Birthday Blues Bulletin Board: Advice + Open Thread

I’m accumulating questions from people about birthday stuff, and Mr. Awkward just had a birthday (jaunty photo at link) so we’re gonna talk about birthday stuff.

The questions are along the lines of:

  • “I make a big deal out of my spouse’s birthday, they treat mine like an afterthought (if they remember at all).”
  • “I’ve got a big milestone birthday coming up and I wish my spouse & close people would throw a party or otherwise make a big deal for me, but I don’t want to have to ask them to do that, it kind of defeats the purpose if I have to ask for and plan my own party.”
  • “My birthday is right around Christmas so everyone forgets, how do I get my friends to come out to (or better yet arrange) a birthday celebration?” (During the school years this was also the lament of the summer-born, was it not? Perhaps you can team up with a Never-Got-Birthday-Cupcakes-In-July for a Birthday, Observed celebration at a time of year of your choosing?).
  • “My friends forgot my birthday this year and I’m bummed out about that, how do I remind them in the future without looking like I’m being too sensitive even though I’m feeling kind of sensitive?”
  • “My friend has a Birthday Week or Birthday Month of celebrations every year – a party, brunch, dinner out, karaoke night – and it’s all way too much, not to mention way too expensive, how do I opt out of some of this while still being there for my friend?”
  • “I said ‘no gifts’ but people brought gifts.”
  • “I give people birthday gifts but they never give me any and I feel unappreciated.”

The questions are long and full of feelings – very relatable, primal, understandable feelings about being seen and understood and valued – but they all come to roughly the same places in the end:

  • “I want something done a certain way and I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask for it.”
  • “I want something done a certain way but I prefer not to have to ask for it.”
  • “Oh god, please let the whole thing pass me by without comment or forced office cheer and bad cake.”
  • “I’m worried I’m being Too High Maintenance (but I still wish to be Maintained).”
  • “I feel like this person is being Too High Maintenance (but I still wish to do Some Maintenance).”
  • “I don’t know what the right amount of Caring about this is, what’s the standard for Caring Too Much vs. Not Caring Enough? Right now I feel like I Care Too Much but everybody else Doesn’t Care Enough and it’s the worst.”
  • “The ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated’ principle I try to live by is clearly breaking down here.”

My general advice is:

  • If you are over the age of 21 and/or otherwise out of your parents’ care, if you want a Big Deal made about your birthday, it’s almost certainly up to you to make it (or explicitly tell people close to you what a Big Deal looks like to you and that you’d specifically like one) so that they know what to do. Don’t assume people will intuit what you want. They won’t.
  • You can get old and die waiting for other people to figure out what you want by osmosis. If they’re not getting hints, gentle reminders, or taking the way you celebrate their birthday as a template for what you would like, you have to talk about it. “But I shouldn’t have to _____.” Okay, but clearly you might have to ______, so, is it worth it to you to try to get what you want or a sign that this friendship or partnership isn’t feeding you in other ways?
  • It’s okay to want things and to have preferences for how to be celebrated and cherished by the people in your life, it doesn’t make you automatically needy or greedy or selfish.
  • It’s okay to be upset if someone like a spouse forgets or half-asses your birthday all the time, you don’t have to treat it like a joke or charming quirk. My vote is almost always going to be try reminding + spelling out what you would like first, but if you’re doing that and it’s still half-assed? It’s your non-party and you can cry if you want to.
  • It’s okay to have different preferences than other people in your life. If you don’t like making a big deal out of birthdays and think they’re a waste of time, that doesn’t automatically apply to everyone you know. You get to Not Celebrate Your Birthday in the low-key way you like, but if you know that your spouse likes fanfare, FUCKING FAN SOME FARE ALREADY, you probably won’t die of making one fancier-than-usual dinner reservation and texting the person’s 3 closest friends to see if they have ideas for what to do or what a nice gift would be. (The reverse is also true, don’t Zou-Bisou-Bisou your friendly neighborhood introvert or person who doesn’t celebrate holidays for religious reasons because you wish someone would Zou-Bisou-Bisou you!).

Two Case Studies: 

A friend recently turned 40, she emailed her spouse a few months in advance with suggestions for some things she’d like to do, who she wanted to celebrate with, and a few links to nice things she had her eye on if he was thinking about what would make a good gift, along with explicit instructions: “I’ll try to keep myself unscheduled all that weekend and week, I don’t want to have to plan anything (beyond what she spelled out), thanks!” He picked some stuff of her list and made it happen, she was happy because she got to see people and do things she liked, he was happy because he had directions for what would make her happy, they’re both busy parents with full-time jobs who are way too busy to play guessing-games, A+ work all around.

My birthday happens in the worst dead of Chicago winter, and one of my closest friends who otherwise would be all aboard the birthday train is also usually at her lowest point of seasonal depression and will not be coaxed out of the house during Polar Vortex. Dear friend has a summer birthday and likes a bit of fanfare, so over the years we’ve worked out a Birthday, Observed kind of thing. It’s a moveable feast, where, “Yay, I Have Your Birthday Present, Can Today Be Your Birthday?” can happen months off-schedule when the weather clears. We both know a birthday present is coming, we both know we’ll take the other person to brunch and a movie and generally hang out, we both know we love each other and are True Friends, but it doesn’t have to happen on The Day in order to “count.” I forget the actual day of Commander Logic’s birthday pretty much every year and she is not on the Facebook so there’s no public reminder but I know generally when it is and can text her spouse to confirm or just ask her to remind me, also, see above, even though she is not the person in this example. (Yes, I could buy a paper calendar and write all the birthdays in it as in times of old, I could download an app and fill it in, I’m going to intend to but probably not ever actually do these things, we will work it out and survive somehow.)

If I may offer more scripts & advice:

  • “How did you grow up celebrating birthdays?” and “If you could celebrate any way you want, what would you most like to do?” are two questions that can get a discussion rolling.
  • “Birthdays are a big deal for me, it means a lot when my partner plans something and pampers me a little bit, can I give you some ideas?” 
  • “Hey, do you still want to do gifts for birthdays this year?” [If yes] Will you let me know if you’ve got your eye on anything? I myself could use a new [fancy notebook][trip to the cinema][gift card to favorite place] if you’re ever at a loss!”
  • “Can we change up the whole birthday thing this year?” 
  • “Would you like me to plan something for your birthday or would you like to plan it and I’ll assist?
  • “I can’t make it to all of that, but I’ll see you at [singular event].” You don’t have to go to a weeklong birthday celebration, your friend is not The Emperor and it is not mandatory. Pick one thing you enthusiastically want to go to and do that.
  • There are two kinds of people where surprise parties are concerned: People who love them and people who hate them. Know which one you are. Know which one your friends & closest people are. Do not break into people’s houses and give them anxiety attacks because you like surprises, I beg you.*
  • Specifically money-related: 
    • If you are paying for the celebration, make that very clear: “It’s my treat!” 
    • If you are expecting people to chip in for whatever, make THAT very clear. A friend’s annual birthday dinner where a restaurant roasts a whole pig has a “It’s usually about $35/person for food + whatever you drink” guideline. That is good information (and a steal for the feast on offer). “There is a prix fixe menu which runs about $_____/guest.” JUST TELL PEOPLE IF THEY HAVE TO PAY AND HOW MUCH. Don’t make this a surprise, it’s so fucking stressful.
    • It’s okay to say “I’d love to but I can’t afford ____ right now. Can we do something  more like [alternate cheap-free suggestion]?” Don’t shame your friends about money stuff and they will be honest when they can’t ’cause of money stuff.
  • There are no rules, there is only what you want. Culture, family, tradition, personal history, preferences all collide and there is no one right way to feel or be or celebrate. As soon as you decide “everyone should have this kind of celebration” you’ll run into an exception or doom yourself to disappointment.

*Additional Surprise! Case Study: My brother and sister-in-law planned a 50th wedding anniversary party for my parents and I flew to Massachusetts to go to it. SIL was VERY into the idea of it being a SURPRISE! and kept swearing me to Utmost Secrecy, and she and my brother were doing such a nice thing that I humored them. But I know my mom does not like surprises, at all, she definitely wants to know what to wear and who will be there and what there will be to eat and where she will sit well in advance, and the whole surprise element makes a fun thing into an anxiety-ridden thing. Knowing this, did I 100% call my mom and tell her “There is a surprise thing for you on this day at this place with these details but it’s a surprise, ok?” Yes, I did. Did my mom say “THANK YOU” and then enjoy being appropriately dressed and adequately surprised? Yes, she did. In most cases, giving a person the celebration they would want > Giving them the celebration you would want.

If you’re feeling unnoticed or unappreciated in general around your birthday, that is SO REAL, and birthdays bring it out in the worst way sometimes because you are being Forced To Reckon With The Passing of Time and What Are Relationships, Even? I just…I feel really strongly about this…if you are an adult and your birthday often does not go the way you want it to, you’re probably going to have to remind the people in your life when it is and be explicit about how you want to spend it. If you were raised with rules and expectations that We Don’t Ask For Things Like This, It’s Tacky, may I be the first to wish you a very happy birthday for however old you are turning this year and welcome you to Team Tacky. I promise you, it takes a little getting used to but it’s better than Team Everyone Forgot Me, Again, And Why Can No-one Ever Remember That I Vaguely Fear Balloons. Plus, we have tiaras?

Consider this an open thread of birthday thoughts, wishes, feelings, grievances. In a perfect world, how would like to you celebrate your birthday? What do you wish people in your life knew about you and your birthday?

352 thoughts on “Birthday Blues Bulletin Board: Advice + Open Thread

  1. So birthday was kind of a weird thing this year where I didn’t really notice the date creeping closer. Grief does this weird compression thing where things that are far away and not too personal are relatively easy to plan for, but things that are going to happen shortly and are wrapped up in family and emotion are impossible to plan. But a friend asked me if I wanted to do something to celebrate and after a little bit of thinking I realized that I really did want to do something. So he planned a nice night that took my tastes and preferences into account (there were a few questions back and forth about that and pointing him in the direction of general groups of activities I find pleasant) and we had an absolutely wonderful evening out and a mutual friend took care of babysitting my kids as a gift to me so I wouldn’t have to worry about paying someone.

    But the point is exactly what’s in the first case study: Providing enough information that someone else can plan a celebration of the sort you want, without you having to do the planning. And having willing friends or partners who are willing to follow that information and do the legwork. I can easily see the first case study going badly wrong if the person given the information lacks care or attention to follow through.

  2. This is perfect; thank you for the nice summary of the issues and straightforward recommendations

  3. I have been quite lucky, birthday-wise.

    –My husband’s and my long-awaited trip to Ireland last year coincided with my 40th birthday. This let me spend my birthday with my favorite person (and with large amounts of beer and pastry), and kept me an entire ocean away from the people that, while they love me, would have sent me black balloons and ‘beginning of the end’ birthday cards because that’s what *they* did for their 40th birthdays.

    –My husband said he wanted a Hobbit party for his 40th birthday. We made a lot of food (he likes to cook, and I like to bake), people came over bringing more food and lots of drinks, there was eating and drinking, there was a firepit out back, there were toasts. Nothing fancy, no gifts, just us in our house with our friends.

    –My BFF and I live hundreds of miles apart, and we both hate going to the post office and mailing packages, so we just accrue large amounts of stuff for each other, and whenever we do get to see each other, we shower each other with stuff while exclaiming “Happy birthday merry Christmas happy New Year joyous Arbor Day tip-top Tet–” and every other holiday/notable occasion that has passed since last we were together.

    I think the common thread here is that all these celebrations (or lack thereof) were 100% what we want(ed) and what works for us. I would never throw my BFF with social anxiety a giant surprise party with a brass band, my husband would not send a singing telegram to my place of work, You should get what you want for your birthday. Be vocal about what you want.

    1. A hobbit party…welp, I know what I’m doing for my birthday this year.

      Did he get a chance to obscurely insult everyone? Or just lots of food and drink?

    2. Ooooh, I love this! My BFF and I live super far apart and while we usually mail gifts, they are never on time and are usually a mishmash of the holidays/birthdays we’ve missed – which generally results in a pretty nice haul. I love the idea of saving them up and then exchanging them in person (plus also snacks!) I’m going to suggest this.

  4. I don’t know if this will help the folks with near-Christmas birthdays, but in college when I roomed with an RA and we arranged birthday celebrations for the first-years on our hall, we could celebrate on the 6th month opposite date for folks who had summer birthday. It was fun! So maybe if you’re organizing a party and would enjoy a summer one, you could try that one year?

    I am SO with the Captain on being clear on expectations for birthdays! I used to exchange gifts with lots of friends and over the years I’ve wanted less stuff to accumulate/fewer packages to send so I’ll get in touch with each friend a few months after my birthday (but far away from their birthday) and say, “I’d love to switch from doing gifts to doing cards instead for our birthdays, or planning a phone date, what would you like to do?” and that works well! It’s really more about what I feel I need to do for them after that point, because I’m generally a reliable birthday rememberer (aka I set calendar reminders to mail a card a few days out and to text the day of) but try not to have the super high expectations of others.

