my strategy for coping with my own birthdays to make it more concrete for kids: we could make birthday collages (or some other form of art project) with photos and memories of all the people who love them and who helped them celebrate, along with things they are grateful for and happy about on their birthdays.
Another idea, which I think I like best of all (and I could combine it with the previous one too), is to get back to the actual point of birthdays: celebrating the individual’s growth and passing of time. We could take some time as a family on each birthday to chart growth measurements such as height and discuss ways the child has grown up in the past year and how they hope to grow in the coming year. Obviously, this discussion would become more in-depth as the children get older, shifting from a focus on physical growth and developmental milestones to inner, personal growth and achievement goals. My husband and I could also join in the tradition on our own birthdays, modeling these same dynamics of reflection and gratitude for our kids.
Do you have any other ideas or thoughts about this issue of birthdays?