    I’m a single woman, no siblings with divorced parents who are remarried and all get along well and live in the same area, so for my birthday every year the five of us have dinner together at one of their houses. I always ask for the same (relatively easy) meal and I like having us all together and getting to visit the cats of the home and it is much easier for me that we have a tradition that’s similar every year. I sometimes miss having birthday plans with friends but over the years as my friends have almost all married and now have young kids it would be a big ask and I’d rather see them one on one when it won’t be stressful for them anyway.

    I am wishing all of you the happiest birthday in the way you would most like to be celebrated, with your favorite foods to enjoy! (My birthday meal, in case you were wondering, is spaghetti with walnut sauce, a salad, and my dad’s apple pie.)

    1. My birthday is August 30th. This gave me the double-whammy of no birthday during the school year AND a nonexistent six-months-opposite, which was a Big Deal as a kid. Nowadays I don’t care. I’m past all the “milestone” years (16, 18, 21, 30) until (if) I hit 40, and while in previous years I would organize a gathering and activity for myself and my guests (game thing + dinner usually), I’m actually feeling pretty indifferent this year. The good news is that my friend circle has basically zero Birthday Drama I’m aware of, so I assume everyone will just take it in stride.

      1. Heyo! August 28th birthday here, and where I grew up, that didn’t mean summer birthday –it meant birthday on the first day/week of school, when everyone’s too busy to do anything about it or pay attention. Definite solidarity-fistbumps here.

        1. I have this problem too Sorcyress and Jenesis – I’m August 29th and now my poor kid’s birthday is also in late August and EVERY YEAR it’s the back-to-school night at their school. A few weeks ago, she plaintively said, “could I maybe have at least my cousins over the weekend before?” I felt like the WORST mom . . .

        2. August 25th checking in! First day of 4th grade, first day of 6th grade, first day of college. welp.

        3. August 27th! And as a kid I actually liked that my birthday was right at the beginning of the school year because it was usually forgotten in the shuffle and so no one made a big deal or drew attention to me at school (such a relief for child-me!).

      2. I have an early June birthday. The school districts I grew up in got out of school sometime in May, so by the time my actual birthday happened, everyone was on vacation or at camp or whatever they were doing for summer. No half-birthday celebration, either – that usually fell during winter break. Exactly once, in second grade, the school year was shifted forward two weeks due to construction, and I got to have my birthday at school. I brought these adorable and delicious ladybug cookies that probably came from Martha Stewart because my grandma was obsessed with her at the time.

    2. My aunt is a Christmas Eve baby and she’s been doing the summer celebration for decades now. I always make a point to send her a birthday card (separate from her Christmas card, different envelope and its own stamp) on her actual birthday too.

      1. I have a parent who’s a Christmas Eve baby, and we actually still do the bday thing on Christmas Eve–since we’re all in town anyway (which also means that we have cake for breakfast on Christmas, yum). Oh, and we never do joint bday/Christmas gifts. If something is so big that it needs to “count” for two gifts, then me and siblings go in together to make it an all-bday or all-Christmas gift, because the one thing our parent HATED growing up was that they’d always get just one gift for Christmas and bday from most people.

        1. My nibling has a midwinter birthday, and we have arranged with the parents that instead of doing double gifts at the end of December, we will do a Christmas gift and a half-birthday gift. The first celebrated half-birthday (at 18 months) worked really well because we were able to give a set of gifts for playing in the garden – which you absolutely don’t get for a midwinter birthday!

          I recognise that this may change as nibling gets older, but for now it’s working well.

  5. I am someone who takes birthdays, both my own and other people’s, very seriously. I think it comes from being around a lot of people in my teens and twenties for whom their continued annual celebrations were not guaranteed. You made it another year! I made it another year! Fuck yeah, let’s celebrate!

    (Relatedly, I am a bit of an evangelist when it comes to financial planning and having your What Comes After shit together because probate court will gleefully fuck you and your loved ones up for YEARS, but I digress.)

    I used to have these two best friends, and for various reasons that I accepted and was careful of, they were both people who also desired to be made much of on their birthdays. So I would throw elaborate theme parties or outings or events to their specifications when they wanted them, or do lower-key but still meaningful stuff when they weren’t in a big party place.

    Two defining hallmarks of our friendships were that a) they would routinely mock and complain about anything I did for them, even when it was exactly what they said they wanted and b) they hated to reciprocate for my birthday. I’ve been stood up on my own birthday, lectured about how I and my birthday are an “inconvenience”, and screamed at, gaslighted, and guilted when I Used My Words more times than I can count. And the mocking and complaining… Well. That was just for my own good. To help me be my best self and do better in the future.

    It wasn’t the birthday stuff that ultimately ended our relationships, but the birthday stuff was a handy microcosm of just how fucked up our relationship dynamics were. And I’m still, according to them, a heartless and evil bitch for daring to have boundaries and self-respect but I have made my peace with that. Bitches get stuff done!

    And super indulgent solo birthdays where you do everything you want when you want it? Are AMAZING.

    1. planning What Comes After sounds like a very interesting topic: how to prepare, how to discuss such preparations, which discussions are easily overlooked but still essential (my mom keeps repeating to me she’d prefer euthanasia, but I suspect her primary health care professional isn’t down for that… how could she have that discussion).

      Off to the search engine for the Captain’s archives! End derail 😉

      1. You may want to search for Death Cafe, as well. I’ve been to one – there were tea and snacks, and a pack of life decision cards/prompts. Small groups took turns where one person displayed a card (i.e. if you were in pain, would you rather have less pain at the expense of some lucidity?) and talked about their answer. No paperwork or spreadsheets, just a bunch of strangers really taking about things that usually Are Not Spoken Of.

      2. My parents live in an old person community and we found this fantastic book – I’m Dead, Now What? Important Information about My Belongings, Business Affairs, and Wishes – Who knew how important it was to have doctor’s names and contact information? My aunt had to go round and round to get a death certificate when her husband died.

    2. Good on you for having boundaries and self-respect! This is not an easy thing to do, especially when gaslighting is going on.

      I can attest to super indulgent solo birthdays (I know not everyone has the budget for a day at the spa, but it’s my favourite thing to do for my birthday -completely alone).

    3. Well, my 60th was pretty much a disaster due to a) it being at the beginning of the week; b) neither long distance partner carving space to see me on the day and c) not too much interest from my circle of local acquaintances who all thought the long distance partners would have Sorted Something Out. Of course, I hadn’t really used my words to partners to say hey, we had such a good time last year, how about more of the same?

      So, when it came to the last couple of birthdays, I just got on with planning what I wanted.

  6. How do you get yourself our of the rut of “the last time(s) I threw a party, no one came [so why bother bc it’ll Just Keep Happening”? Bc it FEELS like I’m on Team Everyone Forgot Me Again–except I was totally Team Tacky and invited people. And geeze I sound like such a sad sack. And yes, most people had legit reasons they couldn’t come it was just like the universe conspired to have really poor timing for all my invitees. So I’m less Team Everyone Forgot Me Again and more Team The Universe Is Totally Sentient And Hates Me.

    1. Hi Furious_r0se,

      I totally understand where you are coming from. The whole “no one will come to my birthday celebration” worry is real. A few ideas, some of which I’ve used pretty successfully for birthday plans-
      • Identify one person who you’d really like to hang out with on your birthday and figure out when to do the party based off of their availability. Look at you, you already have one person coming to your special celebration! Then, extend the invitation to more people. Alternatively, you can just start with a group text asking people which day that week would be best to celebrate and plan your celebration on the day that works for most people.
      • It was really important for me to be around at least one of my close friends for my 30th birthday, so I asked ahead of time and planned my special day AT HER HOUSE. It literally could not have been more convenient for her to attend (and no, she isn’t the type to get all fussy about cleaning for guests). I got really clear with myself that my biggest priority for that day was the people who were there, and anything that could make the event more convenient for them I was willing to do. I also have a friend who planned her 30th birthday on an island in another country… I did make it, but I just as easily could not have because she was clearly more interested in being on the island than making it easy for her friends to be there (which is entirely her choice and I don’t fault her for knowing what she wants at all). How else could you make a get together convenient for people? If a few people are parents, could you let them know that their kids are invited or even work with them on having a nanny available at the party? You certainly don’t have to do this and it is lovely when people go out of their way to make it to your birthday even when it’s not 100% convenient for them, but at least to me it sometimes it boils down to “do you want people there or do you not want people there?”
      • Have a backup plan for spending your birthday alone. To me, one of the best things you could do is celebrate your independence with a solo trip out of town. I would bet that most people, if we are talking about a total of about 90 birthdays for the average human, will spend at least one birthday alone, or even some birthdays alone consecutively. If it happens to you, it’s ok, it happens, in some ways I think it could just be part of growing older, and practicing being enough company for ourselves can be an awesome growing point. It can also suck, and I respect those feelings, too!

      1. I also have major anxiety from people not showing up to my stuff, and the first two are stellar ideas. My current apartment holds three people, max, so I borrowed a friend’s house for my party this year. It meant we had to set a date in advance (and I couldn’t just anxiously procrastinate and spring it on everyone a few days before), and then I was guaranteed to have someone there. Win-win, it was a super fun party!

    2. Have you organized any social events since? It might help you to throw a gathering not around your birthday to ease back in, that way you won’t have Birthday Expectations.

    3. I’ve never planned a friend-party as an adult (though I can remember similar occurrences as a kid, and I can’t imagine the sting gets any less), but possibly-relevant strategy: when I’m planning a first date or something else I could easily get stood up for, I try to make it around a thing I would happily do alone anyway.

      So perhaps this year, instead of A Party where it feels sucky if nobody comes (or, sometimes worse, only one person comes and then it’s just you and a mountain of food and them and feeling like they’re silently judging you), maybe propose a movie-watching outing or axe-throwing session or whatnot? Not saying you can never have A Party again, but it might help you shake off the superstition if you know you’ll have fun solo just in case the gods of bad timing strike again.

    4. I had that happen once and it’s awful! I feel you. It really was nobody’s fault, just bad timing and illnesses, but still feels terrible.

      I don’t have any advice, just solidarity. I thought about trying to throw a do-over party but felt too embarrassed, so I can’t actually say if that would go well. I think I eventually got over it with time, and by hanging out with my friends one-on-one a lot over the rest of the year, although it’s not like I tried to throw a party the following year.

      Actually, now that I think about it, since that year all of my birthdays centered around an event with one or two close friends. So… maybe I actually never got over the fear that it would happen again?

      Ah, sorry, I guess that doesn’t actually bode well!

    5. YES this is real and awful! I always make sure I have at least one Definite To Be Relied On Friend coming, plus my partner—the “if absolutely nobody else turns up, I’ll have fun with you two/three!”

      I’ve had a birthday where I said 7:30, five people were coming, and I got text after text saying, “sorry, bit delayed!” I sat by myself for over an hour and had just got up to go at 8:45 when one of my friends finally dashed in. Everyone was finally there by quarter past nine, horribly apologetic, and we had a nice evening—but fifteen years later I still remember how awful it felt. You are definitely not alone, and I think most people have had something similar. It does not make you a unique social failure or Norman No-Mates! It’s just a really crappy thing that happened. If you organise something again, it’s ok to say to a couple of people, “hey, so this shitty thing happened last time, and I am really anxious about it, so you are *definitely* going to make it, right?” Like Captain says, it’s ok to ask for what you need and to admit vulnerability to your friends—and if they don’t respond in a way that shows they love you, you deserve better friends!

    6. I’ve had it happen twice–the first time, it was mostly out of people’s control (out of town best friend’s spouse came down with appendicitis and was literally having said appendix removed at the time the party started, and they were the ride for two other friends). The second time, it just didn’t come together even though I planned early–the weekend coincided with a bunch of other events so I worried it would become a very Unmerry Birthday, so I went ahead and did the party outing I’d planned, just me and spouse. So I totally feel you on the “The Universe is Against Me” thing.

      Mostly, I just accept that a party for my bday isn’t a priority for anyone but me (and my spouse), and plan fun stuff I want to do without worrying about other people. I always take the day off from work and treat myself to a movie or spa thing I normally wouldn’t have time for. My 2 best friends have birthdays in the month before and the month after me, so we generally try to get together for a joint bday lunch/hang out sometime between all our bdays. Sometimes it coincides with my bday plans, sometimes it doesn’t. And I try to do non-birthday bigger group get togethers by consensus (hey, we all want to go to the RenFest this year, is this weekend or that weekend better for most people?). Now that a lot of my friends have spouses and small kids,and we’re not all in the same cities (but are near enough to do day trips) and have work schedules of varying rigidity, we don’t always get everyone together every time, but smaller parties (like, two friends instead of five) are easier to make happen, and if you don’t center them around your birthday, it’s a lot less disappointing if it doesn’t work out.

      It kind of sucks that it’s basically impossible to plan a bday celebration most people can come to, but I try to manage my expectations and that helps.

    7. I had that happen one year and it’s a total bummer! What I’ve started doing is sending a group email (post/whatever) about a month in advance that tells people a) it’s my birthday on x date! 2) I want to have a party where we do such and such or visit wherever! 3) whenabouts is good for y’all, I am thinking approx this date or this date but plz let me know

      sometimes it turns out I don’t have my birthday until a month after the actual date, sometimes it happens only half the people can make it regardless of how early I plan, but it’s generally been pretty successful! I think it also helps (for me too, in situations where friends have done the same) to have it be a group-planning, reply-all scenario. I’ll be like wwwwwellll I HAD plans for that saturday but I see that’s really the day most people can attend, and my plans can be moved easily enough so sure, I’m available saturday. Whereas if asked individually I might be more likely to feel that my plans cannot be moved. Like… benign peer pressure?

    8. Apologies if this is helpy but if this is a pattern you’ve noticed, on the same line as talking to your one favorite person to make sure they’ll be there, it can also help to invite your favorite folks 1:1 and to follow up with them a couple days before the event to make sure it’s fresh in their minds. I’ve noticed two things:

      First, a lot of people end up making their decisions to attend or not within the few days leading up to the event (or even on the day of, when it pops up on the calendar and surprises them).

      Second, people are more likely to decline or skip an event if they feel like they won’t be missed (FB BBQ with 50 names on the list vs. personal invitation to lunch).

      One of our friends was taking it really hard that very few of our mutual friends were RSVPing and going to his events, and it turned out that all he really had to do was follow up with them a few days before the event. Asking, “You going to laser tag?” Or “Hey, just wanted to confirm you’re still in for laser tag?” pretty much solved the problem.

  7. I was sort of hoping this would be a thread of advice to deal with the whole “I’m not afraid of death but my birthday still makes me feel terrible and I don’t know why” thing I deal with, but an article about etiquette is good too. 🙂 I’ll be 32 at the end of the month, life is fleeting and I regret everything, wooo…. I’m tempted to buy a Switch but one of the part time jobs I do might be going away along with the protections for people with pre-existing conditions which means I’ll be back back to paying for my insurance from my savings so probably I should just send myself positive birthday wishes instead. Life sure is grand isn’t it.

    1. Jedi hugs if you want them.

      I can think of a few reasons birthdays might feel awful. Maybe you have some bad birthday memories– something traumatic, or even just something kinda crappy, like being made fun of for having an uncool birthday party as a kid. Maybe birthdays highlight a disparity of emotional labor in your relationships and you’re not sure how to deal with that. Maybe you have a phobia of something birthday-specific, like a dessert that had tiny fires on top!

      (I have no idea why birthday candles on cake is a thing but it’s a weirdly stressful tradition for me? And I never want to say, “I am slightly afraid of tiny open flames on my food, and now everyone is watching as the fire cake is carried closer and closer to me. Yay.”)

      But regardless, it’s totally okay if birthdays make you feel bad, even if it’s not about feeling mortal. Honestly, if you want your birthday to be dedicated to processing your regrets and taking care of yourself, that’s just as valid as a day of being celebrated by others 💜 You do you.

      1. “Maybe birthdays highlight a disparity of emotional labor in your relationships and you’re not sure how to deal with that.”

        Oh, this is it for me! I’m the social planner of my circles, which is absolutely fine most of the time, but I’m also the busiest. (Not to mention, the social circle has shrunk some, and we’re in our mid twenties trying to keep a social life while getting increasingly demanding jobs, big life changes, etc…) The past few years have been disappointing as someone who loves big parties and to be celebrated as BIRTHDAY MONARCH but hasn’t had the time or energy to make it happen.

        We have some smaller observances/friend dinners where possible, but it’s not really what I want, so I am a bit sad about it.

    2. Man, I feel you there. My 30th birthday felt similar–I was looking at my career and going “Man, I really thought I”d be in a different place by now”, broken up with my SO, etc.

      I live close to my family and we pretty much always celebrate birthdays, but that year, I asked them to skip it–no cake, no dinner, no presents. I was okay with doing a family dinner with the meal of my choice, but only if it wasn’t on the day itself.

      The other thing that was helpful for me was to take some time around my birthday really focus in on what part of my life I was most unhappy about, and what I could do to change that in the coming year, even if it didn’t get me to the magical ‘place I imagined I would be at this age’.

      I don’t know if any of that would be helpful, but for me the combination of not celebrating and taking time to figure out what things were in my control and COULD be improved helped me get through the crappy “Ugh another year older and I’m still stuck” feeling.

    3. Well, this isn’t gonna help right away, but thirty was like that for me too — and now I’m about to turn 50. (!)

      I think around thirty is often one of the spectacular bits of “Life Plan meets Life”, and it’s disorienting, scary, and painful. But for what it’s worth, it’s usually not _destructively_ painful.

      Ugh. It’s super hard to say this and not sound as if I’m making light of it or being all “when I was your age”, but: FWIW, I am pretty sure that on your 40th birthday you’ll look at your life and go “yeah, this is better, that was probably necessary.”

    4. My partner had 30-freakouts around his birthday from 27 to 32. 33 seemed to go easier and I hope it will for you too. On his actual 30th we went away (cheaply, just to an airbnb in an inexpensive nearby city) so he didn’t have to deal with his freakout in front of other people, and we went for walks during the day and just stayed in, ordered pizza and watched movies on the night itself. Privacy from friends but still some close company, chilled-out and low-key activities for distraction, and not being around loads of booze and pressure to have a big night all seemed to really help and he mostly had a nice time.

      Oh, and we were skint our last birthdays too, so even if you don’t manage to get yourself the Switch I recommend getting yourself something to mark the occasion, even if it is just a slice of cake in a coffee shop. You are important and worth celebrating.

    5. I was also pretty upset about turning 30 and being where I was in my life (love life, career, etc.) and my wise roommate insisted I throw a party claiming it would make me feel better. I am incredibly petulant so my response was “Can it be dinosaur themed with an ice cream cake and a pinata?” and she was like “Of course!” So I had a giant party with a pinata full of tiny booze bottles and everyone decided it was a good idea to dress up as a fancy dinosaur and we played pin the tail on the T-rex. So basically the opposite of LitandNovels advice, for me celebrating like a drunk 5 year old in a t-rex tiara was good for limiting angst. It ushered in a year where I Tried New Things which was delightful and eventually wound up getting me unstuck.

  8. This is timely!

    I was just accepted to a writing workshop I’ve wanted to attend for literally years, and my departure date is my wonderful partner’s birthday.

    I know he is excited for me and proud of me–he’s the one who encouraged me to apply–but I feel bittersweet about missing his day. We aren’t Big Celebration people in general, but I know he likes to be fussed over a little. I think I will reach out to his brothers, who live nearby, to arrange a get-together a few days before or after the actual day, and I’ll make sure I present his gift and card to him in the morning before I leave in a way that feels special. (His gift is something handmade I’ve been working on for a long time, and I know it will mean a lot to him.)

    If any of you guys were him in this situation, would you prefer a celebration before the actual birthday or after?

    My birthday is in early November and often falls on election day, and honestly, the only thing I want for my birthday is for us to paint this goddamned country blue. Obama was elected to his first term on my 35th birthday, and you guys, it was magical. I danced in the street and drank champagne straight out of the bottle with strangers.

    1. I would personally prefer to celebrate after my bday, as long as it was actually planned before my bday (I’ve been burned by forgetful people, “oh we’ll just plan something afterward!”). Because that way on your bday the fun isn’t all over yet. I’m sure whatever you do will be appreciated.

      One time at a going-away event someone gave me a card to read after I’d left, it was really sweet. Maybe a (small, cheap) “open after I’ve left” activity-related present could be fun, such as food to eat, or bubble bath to use, or movies to watch.

      Election-night birthday is some pretty high-stress stuff, I’d never considered that before.

    2. I choose after. I feel it’s tempting fate/providence/something dicey to celebrate your birthday before you actually make it there.

    3. My birthday is in the week before Christmas, so ever since childhood I’ve gotten used to celebrating it about a week early if necessary. I also have a sibling who’s currently working in a different country and only comes home a couple times a year. How your situation would probably go in my family: the birthday party/dinner/whatever a couple days before (i.e. still close to the birthday), followed by a “you have been away for X weeks/months and now we are together again” celebration afterwards.

    4. I prefer to celebrate that stuff early (but clearly other commenters disagree) and then have something small day-of. You could maybe schedule delivery of something he would like for that afternoon/evening (is he a flowers person? pizza? something else?) that he can enjoy without you?

      Congrats on the workshop acceptance!!

  9. I am one of those people with Christmas-adjacent birthdays and it REALLY fucked me up when I was younger because so often the people I wanted at my birthday party had their own celebrations, often out of town, and I ended up feeling like my birthday was always less important than everyone else’s. (Ask me about the time I was out of town and a well-meaning relative organized a party full of kids in their neighborhood, NONE of whom I knew, and how awful I felt when my reaction was to burst into tears and hide in the bedroom rather than, y’know, celebrate. Or, actually, don’t.)

    Some time in my early teens, my birthday became “I’ll do something with a couple of friends who can tear loose, or I won’t, and my family and I can go to dinner or maybe lunch would be better, and can we also not do the whole singing thing because I hate being the center of attention on top of the whole ‘hey, Christmas baby’ baggage I’m carrying around, but hells yes I will take the free dessert thank you very much.” Often, there was a movie. Taking the pressure off myself to do birthdays “right” actually made them a lot better for me.

    As an adult, I’ve had good luck with “here’s what I would like” (stress-free lunch with family, pub crawl with friends and ALL the free shots thanks, all-night Overwatch party, staying inside on my own with pizza and fizzy drinks and an all-day anime/SF/romcom binge with phone turned OFF) and generally people have humored me. Asking does work. Sometimes.

    1. “Those of us with December birthdays know what the Three Wise Men said to Jesus when they arrived: ‘Now, this is both for your birthday and Christmas.'” —Bob Smith

      1. *scream of painful recognition*

        To be fair, it was often possible to parlay that into “a SUPER nice birthday gift because Also Christmas followed by One’s Parents Worrying You’d Have Nothing To Unwrap On Christmas Morning”, so it wasn’t ALL bad…

    2. a well-meaning relative organized a party full of kids in their neighborhood, NONE of whom I knew

      Instant full-body cringe time. Would any kid enjoy that? I can’t possibly imagine it would be anything but torture.

    3. I am also Christmas adjacent and worse, The-Parent-That-Does-the-Birthdays. For years, I have not fond memories of my sister ringing me in tears about how she would make such an effort for everyone’s birthday but when it came to hers, nobody (i.e. her husband) made any effort.

      So when I became a parent, I told my husband:

      1) I expect a present from you AND from my kids for my birthday
      2) I expect a present from my kids for Christmas but we don’t have to give each other Christmas presents anymore
      3) I will give you two ideas of something that I would like to help you.
      4) You will need to think up one thing for me on your own.

      Now the kids are older, he takes them to the chemist and they pick out something for me. Its quite fascinating seeing what your kids pick for you – one year I got an excellent pair of tweezers and a much needed foot file.

      Item #4 he now interprets as tickets to a concert or some kind of event. I did have to remind him that a birthday night out also includes organising the babysitter but he’s got the hang of that now.

      The best present he ever got me (so far) was one he made himself. It was a mix CD of all the songs he would play me to bring my memory back if I got Alzheimers. It was surprisingly romantic for a very non-romantically inclined man!

  10. Team Everyone Forgot Me, Again, And Why Can No-one Ever Remember That I Vaguely Fear Balloons.

    I thought the balloon thing was just me! (they’re fine when full, but my brain thinks dead/broken balloons are icky and half-deflated one’s are creepy.)

    Birthday talk always reminds me of the time my parents tried to surprise me with a clown at my 8th birthday party. He was a family friend who I liked, so they figured I’d be fine.

    I barricaded myself in my bedroom and refused to leave until the clown was 100% off the premises.

    As an adult I try to be very clear about my birthday wants, because I’m rather more firm in my preferences than anyone else in my household. I like to get flowers, which is a holdover from when I was a kid and one of my mom’s best friends was a florist. And I like to go out for a nice dinner at a restaurant of my choosing, ideally somewhere a little nicer than usual or somewhere interesting we’ve never gone before.

    Is it sometimes annoying how much I sometimes have to ride herd on people for those two things to happen? Sure. But we’re all busy, we’re all mentally interesting, and three of as at ADHD. And I realized years ago that I’d rather have to remind people than listen to the brainweasels telling me no one cares enough about me to remember.

    1. “brainweasels” is an awesome term for those awful lies our minds tell us. I am totally stealing it.

  11. The Russians neatly avoid these problems. The birthday girl or boy, no matter how old, cooks a big meal or hosts in a restaurant, and friends and family bring flowers and/or gifts –mostly flowers. No one forgets, no hurt feelings. Don’t like your BD? Don’t host your party. Perfect!

    1. also, it’s “bad luck” to celebrate your 40th birthday. neat to have that icky milestone danced around, also neat when people do something nice they didn’t have to anyway

    2. I love this — and it’s pretty close to what my family did growing up. “Come over for cake and pizza from this time to this time. Just show up and eat.”

      I don’t celebrate my own birthday (I take it as a me-day-of-blissful-solitude, since it’s during my busy season at work). But my husband loves celebrating his, so we cook or buy a bunch of food and send out a blast to everyone that basically says, “Come over anytime from 4 pm to 10 pm on this day and eat.” People can come and go as they please. If only a few show up, at least we’re not waiting at an empty restaurant table.

      I know some people who set themselves up for a lot of disappointment by planning (or having others plan) a very complex series of birthday events over an entire weekend that involve 1) Driving in between events 2) People having to buy tickets in advance 3) People having to devote an entire day to the celebration. A friend recently tried to have people book space on a party bus to go to a winery two hours away for her birthday, and everyone said “No, sorry, I can’t!”

      People should celebrate how they want, but, if your plans involve other people, you have to meet your friends where they’re at in life. I’m in my mid-30s, so the reality is people have to arrange for child care and have a TON of other obligations and expenses.

  12. My husband is excellent at remembering loved ones’ birthdays, and always gets me thoughtful gifts. But sometimes I wish he would surprise me with a happening or event. He actually did do it one year, but my bday is in March (in Chicagoland) and seasonal depression is real. So, I guess this post is a reminder to me that if I want him to Do More/Different, I will need to tell him that.

  13. I am pretty happy with my birthday celebrations, and my husband is pretty happy with his. My biggest concern is our middle kid. His birthday is the day after Christmas. We don’t celebrate but live in an area where pretty much everyone else does. He’s still young and hasn’t caught on yet, but my anxiety is telling me this will be an issue in the future. How does everyone else with such a close birthday do it?

    1. My sister’s birthday is Christmas Adam (the day before Christmas Eve) and she usually does a small close family thing on the day and a bigger thing either the week before or (more often) the week after.

    2. I would definitely encourage your kid to get used to the idea of “birthday-observed”: that is, your birthday PARTY doesn’t have to be on your actual BIRTHDAY. You can spin this as “wow, you get two birthdays!”. You can also point out that many excellent parts of birthday parties also happen at holiday parties—seeing all your friends, getting presents—and encourage your child to enjoy those at any parties he’s invited to while also looking forward to a party that’s just for him.

      One of my partners has an early January birthday, and our kid has a late December birthday. We tend to celebrate them both in mid-January because that’s when people are around. This isn’t just a winter issue: my June birthday always falls on a mid-week day and was always either during finals or after school was out, and now it’s right up against both Father’s Day and Pride, so I celebrate on any vaguely nearby weekend date when my friends are likely to be available. We do something low-key on the day itself—this year I got breakfast in bed and the toddler painted me a little card—so it doesn’t go unnoticed, but we save most of the partying for the party.

      The key for planning a party during a busy season is to pick the date waaaaaay in advance. Send out a save-the-date in September or October while you’re sorting out the details. You’ll still get a few “Oh hell, I’m sorry, I know I said I’d come but that’s when my MIL is doing her huge annual party that I just can’t miss” cancellations, but most people will schedule around you.

      Since you don’t observe Christmas, you don’t need the “please give your kid separate birthday and Christmas presents just like everyone else gets” reminder, but I hear that is a big deal for kids with birthdays near Christmas whose families celebrate the holiday, and it still might be an issue if any of your relatives give Christmas or winter holiday presents. Insofar as you can, encourage people to give two smaller presents rather than one larger one, at least until your child is older and able to make particular gift requests.

    3. My son’s birthday is the 22nd, and I always throw his ‘friends’ party the weekend prior to Christmas (or even two weeks prior) to break it up. Then we do a nice family afternoon tea with a cake to mark his actual birthday.

    4. My birthday is the 27th. When I was a kid, my parents always made a point of ensuring that I got separate presents for Christmas and my birthday (from extended family too – just making it clear that 2 small presents were preferable to one bigger one intended for both). And we always did something on my birthday, usually a trip into the nearest reasonably large town (I grew up in the country) to spend our Christmas money and go for Chinese food. I wasn’t the kind of kid who wanted a party so that wasn’t an issue.

      I never felt that I was missing out, or that I needed to celebrate on my half-birthday (which was my parents’ wedding anniversary anyway). It might have helped that both my parents and my brother had their birthdays within a month over the festive period, so we were all in the same boat. As an adult I’ve developed my own traditions to celebrate in ways that suit me.

      1. My birthday is the 28th, and I got a lot of combo gifts as a kid. It was especially infuriating because my brother’s birthday is Dec 21 and my sister’s is Jan 2, and they didn’t get combo gifts. Apparently I complained to friends about this enough that they still point out that my b-day gift is not wrapped in Christmas paper (or apologize if it is). I’m in my 40s at this point.

        My mom also forgot my birthday one year, so there’s some feelings about birthdays…

    5. My cousin was born on Dec 23rd. When he was a child he had his Birthday party in June. Family were always careful to send separate birthday and christmas cards and gifts – if your family doesn’t celebrate christmas that might be less of a concern, if they do even thouh you don’t, consider speaking to them to ask that they don’t send a combined gift, or birthfday gifts wrapped in christmas paper because that’s what’s handy.

      1. YES to two of these in particular. My birthday is right before Christmas and I never did the half-birthday thing or whatever, but my mom’s big big big insist was that she would never ever wrap my birthday presents in Christmas paper. Birthday paper, or the comic pages out of the Sunday paper, or — one year she really did have nothing but Christmas paper, but she turned it inside out and drew little pictures on the blank side. I appreciated that a lot, and still do.

        And I don’t care so much about combined presents now (from most people; my husband does not get to give me a combined present unless it’s huge, but we’ve made that agreement jointly) but when I was wee, and me and my brother (September birthday) and my sister (July birthday) were all getting the same tier of presents at Christmas from people who also gave them separate (nice) birthday presents, and I was informed that mine was both Christmas and birthday, that kinda sucked.

      2. Yes yes yes — I didn’t care so much about the wrapping paper, but I really was hurt at all the “combined” presents I got, when my brother (born Jan 24) got separate presents, *and* actually had his school friends available to show up for his party.

    6. My birthday is just a few days before Christmas, and as a kid my parents always held my birthday party in mid-January. That left plenty of time for the other kids to be finished with holiday plans, no one was busy preparing for the holidays (which would have happened if we’d tried for an early party), and it was still close enough to my actual birthday that it didn’t feel strange to me.

      I also recommend making a point of having presents that are specifically birthday presents, separate from the Christmas presents, that you and your husband give your son on his actual birthday. I don’t care now, but as a kid it really bothered me when it felt as if I just got a couple of Christmas presents re-allocated as birthday presents vs. two separate occasion’s worth. (Especially because I could compare to what my brother would get on his February birthday not long after.)

    7. I’m a December birthday (and now my daughter is a 2-days-after-mine December birthday) and I really like how we approach birthdays in general.

      1) No big party*. Little kid birthday parties aren’t fun for any of the adults in question and aren’t any more fun for the little kids than, like, eating jelly beans and watching Moana for the 1,800th time with no pants on typically is.

      2) We celebrate as a nuclear family, and your birthday is Your Day. We eat what you want for breakfast. If at all possible the grownups take off work and the child gets to take a “sick” day from school [sometimes was not possible for me, as it was often finals week and I would pick a different Birthday Ditch Day – Observed] and go do something special (your choice!) that day. We go out for dinner to wherever you choose, get the appetizers you want etc…

      3) In the run-up to your birthday (Birthday Week!) we take time to treat the Birthday Person. Need a haircut? Spring for the fancy barbershop, it’s your birthday! Want to impulse purchase some candy in the checkout line at the grocery store? Why not, it’s your birthday! Family disagreement about which board game to play? Tie-breaker goes to Birthday Week Person, it’s their birthday!

      4) Only ever give a combined birthday/Christmas gift if the birthday person requests that.

      5) For Christmas-celebrating people (and YMMV on this one): incorporate secular Christmas-y stuff into the birthday traditions. We would put the tree up on my sister’s birthday and ceremonially turn on the outside lights (Dec 1st). We would bake cookies and decorate the tree on my birthday (the 13th). For me, it’s made the entire month of December just magical and celebratory. I hear sleigh bells and see halls being decked and it feels like the world is getting dressed up for my birthday. I love it.

      * #1 is really the biggest way to avoid disappointment. When there’s no precedent for having a party, you don’t miss having one, or have to endure years of “lol sorry we have family stuff” unattended parties before throwing in the towel. As I got a little bit older and wanted to have a birthday party of sorts, I would invite 3-4 friends over and have a sleepover wherein we ate cake and did regular sleepover stuff.

    8. My birthday is the 19th, and I usually had a party for friends the weekend before (or even two weekends before if the scheduling was better), then something with just my family on the actual day (or as close as possible).

      I was raised Jewish, and I sometimes think that made this issue a little easier for me: since Jewish holidays move around so much anyway, it’s easy to think of annual events as “something that always happens around this time of year”, birthday celebrations included. And it doesn’t have to be handled the same way every year: one year it might be mid-December, the next year it might be in January when everyone’s back.

  14. So, true story: my birthday falls during the school year, and when I was in grade school, I threw a party where literally nobody showed up. It was my mother, my sisters, and I, at the local McDonald’s which had a party area, and nobody else. So, for me, birthdays are just stupidly fraught. I can’t bring myself to ask for a celebration because asking and then *not* getting is much worse than just not asking.

    Of course, now that I’m an adult, basically none of my friends live within the same area code as me, so it kind of puts paid to the idea of having a physical party anyway.

    Maybe I can suggest a “Birthday, Observed” party the next time we’re in the same location. After all, I don’t get to celebrate their birthdays with them, either.

    1. Lynnea, my heart is absolutely pouring out for you. The same thing happened to me in third grade due to some underhanded shittiness on my mother’s part, where I had a birthday party where no one showed up. I was subsequently blamed for no one showing up because my mother was trying to save face for what she’d actually done. It definitely was the major single factor in why I never again asked for a birthday party, and never tried to throw one myself, until I was an adult. And even then, my mother somehow found out my plans and sabotaged both of the birthday parties I tried to throw as an adult in my early twenties–so I just stopped celebrating my own birthday entirely. But now I feel like I’ve been missing out, especially with my entire family blowing me off for my most recent major milestone birthday this year.

      The Birthday, Observed part the Captain does is such a wonderful idea! I love this site so much and the alternate ways of thinking and doing the Captain and commentariat present to us. I hope you DO have that Observed party if that’s what you want! I hope you can can have multiple Observed parties, if needed, until you’ve celebrated with everyone you care to celebrate with! I hope you never have to spend another birthday having any experience that isn’t exactly the one you want!

      (I also hope this doesn’t try to post like three times, VPN is being squirrelly tonight.)

  15. So, true story: my birthday falls during the school year, and when I was in grade school, I threw a party where literally nobody showed up. It was my mother, my sisters, and I, at the local McDonald’s which had a party area, and nobody else. So, for me, birthdays are just stupidly fraught. I can’t bring myself to ask for a celebration because asking and then *not* getting is much worse than just not asking.

    Of course, now that I’m an adult, basically none of my friends live within the same area code as me, so it kind of puts paid to the idea of having a physical party anyway.

    Maybe I can suggest a “Birthday, Observed” party the next time we’re in the same location. After all, I don’t get to celebrate their birthdays with them, either.

  16. Thank you for writing this. It’s perfectly time for me because tomorrow is my birthday and I grew up in a family where BIRTHDAYS ARE A BIG DEAL and my husband grew up in a family where they were NOT and it’s taken me a LOT OF YEARS to feel okay about my husband doing NOTHING for me on my birthday. But I think it’s pretty obvious that I’d still rather he did something, even the littlest of things (like a care with a handwritten message would be nice). His birthday is right after mine so I don’t have to feel bad about doing less than I would have in my previous life (but I still get him a card). My friends generally forget because I am not on FB and it hurts but I know I have forgotten birthdays on occasion so I always try to let it slide. But I do have BIG FEELINGS on the actual day and it’s always a bummer and I just appreciated reading all of this, so thank you.

    1. I also am from a family where birthdays and holidays are A Thing, and I thoroughly enjoyed that growing up and like having that and want to continue it in some way for my future children. But my husband’s family, due to culture and money stuff, did not/does not make birthdays and holidays very much of A Thing, to the point that birthday/holiday gifts kind of make him uncomfortable. It’s definitely caused some FEELINGS for me, too, that I’m working on resolving.

      My current sticking point is about birthday cake. My family makes the same cake for everyone’s birthday — same recipe, every time, this cake IS Birthday Cake to me. My mom even mailed one to me my first year of college, that’s how much this cake is tied up in birthdays. Part of the tradition is also, you don’t make your own cake. So obviously I make this cake for my husband, and he loves it, but he….does not make it for me. When we got married my mom sent him the recipe and told him it’s his turn to make my cakes now — that year I got no cake. Last year I told him I wanted a cake, any cake, even a store bought cupcake, and….I got no cake. So now I guess I have to muster up to tell him, “Look, I know you’ve never made a cake in your life and don’t know the difference between wet and dry measuring cups but this cake is really important to me, I haven’t had a birthday cake in 4 years, if you do nothing else for my birthday this year that’s fine but I NEED you to make me this cake, I will not go the rest of my life with no birthday cake.”

      1. I feel this! My husband’s family does Dairy Queen ice cream cakes and nothing else because no one wants to bake, so for him, birthday cakes are ice cream cakes. I have bought them for him for his birthday. But then he bought me one for my birthday, and I was disappointed–I like REAL CAKE! I ended up just making myself one (spice cake with cream cheese icing!) a couple weeks later. It would be so nice if he got it together and baked one for me, but…I’m not holding my breath on that.

      2. Last year was the first birthday I’ve celebrated with my partner, and it’s also the first time in my adult life that someone has made a cake for me. (I was married for nearly a decade and made my own cake every year.) It was really lovely.

        Your husband should make your damned cake.

        1. When I was a kid my grandmother would not come to family birthday parties unless she got to choose the cake flavor (dry everything free vanilla flavor with only white and pastel frosting) and the only ice cream available was this nasty tasteless icemilk stuff that she claimed was the only thing she wasn’t allergic to. Mom preferred to let her have her way and keep peace than make sure her kids weren’t miserable on their “special day.” My grandmother is long gone but everyone in the family now has birthday pie because of her and her smug little smirk at making the birthday kid cry.

          1. The fact that she inflicted this dessert on everyone including the birthday kid, and never went for, say, a cupcake free of allergens while the birthday kid gets to enjoy their own damn birthday, is very telling.
            How rotten does an ego have to be to go after a child’s BIRTHDAY
            I am steamed on your past self’s behalf >(

    2. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who CAKE is a thing! I always did Entamin’s chocolate cake, to the extent that just saying dude Entamin’s to a best friend before a travel weekend with a group resulted in 4 cakes for 8 people!!

      The first year we were married my husband got me no cake. And I made it perfectly clear that it was not acceptable. Skip a present, ok. I’ll plan my own party/dinner if I want it, sure. But someone else, you my spouse, will buy or bake me a birthday cake! Now he usually does 2, just in case! Sometimes I go for variety with the chocolate chip cookie cake, or cupcakes, but my birthday has cake!

      I hope you get cake this year, even if it’s store bought or not as beautifully home baked as mom would have done.

    3. I am the yang to your yin. My husband comes from the big birthday or bust custom and I do not. The entire month preceding his bday gives me intense anxiety bc I have to find a present for a man who buys anything he wants and responds “I don’t know” when asked directly.

      I am also quite sensitive to rejection, so the entire ordeal is so, so fraught, especially since I cannot empathize with his caring about something for which I do not give one single fuck. He could no more convince me to care about Local Sportsball Team.

      So, in order to alleviate my own anxiety, I just bite the bullet, pick SOMETHING, and brace myself for his reaction, because something he doesn’t like is still better than nothing. But to be clear, this is something I do out of love and I ABSOLUTELY HATE it every single time.

      For my birthday/Christmas, my family and friends have graciously accepted my request to Not Exchange Presents, i.e.: Be relived of the expectation to perform a social task that I personally despise.

      All this to say: please know that for all the joy you derive from planning, shopping, wrapping, presenting, and reaction-reaping, I get absolute and total soul sucking dread and misery.

      1. While I’m generally averse to rules, I do think a good rule of politeness is, if you’re not going to tell people what gift you want, you have to be able to either be genuinely happy whatever you get, or fake pleasure so well that the other person *thinks* you’re happy.

        My family (parents and siblings) has always done birthday gifts, and we will mail each other gifts if we can’t be together irl. I think it’s really special. But my Dad and sister both always want to know exactly what to get, so…we tell them exactly what to get. It’s not hard! It’s nice! Not telling someone what to get but still secretly wanting a specific thing (or category of things) makes a celebration into a weird, unnecessary test. I’m not a fan.

        Plus, I mean, we all kind of know each other’s budgets, so a gift request is never out of our price range.

        I *would* feel a bit awkward if someone asked what they could get me and I was like, “this book!” and then they were like, “ah, I actually can’t afford that, it’s $25,” and then it’s like, gah I think I made them reveal something about their finances that they’re embarrassed about, and maybe they’d rather keep it private? And maybe I should check my privilege because $25 isn’t a big deal to me whereas it definitely is for others?

        So, it can be a bit fraught if I don’t know someone as well, and generally I err on the side of saying I don’t want gifts. It’s technically true: I don’t want gifts from that person specifically, just from family and close friends.

        Anyway, tl;dr, wanting gifts is fine but making it a test is kinda crappy.

  17. Recent birthday, and it was really good! I had a party in the most accommodating and fun place I could think of and invited a ton of people. Not everyone could make it, but a lot of people did. Some people even got me presents, which was a pleasant surprise because I’m old enough that I don’t expect anyone other than my partner to do that even though I love both giving and getting gifts. After the party I went out to the bar with my boyfriend and then we slept in super late the next day.

    I love big parties but I have a lot of friends who have a lot of problems, so I always expect at least a few people to bail. I also really like parties where there’s a big range of activities so everyone can do what they like and I like being able to introduce my friend groups to each other.

  18. What I wish people would get about my birthday: Skip the astrology thing. I’ve said I don’t believe in it. It’s okay if you do, but offering to do my chart and coming up with and telling me about your observations about my personality based on my birthday and ordinary, innocuous, part-of-me things I do or say do not, or should not, be fuel for your astrology stuff. Like I say, it’s fine if you want to do it, but it’s like religion in that after I’ve said that it’s not for me, continuing to invite me to your church becomes annoying. This makes it hard for me to say I’d like other birthday remembrances since the astrology people (of my acquaintance) will hear my birthday and go off on it again despite my protests. I’ve had to institute a permanent fake birthday. The real one is on my drivers license. For everyone else, I always give the same fake birthday. The astrology people will still astrology, but at least I can enjoy the private joke that they’re astrologizing over a fake birthday.

    1. I have Astrology People in my life, and every year for THEIR birthdays I write hilariously specific horoscopes for them, stuff like, “Happy birthday, Aquarius! You are known for your wit, wisdom, chin-length bob, and preference for dark beers. This year, if you know what’s good for you, you will travel to Portland to see your college buddy, who misses you. The stars will it thus. You will also get a 3% cost-of-living raise. On your birthday, make sure to spend some quality time with your orange cat.”

      It’s gotten to the point where if I forget (and I no longer do Teh Facebook, so I sometimes do forget), the birthday person will text me plaintively to ask where their horoscope is.

      1. I did a thing for years where I’d collect all my “born on this day” horoscopes and compare them to last year’s to see what had (not) come true. I never did meet a stranger at a loading dock!

  19. My birthday dilemma is too much cake. I like to bake from scratch and generally I have been able to strike a deal with roommates or family or my partner that I bake my own cake and they clean up after me. (Getting to bake without having to clean up is a wonderful gift!) I like to experiment with new recipes for my own cake.

    But, my partner’s birthday is two days before mine and I like to bake him his favorite cake as well. That worked out pretty well when we were dating and both had roommates. His roommates helped him finish off his cake and my roommates helped me finish off mine.

    Then we moved in together and last year, well, two cakes for two people within two days is a lot of cake! Parts of both cakes got moldy and thrown out. Neither of us is really interested in having a big party. But I still want him to get his favorite cake for his birthday and me to be able to experiment for mine. Maybe I’ll start experimenting with more cupcake recipes and take the rest of them into work.

    1. Is halving the recipe and baking smaller cakes an option? I love my set of 3-4″ cake pans that make the cutest, 1 person cakes. 6″ cake pans are easier to find in brick stores and have more room for impressive cake decorating, if you’re the cake decorating type. And most cakes can be frozen for later!

      Signed, someone who also likes to bake their own birthday cakes but doesn’t have enough company to eat it all.

      1. A recipe that makes two 8″ or 9″ layers will make three 6″ layers. (the baking time is a little shorter, so keep an eye on them.) Frost two of them for a nifty little cake that feeds maybe 4 people, and wrap the other one well and put it in the freezer for sometime when you’re longing for homemade cake.

      2. This is a great idea! I can convince my husband we need more bakeware in the name of having smaller cakes, and freeze extra cake for later!!

    2. I feel your pain. I have twin daughters. Nothing less will do than that each of them has a cake about the size of a dinner table, and then after about five days after the party, when everyone is totally sick of cake we end up having to throw out about half to two thirds of each cake. I’ve bought a little 15cm(?) cake tin, hoping that next year they might allow me to do smaller cakes. It’s been a gradual process, adjusting to reality about these things – last year they went on a school trip to a bakery and the little one wouldn’t let me throw out the remaining bread she’d made until she’d mourned it and taken about ten photos of it and tried and failed to eat it all, finally admitting that as it was now tooth-breakingly hard, it might be a fitting tribute to put it into the food waste and let it grow flowers in honour of her baking efforts. I’m assuming/hoping that having got through this whole “loving something but having to let it go” crisis once, she’ll cope better with more serious losses in later life, but by god I am constantly amazed by the amount and complexity of emotions small kids can have. I was emotionally abused as a kid and didn’t have the space to express or eventually even notice these emotions in myself and it’s come as quite a surprise that kids are so complex.

      Sorry, a bit of an essay about cake there!

    3. My mother still makes me birthday cakes, except now they’re birthday cupcakes and any that don’t get eaten at home are brought to work. My coworkers are very appreciative.

    4. I never turn down cake, and have thus found that it usually freezes fine. And fruit cake or ginger parkin keeps for ages in a tin…

      1. I found some ginger cake in a tin the other day. I have not made ginger cake in at least 3 months. It was absolutely fine.

    5. what kind of jobs do you each have? Is baking a cake that he can take into work to share with coworkers an option? (with or wothout telling them it is his birthday)

      Or scaling down the recipe to make cupcakes or a much smaller cake?

    6. Jumping on the smaller cakes and freezing bandwagon…

      Freezing worked great for a professional bakery birthday cake I had last year. For convenience, I pre-cut slices of the round cake, put waxed paper on the cut edges to prevent drying, and carefully set the slices in a plastic container with a good seal. It was nice to take out just a slice and let it warm up to room temp for a while. Haven’t tried this with sheet cakes, and there may be easier ways to freeze stuff.

      I highly recommend smaller cakes. I rarely bake cake from scratch, but I’ll take a box mix and divide it according to how many eggs are required – usually means dividing it into thirds (I use a 1/4 cup scoop to do this), and there is usually just a little more than one cup of mix per third of a box. The remaining thirds are stored in small plastic containers.

      Baking 1/3 of the mix does require approximating 1/3 of stuff like 1/2 cup, but the cakes have turned out fine. (Because this is US cake mix using volumetric Imperial measurements and 1/6 cup is not a standard volume. I sometimes envy the European metric baking system.) I usually just use a single 8″ pan for a thinner single layer cake, but I have a set of five 5″ pans that I will use 3 of for a small 3-layer cake, and I sometimes make a batch of 8 cupcakes with that third of a mix.

      This system has worked really well for me, in both eliminating cake waste and moderating my cake consumption. Plus, if I want to make a larger batch of cupcakes to serve more people, it’s easier to scale it to a good number (8-16-24 standard size, or fewer for jumbo cupcakes), and I can use more than one flavor of cake without excess cake and waste.

      I hope that info is helpful for the “too much cake” woes.

      1. “Baking 1/3 of the mix does require approximating 1/3 of stuff like 1/2 cup, but the cakes have turned out fine. (Because this is US cake mix using volumetric Imperial measurements and 1/6 cup is not a standard volume. I sometimes envy the European metric baking system.)”

        Ooh, ooh! There’s 16 tablespoons in a cup, and 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, so 1/3 of half a cup is 1/3 of 8 tablespoons, is 1/3 of 24 teaspoons, is 8 teaspoons, is 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (which you probably already know if you’re regularly scaling down recipes, but I’m a dork). I’ve never gotten the hang of dealing with flour and sugar being measured by mass in metric recipes – I don’t want the extra step of weighing stuff, I just want to scoop and go!

        1. European baker who is friends with other European bakers here! Unless you are a professional or a really serious baker, you don’t usually have a kitchen scale around here. We just have measuring cups (like this one: or use weight-volume scales (like this one:
          Upsides: you get real good at estimating how much things weight by hand, which comes in useful for grocery shopping. Recipes are way easier to scale up or down.
          Downsides: there are no two identical recipes because everyone has a slightly different understanding of how many grams fit into their spoonful of sugar.
          I’m not convinced our system is better! ;P

          1. I switched to baking via weights where possible (there are websites where you can converts cups into grams/ounces!) and it is a DELIGHT. So much faster/easier (except for liquids). It was actually pretty easy to switch over, if anyone is thinking about it. 🙂

      2. I lived in Europe for a few years and brought American recipes with me. Fortuitously, the measuring cups I imported had not only cups on them but also mililiters. I thus learned that a cup has about 240 ml. Very minimal math leads you to the knowledge that 1/2 c is 120 ml, 1/3 c is 80 ml, and 1/4 c is 60 ml. I also learned that a tsp is 5 ml and a T is 15 ml. (As you can see, 4 T=60 ml=1/4 c.). If you aren’t a math person this can make your head spin, but I found it makes measuring and approximations much easier and recipe conversion (to a larger or smaller quantity) simpler as well.

    7. I don’t necessarily think you’d have to experiment with cupcakes if you wanted to bring it into work, you’d just have to figure out a way to transport it there and/or cut it. The team that shares the office suite with us Always has like a half a cake in the fridge.

    8. I don’t have the ability the reply to all the replies, but I’m just delighted to have instigated this thread full of useful baking tips! Thanks everyone!

    9. When faced with Too Much Cake, my preferred course of action is to make cake balls. There is something very therapeutic about mashing up the cake and frosting all together, and then I usually freeze the rolled balls and pull some out to dip in chocolate whenever I need/want a treat.

  20. It can help to secure attendance from one or two people you’re close to (and who are reliable about showing up!). Once you know that they can come, send out the more general invitation. That way, you won’t be alone, even if the rest of the universe is conspiring.

    FWIW, I have no problem with people initiating their own birthday celebration, provided that it’s either fully hosted, or in line with the kind of socializing you normally do with those people (ie, not unusually expensive). So, if you get together for game nights or hikes or pub evenings with friends, saying “Hey, let’s do this on my birthday” is totally fine.

  21. I believe in picking 3-5 things for the “This Must Happen For Me To Feel Happy About This Birthday/Holiday” list…and then anything else is extra!

    Doing the work to be exquisitely clear about your expectations & communicating those things to your partners/friends/family will set them up to WIN!

    Not being clear means that even when people have the best of intentions to celebrate you, they will probably miss the mark and you will be sad.

    Your list might be:
    Lots of presents (lots = more than 7)
    One big awesome present
    A birthday sign
    Candles with singing
    Time in conversation with special people
    Going around the room saying what you like about the birthday person
    Going out to dinner
    Time off work
    No surprises
    Whatever you want!

    Pick the things that matter to you, make a list, give that list to the relevant people, and then enjoy!!

  22. I personally love celebrating my and my partner’s birthdays. My attitude is: you only get one a year, you never know if it’s your last one. Celebrate that you’ve had this much time.

    We each make a cake for the other, go out to dinner, and usually go to a movie. Not a big big deal but knowing there’s somebody on earth who will buy you a card and draw your two cats wearing birthday hats inside means a lot.

    My etiquette recommendation?

    If you accept a birthday party invitation, go gladly and keep your trap shut as far as snarky remarks as to how they celebrate go. If they’re some kind of “Birthday Week” person don’t feel obligated, but IF you attend, do so as pleasantly as you can.

    And for God’s sake, don’t mock people’s birthday cake! Over at Gizmodo subsidiary site The Takeout there was a story recently about how somebody at the cake decorating place misheard “Moana” as “marijuana” and much kurfuffle ensued. You would not BELIEVE how many people got downright bitchy about how the original orderer of the cake was so dumb and needy for wanting a birthday cake in the first place, and being 25 and thinking Moana should be on their cake. How IMMATURE.

    I couldn’t believe these takes. Who the HELL CARES what somebody else wants on their cake, as long as it isn’t racist/sexist/evil? What the hell is so horrible about a young woman liking a Disney film character? Have whatever you want on your own damn cake, or don’t have cake and have pie or don’t celebrate at all. But nobody wins when strangers decide it’s totally funny to mock somebody else’s perfectly harmless tastes that have no bearing on their lives at all.

    1. I know, right? I’m way older than 25 and I’d eat the hell out of a Moana cake. Moana is awesome.

    2. I get the idea of mocking a badly-executed cake made by an alleged professional (Cake Wrecks exists to satisfy this urge) but not mocking what someone wants their cake to look like, as long as they don’t want it to defy gravity, or want a duplicate of a $300 complicated artisan cake for less than $30 or something.

      I have not yet seen Moana but plenty of grown adults love Disney stuff. I am not one of them, but I still don’t see what the problem is. We don’t have to squelch every single bit of child-like joy from our lives once we hit a magic number of birthdays, be it your 16th, 18th, 21st, 25th, or your 102nd.

      If you’re not a bigot refusing to sell cakes to LGBTQ* folks, or a neoNazi wanting a swastika cake for your minor child you abusively named Adolf, I am not bovvered.

      1. Exactly. The way some of those posters were going on you’d think they were being personally forced to redecorate their houses with Disney motifs or something. One outright called it childish.

        Bring on the childish, as far as I’m concerned. I spend most of my life being adult now and most of it is boring, repetitive and wearing. If for one damn day a year I can eat birthday cake and play a game, I’m full on Team Child.

  23. I am an introvert who likes to celebrate my birthday VERY simply. 2-4 of my closest friends for a special brunch or dinner, AND THAT’S ALL, is my ideal celebration.

    But of course my best friend is a #SuperHost and NEVER does anything halfway. He is always bummed when I say I really don’t want to make a big thing out of my birthday this year, no really, I swear. And he’s super into Fairness, so if we do a giant multi-day road trip to fun city for another friend’s birthday, my bff feels like I’m being slighted if I tell him that I *REALLY* don’t want to do something similar. (I would actually melt into the sidewalk cracks if I had to be the center of attention for something that extravagant.)

    I get how it can feel like you’re distributing your love unfairly if you spend $300+ (and 3 days) on one friend’s birthday, but only $30 (and 3 hours) on another friend’s. But to echo our super wise Captain, it’s about the wishes of the person being celebrated, not of the people doing the celebrating.

    1. Also an introvert, and same. It really detracts from my enjoyment of my birthday when people say they “feel bad” that my celebration doesn’t measure up to someone else’s.

      1. I know right. I’m not an introvert but I hate being the centre of attention and am just not a “celebrations” person, so I’d much rather just go out for dinner with my partner and maybe a couple of friends. People think I must have some deep birthday trauma that has to be dealt with and when that happens I’ll want cake and a fuss, but not really. I don’t hate my birthday, I just don’t really think about it. I have to remind myself other people care about theirs. It wasn’t really a huge thing in my family growing up.

    2. Re: Fairness, I had a tangential scenario at a past job, where my manager loooooved her birthday and would start announcing several weeks in advance that it was coming and she was ready for a big surprise party and she hoped we were buying lots of decorations!! Now, usually for birthdays we’d just do the card-from-the-office and a “meeting” that was really just an hour of eating cake and gossiping, maybe some flowers or candle or small gift. But for this manager, we’d go all out on decorating the small office supply room/backup break room – wrapping the walls in colorful paper and hanging decorations and filling it with balloons and such (her birthday was also near valentines day, which she loved, which made the decor all very easy to arrange).

      After my third year of this, one of the newer managers got Very Worked Up about how it Wasn’t Fair that we did this for my manager and no one else. We tried very hard to make it clear that we did this specifically because she (explicitly, relentlessly) asked us to, and we knew (for example) other-manager would have hated a similar thing with every cell in his body, so yes, we were doing it for her and no one else because we relied on people telling us if they wanted a Big Deal Birthday. She just wouldn’t let it go and eventually complained to our finance manager about how it was wasteful and got him on the Unfair train.

      I have a feeling that she had hoped for a big surprise on her birthday but never told anyone, which I get is disappointing, but it was very perplexing to have her keep on about Fairness when we were willing to do it for anyone who wanted one, they just had to let us know they wanted it! However… since we weren’t able to give our boss the fun room she usually got that year (and we enjoyed the decorating, too!) because of this, it ended up feeling extremely grinch-y, and didn’t make me very inclined to throw her any parties at all.

      So again… I get the sentiment but it seems very odd to me to get worked up about “fairness” when the person(s) you’re advocating for aren’t worried about it.

      1. I think it’s different in a work environment though. I don’t expect my birthday celebration to look like my best friend’s, but I do notice and not enjoy when among my teammates we will buy snacks for one person’s birthday on a whim, for another go all out, and for a third sign a card. (And I was the person most feted, so this isn’t sour grapes!) On a team I think it makes sense to set a protocol and stick with it so that feelings aren’t hurt and funds spent are generally equitable. It sets expectations as team members come and go, too, so you can just say “this is how we celebrate birthdays here, you don’t need to buy anyone X.” No one getting roped into throwing an elaborate party for someone who makes more than them is just an added bonus.

        1. This. I also think that the “don’t harsh on how people celebrate” thing has a Work Caveat, which is: your colleagues are not your BFFs/family/partners, so don’t pressure them to get involved in your personal life, birthdays included. If you want to bring in cake, awesome–cake is great! But the expectation that others take time away from the tasks they’re getting paid for to do Birthday Stuff is gross and way too open to unfair pressure (“oh, Alice didn’t come to Bob’s birthday party, so she’s not a Team Player and this will be taken into account”) and when a manager is doing this to their subordinates, it’s extra bad news.

        2. This.
          Also, I feel very very strongly that Gifts (or other forms of money spending) Shall Never Flow UP

          A manager pressuring their staff to spend their time and money on their birthday is actually a red flag – unless the small gift mentioned was bought by the company and not the staff?

          Fairness doesn’t actually depend on whether an individual recipient feels it is fair, it also affects everyone around who feels they don’t have standing to bring it up. Is New Hire going to know they can just ask? Just because you didn’t mind treating that party manager, it didn’t guarantee your colleagues were ok with it and not just going along because of the power imbalance.

          As a fellow manager, second one’s concern about fairness is valid, if perhaps mistaken to place it on other-manager who didn’t want it.

          TL;DR work is not your friend circle.

          1. Also that. I was in an office once where one of the senior people who was more-than-work-friends with our boss organized a “let’s all donate something for Boss’s present!” deal, and on the one hand, Boss did buy presents for all of us, but on the other…eeehg.

            (A scheduled hour-long meeting to socialize sounds like a personal circle of Hell, BTW, unless it’s explicitly “well, we’ve booked the room for this hour for those who do want to chat, but feel free to grab cake, say Happy Birthday, and return to your desk!” Mandatory Work Fun isn’t.)

          2. Oh, we were expensing all of it, as we did with all other birthday events, but I take your point.

  24. Here’s a birthday success story!

    Most years I don’t care very much about my birthday. If other people acknowledge it maybe we go to dinner, if not, nbd. Last year for some reason I found I cared, so I organized dinner and games at Dave and Busters. I picked out a few people I really wanted to have there and asked if they’d be up for that kind of celebration and what their availability was on the weekend nearest my birthday. So I knew at least a few people would come for sure. Then I invited whoever I thought I would enjoy seeing. About a dozen people came. Some of my friends from work met some of my friends from activism stuff and hobby stuff, everyone liked each other, a couple of people brought presents, we played games and I got a stuffed blue dog with my tickets and I felt very loved. Oh and one of the presents was some gorgeous warm mittens that kept my hands warm all winter. So I felt loved every time I put them on. A lot of times if you have something you need or want from your friends you can just ask them and they’ll pull through for you.

  25. Not about birthday parties specifically, but in high school my circle of closest friends was more like two overlapping circles, and one of these circles included people about two years younger than me. Mostly we all went to each other’s parties– birthday, graduation, religious / cultural ceremonies, Harry Potter book launch party at Zoe’s house. It was fun.

    But, one of these friends had a graduation party and nobody came. Including me. It was a total accident: some people were sick, some didn’t know when the party was, some were out of town. Some, for sure, were just out of the highschool mindset and weren’t keeping up with our younger friends, and this particular friend only had one close friend in her own year (who happened to be out of town). And there was also a bit of, “I’m partied out for the month, I’m an introvert and I want to chill at home; lots of people will be there and nobody will notice if I skip this one.”

    What happened when nobody showed up was, her older brother called a bunch of people on the phone and told them to come over right now, and the people who were around did. Our friend was initially embarrassed– she had been crying when nobody had showed up an hour past the start time, and normally I wouldn’t recommend pushing past someone’s embarrassment to call people on their behalf– but once a few people came and celebrated with she really did feel better and had a good time.

    I felt bad because I was one of the people who couldn’t make it, and I invited her out later in the summer and got her a graduation present. But, in general my point is, that was a time where her brother being pushy on her behalf really worked. And sometimes people take a third party more seriously than if a person emphasizes the importance of a party on their own behalf. So I guess the takeaway might be, ask your most socially compelling, enthusiastic friend to organize the party for you, if that’s something you think might help?

    1. I actually find that so gorgeous that her brother made the effort to rouse up a crowd. I think I’d remember that much more then the actual party.

  26. Growing up birthdays sucked for me. My father was absolutely rigid that mine had to be celebrated in the same week as it actually occurred, which was a dreary time in Pennsylvania, and, thus, typically meant I wasn’t allowed to have any of my friends because local, elderly relatives took priority (there were more my father wanted to invite than room in the house, occasionally meaning I got stuck at the “kids table” with my brother and in the adjacent room at my own birthday party.) By contrast, my brother’s was in the summer so even if there wasn’t rain the unheated, detached garage could be used and he was allowed to have dozens of friends over.

    21 was the low point for me. When I went to university my father demanded I had to completely cut ties with my friends from high school and, as this was the era before ubiquitous cell phones and e-mail, could handily ensure I never got the messages plus pretty easily monitor if I called them. University had ended abruptly with my junior year which separated me from the friends there (plus I transferred the prior year which shook up all of that) and I was working a Noon-8 job while living at home, trying to scrape up enough to be able to move out. Further, my first fiancee and I had just broken up earlier that month. My parents were mysteriously elsewhere for the couple days around my birthday (presumably they took a trip; they never said.) Absolutely nobody remembered, though I suspect for several parties it was intentional – my parents were teetotalers for religious reasons and were opposed to me drinking so were uncomfortable with that birthday.

    That was also the end of me putting effort into theirs. I always found it funny that they felt that an unfair and unacceptable response.

    I pretty much abandoned birthdays until 40. Then I did big trip – for 26 days and 8,000 miles I went from North Carolina to California and back on a 750cc Kawasaki motorcycle. My then wife came with me on hers; in retrospect I should have left her behind as the trip would have been better. For the next couple years I did a 3-4,000 mile trip by myself, stopping because we were divorcing and I couldn’t afford to. I did another last year when I moved half-way across the US.

  27. I don’t usually think or talk about my own birthday if I can help it, but this post reminded me I’ve got a milestone one coming up and I need to prepare for my brother calling me up on the day of, and my aunt and uncle taking me out to dinner. I wish they wouldn’t, but I can’t ever think of a nice way to say so, and anyway I can pretend to be pleased for one day. My dad preferred not to acknowledge his birthday either, only he’d get angry if you tried to do something celebratory about it after he’d told you not to. (What the Captain said about remembering and respecting preferences is so important!) I worry sometimes that I don’t do the expected minimum for the birthdays of other people in my life, and what they think about that. To make up for it, I try to focus throughout the year on having genuine interest and concern for what’s going on in their lives and expressing gratitude for their presence in mine, and hope that’s enough.

    1. I don’t know if this would work for your family or not, but I would find it totally appropriate to tell your brother you don’t like to acknowledge your birthday so please don’t, and to tell your aunt and uncle birthdays are fraught for you and you’d prefer to get together another time (maybe one of their birthdays if there needs to be an occasion, or some other date that’s significant to you?)

  28. A birthday success story, despite the opening:

    So my ex husband was deeply terrible, and one of the ways he was deeply terrible was that he said a lot of things about how all my friends were only showing up to my parties/events out of a sense of obligation, and everyone was secretly checking their watches behind my back so they could leave as soon as they’d been at my party for some polite amount of time. He said this about my birthday, specifically, and it sunk in worse than I knew.

    I mentioned this to some friends, recently, when I was thinking about having my first ever birthday party post-husband (years after my divorce). They were so, so lovely about it. Encouraged me to have the party, asked if it was ok if they kicked off singing, and made sure my discomfort was more misplaced ex-husband BS than actual “I do not like this” before doing so. Checked in with me afterwards, and confirmed it had been a lovely party, helped point out some ‘proof’ – that people had come, they had stayed for s’mores, that people had stayed late, that conversation had been fun and easy, etc.

    I think it’s going to be a favorite birthday for a long time.

  29. I’m the planner in my house and tend to be the planner of my birthdays as well as everyone else’s.

    Our birthday parties are usually being “at home to visitors” during certain hours on a given day, and people can come by whenever; we have cake and ice cream at some point, and order in dinner for whoever’s around at dinnertime. There’s kid-friendly time in the afternoon and adult-only time in the evening so our friends who aren’t super into kids can come by and feel comfortable. I put out a jigsaw puzzle because my friends are the sorts of people who think it’s great fun to do a jigsaw puzzle together (and because this is the only way I can finish a big puzzle in one day and put it away before it’s wrecked by the toddler and/or the cats).

    This year lots of people brought their kids in the afternoon, and my kid, K, bonded indelibly with a visiting kid. They crawled into K’s bed to read and giggle together, so we adults went in and slowly poured an entire enormous bag of stuffed animals over them (not as a surprise, they knew what was coming). Their shrieks of delight were the best birthday present I could have hoped for.

    I stopped asking for or expecting presents a long time ago. When I send out my birthday party invitation, I include a short list of charities I support and ask people to donate to them if they feel so moved. This generally works well for me, as I dislike surprises and am also very picky. However, I do really enjoy it when people close to me offer to get something or do something for me as a birthday gift. This year J said “I’d like to cook for you” and my mother said “May I bake you cupcakes?” and J’s mother said “Can I take you shopping for something special?” and that was all pretty great.

    Basically, by setting my expectations low and being clear about what I don’t want, I make it really easy for people to make me happy.

    That said, for my 40th I arranged an exceedingly fancy dinner out with our closest family, and it was amazing. A+++++ would do again. K will be 12 when I turn 50, so it will be much easier to do a big splashy party for that, and I might. I like big splashy parties. They’re just more work than I usually feel like putting in.

  30. I changed ny birthday! My actual birthday ended up being a day of bad memories related to my childhood, even the month I was born turned into an anxiety filled trauma swamp. The year I turned 29, changed my last name by deed poll (or various good ‘I’m 30, not getting married and want to claim my own self’ reasons.) It felt so liberating, that I asked my family and friends to celebrate my birthday on that name change date instead; because that felt like a day I was happy, I was my new self. When I met some initial reluctance, I kept it light, joking ‘Think of it as an Unbirthday, or like the Queen of England, she has two birthdays. Birthdays aren’t set in stone.’

    It has been surprising how my loved ones readily got on board with celebrating on a day where I wasn’t struggling with clinical depression and trauma stuff. They needed reassurance that they could let my birth date go unacknowledged and I wouldn’t feel upset, but now cards and gifts arrive on my new birthday. My birth date is now a day I can quietly get through without having to fake a happy face.

    1. Unbirthday: What a magnificent idea!

      Many Eastern Europeans celebrate their name’s day (e.g. if your name is Anne, you celebrate on July 26, the feast of St. Anne) instead of, or in addition to, their birthday.

      Happy name’s day!

      1. My parents grew up celebrating their Name Day, and only their Name Day. Although even that wasn’t like a party or something. When they came to Canada with small children they decided to have birthday parties for their kids so we could have what our friends had (five or six friends over to play for the afternoon, exchange small presents, and eat cake with candles on it). And they started to acknowledge their own birthdays as well as their name days… But neither of them really got that into it. And they mostly felt it was silly to keep celebrating birthdays much for themselves, or once the kids became adults. We still do a bit, but mostly just calling people on their birthday to say Happy Birthday. Occasionally a dinner together if it’s convenient. Even more occasionally a gift.

        So I very much grew up believing that birthdays are for children, or maybe occasionally for big milestones like reaching 60 or 90. Sometimes I feel like it might be nice to have a little more. Like a cake maybe. But I would feel silly asking for more as a grown adult in my thirties.

        And I realised at some point that a lot of that is just because my parents grew up with Name Days and with birthdays being totally not a thing.

        (The weakness, BTW, of the Name Day system is if you weren’t named after a Catholic saint, you won’t have a name day. Such people apparently didn’t exist in Poland when my parents were growing up! Except I know there were Jewish people living in Poland during my parents’ childhoods, so they must have had some completely different tradition?)

  31. Mine is: I’m 40 and I’ve realised I actively Don’t Like, Don’t Want presents. Last year I had a big party do it was easy to do a “please donate to Refugee Action smiley face!!”, but I’m realising that this applies to all birthdays and Christmas and that my partner, my dad and my small kids are the only people who I actively want presents from, and presents from anywhere else really stress me out. I need to get a bit more assertive about NO I REALLY MEAN IT this year.

    1. Cosigned.

      In my case it’s due to some issues left over from a neglectful childhood where there were sometimes no gifts (because they didn’t bother, not because there wasn’t enough money) and sometimes gifts which were a trick or a test (“I know you said you wanted xyz but you’re wrong to want that and here’s what you should have asked for and you are so ungrateful” or “here is your gift but you can’t keep it”.

      I skirt close to a nervous breakdown every year as my birthday approaches, because I’m bracing for the criticism or disappointment (or both, yay), to the extent that I don’t think my now-friends actually know when my birthday is, because I’m so pathologically afraid of it.

      I love organising parties, though. I love spoiling and thrilling people who enjoy that. Props and costumes and themed food and dancing and “yes of course” and lots and lots of photos. But never as a full surprise (*heave*) even if there are surprises within it, and only ever for people who are 110% on board with being the centre of attention.

      Holiday parties are a nice way to have a party without being the centre of attention, and without attracting gifts. I mean Hallowe’en or Eurovision or St Patrick’s or Easter or whatever, a time when people are happy to get together with food/games/music/props/whatever but without having one single person be the focus. If you want all the best bits of a birthday party but without the awkward birthday bits, this is what I’d recommend!

    2. Asking for no gifts turned out, for me, to be a way to learn some truths about my friends. Because most of my friends had no problem with that request, one friend teased me a little but then moved on, and one guy completely ignored it and got me gifts anyway. Which always sounds like a silly thing to complain about, except the problem is less the gifts themselves (well, except for how none of them were at all things I liked) and more with how he was repeatedly ignoring a very simple request. And then I realized that he did that kind of thing a lot. And then I realized I really didn’t want to be friends with him after all.

    3. I totally feel that! Birthdays aren’t a huge deal for me (I’ll usually say “let’s go to a museum, it’s my birthday!” in my local-friends WhatsApp group but not insist that everyone turn up). I often struggle with life admin stuff and I find that trying to keep track of other people’s birthdays and buying presents and sending the cards on time is a hellish minefield of forgetting things and guilt. And so I don’t really like it when friends buy me birthday presents because then I have to reciprocate and spend the entire year worrying about it. And then there’s trying to match the size/expense of gifts, etc… Augh, it’s a nightmare.

      I wish everyone who cared could just send out a message and a gift registry or guidelines explaining what’s important to them a month ahead of time and then I could plan that exact thing in a timely fashion.

  32. Question: are there circles/cultures where friends organise parties for each other? I’ve never been to an “organised by someone else” party in my life, except maybe a couple of “husband is 60/70, wife is the designated party organiser” ones. (And even then, my dad and his brother and sister all organised and paid for their own parties. I organised my own 40th and my partner organised her 40th: we joint-hosted because we live together, but we both initiatedand organised ourselves!

    In my circles, you organise it yourself, and your friends and family show they love you by turning up. I’ve aleayd thought of the, “we threw you a party!” as a cheesy tv thing. But does it really happen?

    1. I did have a friend who asked me to organize her birthday party for her. It felt reasonable in the context it was coming from. She didn’t have anybody else to throw it for her, and in her circles, throwing your own party was less of a thing. I didn’t really have to do anything other than pick a place and tell our mutual friends about it. I liked how she asked. She was pretty humble and also very straightforward about it. On the other hand, an acquaintance (X) once asked my friend (Y) to throw X’s going away party, and I found it inappropriate. Maybe it had to do with the nature of the connection. The friend who asked about the birthday party was very close at the time.

      That said, for myself and my close circle I’m much more a fan of the birthday haver being the main planner. Not saying that it’s better or worse. For me, it’s a lot more simple and anxiety reducing. In my closest family circle, the tradition is that the birthday person picks the date, time, and location, usually for dinner, and someone(s) else pays. There may or may not be presents, depending on the economy that year, and that is understood by all. This tradition came about over time with discussions over the years, and now it’s an established understanding. And it’s kind of fluid too, because people change and preferences change.

    2. In my experience, friends throwing parties for each other is a thing in college and in one’s early 20s. As people get older they start to either have partners throw them or throw their own. The big exception is probably major milestone birthdays (decade marks and so on).

    3. A friend of mine threw me a surprise 16th birthday party (or maybe 17th? one of those). And my mom definitely planned my dad’s 40th party, as did my brother-in-law for my sister-in-law. So I agree with adios pantalones, I guess, is what I’m saying (though our party organizing in college was limited to decorating someone else’s room as a surprise — one year a dear friend crawled under the crepe paper we’d zigzagged across her door for the entire day, and it reminded me of all the things I liked about her.)

    4. Not in my experience, but there’s a very opinionated group of people on the internet who are absolutely convinced that an adult should never throw their own birthday parties and write angry rants about it! Everyone I’ve ever known has thrown their own though, and planned anything they want done.

      1. Yeah, posting to, say, the chowhound forums about birthday dinners is always super-hilarious*, because there are SUCH deep divides of etiquette between groups. (They’re not cleanly aligned with generational boundaries, but some were more common in different age groups, so it also would trigger a round of Kids These Days.) Generally this didn’t even happen because the OP was asking about etiquette, they just wanted to know what restaurant in [city] could accommodate a crowd of [number] with an approximate cost of [budget], but somewhere it came out that this was a birthday party.

        * Your definition of hilarious may vary.

        1. Oh never mind we’re having a round of it down later in the comments here too. SIGH.

    1. When I turned 30 earlier this year, I bought myself a rose gold tiara with rhinestones, and the number 30 on it. No regrets.

  33. Since surprise parties were mentioned: I can’t believe I’ve never seen this particular thing come up in an advice column, but for heaven’s sake, if you plan a surprise birthday party for a married person, PLEASE consult their spouse!

    Yes, this actually happened. Some coworker friends of my husband threw a surprise birthday party for him a few years ago that was just as much of a surprise to me, and not in a good way. (I work at the same company, and they had met me before, so there was no good reason they couldn’t have contacted me in advance.) There are two sets of people at a surprise party: those who are in on the surprise, and the guest(s) of honor. Since I don’t happen to share a birthday with my husband, I was in the very awkward position of being neither of those, and I felt left out and disrespected. It really hurt – not to mention we could have had conflicting plans that I could have told them about.

    1. Just to clarify: although coworkers planned the party, it was at their house on a weekend, not at work. I wouldn’t have thought twice about being left out if it had been an at-work thing.

  34. Birthdays really stress me out 😂 I’m not on FB, so trying to keep track of 2 sibling and 2 stepsibling birthdays, plus associated parents, grandparents and cousins is *exhausting*. I’ve not yet had a year when I’ve remembered everyone I’m supposed to remember. /o\

    We’ve kind of worked out an agreement where I don’t ask anyone to celebrate my birthday, and I don’t celebrate anyone else’s unless they say “hey! please celebrate my birthday!” That way i have a manageable amount of birthdays to do the partying for, and everyone else can decide if they have the capability to celebrate mine.

  35. My birthday always falls on the first week of school in the autumn.

    Growing up, with three children to get school supplies for, money was always a wee bit tight, didn’t get much around that time save school books and uniforms. As a result, I’m quite agnostic about birthdays, to the point where nobody knows which day it is (save for my SO and a few close friends).

    On that day, I bake/order cheese cake for myself and its fine. I do tell people flat out that I don’t celebrate birthdays, so if that’s a deal breaker re: friendship, that’s fine, we can find other friends. That being said, I’ll send cards in the post or give gifts just because, but I’ll bow out for birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays and the like.

  36. Can I also say that you have permission to do whatever pleases you? I hate MY birthday. It usually ends up sucking. I celebrated it with my partner this year and he said we could do anything I wanted… So we did. We spent 4 hours helping a local family in crisis move house. We drove somewhere relatively inaccessible, helped pack his station wagon, a rented truck and a trailer and then helped unpack at the new home. We didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday and went out for a meal and a movie after. Taking the pressure off “The big day” and doing something useful made it my best birthday in years. And because he meant it when he said we could do anything I wanted he didn’t question or whinge or complain and it made for some great memories.

  37. Oh, man. Having just come off the back of organising a three-day hen weekend surprise extravaganza to the degree that nobody in my life has ever done for me do I have FEELINGS about this thread.

    That said, I have used the event as an excuse to repeatedly remind my sister (the bride-to-be) and my husband that, one day, I would really love some sort of big surprise (or even just an event that I don’t have to organise), and yes I KNOW that I’m a bit of a control freak but I’m turning 40 in three years and y’all better be making a big deal out of it because like fuck am I planning it myself. Your friend with the email a few months in advance is my new inspiration. My loved ones can expect similar come January 2022.

  38. Yeah, I have a summer birthday and when I was a kid we learned not to try to have big parties. Instead I’d choose 3-4 friends who were available and we’ do something cooler/more expensive. One year we went to the opera (look, I was a strange child), some years it was a water park or other amusement park, but it was always something which would have been too annoying/extravagant to do with a large group and since I was so limited it was less of a problem if half of my friends were off at camp – that just made my choice easier.

    Currently, the family tradition for adults is we find a really nice, usually expensive, restaurant that’s a little further and/or more pricey than we’d normally go to and do that as a special treat on one of the weekends close to the birthday.

  39. Your birthday should never be a demand that other people celebrate you: “You all show *me* how much you love *me*!”

    Instead, your birthday should be a prompt to bring other people the pleasure of knowing you: “Here’s how much *I* love you all!”

    I have an intractable gut feeling that 21+ adults who need people to care about their birthdays are unattractively needy. The more someone cares and especially the more they “need,” the less I respect them, as a person.

    I know my antipathy for strong birthday-carers is far from universal and I will occasionally fake enthusiasm to keep the peace, but my intractable gut feeling has only grown stronger over time. I see birthday-carers as using birthdays to impose their will on others, even if it’s only the moderate pressure to attend because “but it’s my biiiirthdaaaaay!” When presents and attendance costs are also demanded, I consider birthdays to be mild emotional extortion.

    For me, the ideal and dignified way for someone to celebrate themselves is to genuinely *host* an event, without attempting to extract event expenses or presents from their guests (though I have plenty of room for potlucks or BYOB policies). Less dignified – but acceptable – is organizing spendy pay-your-way activities like the Cap’s pig roast, but there should be no expectation to bring presents or pay the birthday-haver’s portion.

    And no third party should *ever* be asked to host someone’s birthday. It’s fine for a birthday-haver to accept a third-party’s offer to host, but the offer must be totally unsolicited.

    1. Wow, thanks for that. I really enjoyed being told I’m ‘unattractively needy’. Fabulous.

    2. I do think that there are differing cultural norms and expectations about these things, and your approach is probably fairly far towards one end of range .
      And in practice, I think sometimes those who need people to care about their birthday are the same people who care about and make an effort for, others birthdays, so it can be less ‘I need you to care about my birthday’ and more ‘I wasnt to be shown that you care about me as much as I care about you’
      There are of course problems with that as well, as not eveyone shows their feelings inthe same way or cares the amount about the same things, but I don’t think it’s quite as straightforward as ‘wanting people to remember your birthday’ = needy and demanding.

      I do agree with the captain that letting people know what you would like is appropriuatwe and I think also that you care about people, it’s equally importnat and appropriate to pay attention when your friends / family let you know what they would lik, and to follow through – not becuae evrypne deserves a birthday party, but becuase if you care about peopl, you pay attention to what makes them happy, and what languages of lov ethey speak, as well as to your own feelings.

    3. What a thoughtless, unkind, self-centred, demanding, selfish comment.

      I hope everyone in your life soon learns not to bother ever inviting you to any event ever. That way everyone stands a chance of being happy. They certainly will.

    4. I’m a relatively young person (not thirty yet) who by some measures has had a very hard life. A lot of my friends and family members have either died young or nearly lost their lives.

      Birthdays are important to me because it is neither guaranteed nor trivial that I or anyone I love will make it on the next trip all the way around the sun. You better believe I throw parties for whoever wants them. When I was single I threw myself a party and now that I’m partnered, my partner does one. I am the designated Cake Maker for all birthdays of loved ones; I always do a paper card; when I was on Facebook, I made a big old virtual social-media deal out of everyone’s birthdays, including my own. I’m doing it for them, for me, and for everyone I wish was here to still have a birthday. I don’t talk about the ones I’ve lost when I do it, because it feels morbid, so the bittersweet nature of the whole thing is probably lost on onlookers, but you better believe I’m thinking about them.

      If that sounds “unattractively needy” to you, well, you and I would not get along, to say the very least.

      1. I think you have a wonderful appreciation for marking another trip around the sun. Good for you.

      2. Adios pantalones, there is an ancient prayer expressing your “neither guaranteed nor trivial”: “Blessed are you [Higher Power of A Tradition Older Than Feudalism] who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.” Thank you for adding another layer of meaning to it.

      3. I am reminded of a story told by my parents: My dad was a bomber pilot in WWII. When birthdays rolled around, it was the practice to wish someone “Happy birthday! Hope you have another!”

        In easier times, it can be easy to forget that sometimes this is not a given!

    5. Well, that was a very rude way of expressing your opinion. Having different wishes, needs or preferences doesn’t make people bad, just incompatible sometimes. No need to be dismissive to others when you can just say that you dislike big birthday parties, or whatever your actual point was in between all that pontificating.

    6. A friend of mine once hosted a party and only mentioned it was her birthday after we were there. She probably did this to prove that she was unneedy, unmercenary, and unselfish (and to avoid anyone thinking “no gifts” was coy–she said having US THERE was the gift she had wanted). We wouldn’t have judged her if she HAD said it was her birthday. Besides remembering it as the only party I’ve seen done by Miss Manners’ directions for “birthday adults”, I remember playing Fictionary for the first time, and even winning a round. Against a professional lexicographer. And her cat sat on my husband’s lap the whole time.

      My memory of a brilliant occasion is now somewhat admixed with the knowledge that some people’s birthday parties are stealth for fear of being judged extortionate.

    7. “your birthday should be a prompt to bring other people the pleasure of knowing you” – I’m having a hard time parsing out what that means and how it’s effectually any different from a normal birthday party.

      On one hand, I maybe get what you’re saying, in that the reality is that sometimes other people’s birthdays (or weddings, or baby showers, or whatever) simply land at an inconvenient time in our busy adult lives. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to drop everything to do something big every year — especially if that will co-opt your birthday as being the One Big Event everyone has time or money or travel allowance for that year. Nor is it reasonable to demand people spend more money than normal, under threat of “insufficient birthday participation” being a potentially friendship-ending event. If you pin your self-worth on people caring about your birthday, you’re going to have a bad time.

      BUT. People who don’t show up for their loved ones or show they care are also “unattractive.” It’s actually a pet peeve of mine when people in a friend group will treat someone’s birthday the same as any run-of-the-mill casual gathering and not make any sort of special effort to attend. I think it’s normal for people to, every so often, want some type of “celebrate me!” event as reassurance that they’re loved. And big or expensive events are not across-the-board unreasonable; for example, if the dynamic in the group is such that it’s normal to spend money on events or dinners out when getting together, then I see no reason why a birthday should be more toned-down than a normal gathering.

      I think the key for me is reciprocity, and birthdays can be touchy because they can seem to signal lack of reciprocity in a relationship. I’ve had an out-of-town friend suggest a couple years in a row that I fly across the country to visit her on her birthday weekend (with the subtle intonation being, as you say, that there’s extra pressure to drop everything then because it’s her birthday), but it only bothered me because when I suggested that I fly to her for one of my milestone birthdays, she said it was an inconvenient weekend for me to come.

      1. “I think it’s normal for people to, every so often, want some type of “celebrate me!” event as reassurance that they’re loved.”

        I think this is the central idea I’m not understanding, maybe.

        I do most of the initiating in my social circle, with most of the weekend proposals of “this movie, and maybe this or that restaurant?” falling to me. My closer friends accept a lot of the time, and that’s a lot more validating than wondering if they only showed up on my birthday because they subscribe to the cultural convention that ALL birthdays are deserving of special observance.

        I mean, if people voluntarily hang with you, then that’s how you know they love you, isn’t it? The buddy that I text every day obviously loves me a lot more than the ex-coworker I haven’t talked to in years, despite my buddy not knowing my birthday and the ex-coworker dutifully typing “Happy Birthday” in response to Facebook’s prompting.

        And for things like traveling to out-of-town friends – or any big, special thing, really – isn’t it more productive (and caring) to focus on mutual availability and affordability so you definitely do that awesome thing, without pressure to hit an arbitrary target on a calendar as special proof of love? I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to prove their love to me by paying more for a plane ticket, or to prioritize my event over another they’d rather attend, or even to spend four seconds typing “Happy Birthday!” on FB.

        1. Story Girl, when it comes down to it, EVERYTHING is a cultural convention. How we make and respond to invitations of any sort is a cultural convention. Every holiday in the year is a cultural convention. Greetings are cultural conventions, the way we say goodbye is a cultural convention, accepted forms of small talk are cultural conventions. The way we arrange schooling and families and friend circles are ALL cultural conventions. If there’s a cultural convention you don’t like, it is completely and utterly meaningless to say that you don’t like it because it’s a cultural convention.

          You’re taking YOUR preferences and YOUR ideas of how other people should show YOU they love you and acting like every other person in the world should feel the same. No one here is telling you you have to have a birthday celebration and no one here is telling you you have to attend birthday celebrations if you don’t want to. There are just natural consequences to that. If what you want is carte blanche to ignore birthdays and not have anyone ever get their feelings hurt about it, that’s not going to happen, ever. They’re the boss of them and they get to feel how they feel.

        2. I think there are at least a few things at play that make the designated “celebrate me” day important for a lot of people. The first is that, yes, it’s a cultural thing that we often celebrate people for various things. If you look around and the people around you are often getting special treatment for special days, I think it’s not an unusual reaction to think “what about me?”

          The second is that I think holidays likely sprang up in our culture and have remained a thing because they serve as a reminder to do something that we’d love to do all year but often forget or don’t have time. They remind us to put everything aside and spend time with loved ones and tell people we care about them (with words or gifts or time). For religious holidays, they remind observers to worship in certain ways and connect to their religion. For birthdays, they remind us to make someone feel special every so often.

          The third is that, to me, a really good friendship requires more than doing things together only when convenient and only when it’s something we both want to do. I definitely have friendships that I’d consider not-so-deep, where it’s built around conveniently accompanying each other to a mutual interest. But for my really close friends, it’s important to me to trust that we care about each other enough that we’ll go out of our way to do something for the other person. I want to feel like if I need help, the close people in my life will be willing to drop other things to help. Birthdays sort of act like a test of that, which sounds sort of bad, but I think it can be meaningful when people take that opportunity to go a little out of their way to celebrate someone. Like in your movie example, it can sometimes be hard to tell if your friend really cares about you in a I-would-go-out-of-my-way sense, or if they just wanted to see that movie. If I have a friend I regularly see and invite them to do something for my birthday, and they decline because it’s not exactly what they want to do or not the very most convenient thing in the world, I’m going to be inclined to put them in the “not so close, convenience around mutual interest friend” category absent other evidence. They could obviously prove me wrong by stepping up on other days of the year, but sometimes something as simple as a birthday is the only “test” we have for a new-ish friend.

          And I say this as someone who doesn’t really like holidays and has not made a big deal of my birthdays through most of my 20s and 30s. But when someone invites me to their birthday thing, I make a much bigger effort to participate than I would if someone just invited me to a movie.

          And for the out-of-town friend example, it bothered me when she declined me making the effort to visit because (1) the reason I suggested it was that a huge milestone birthday happened to fall in a year of my life where I had just ended a long relationship and was finding myself without a support system nearby, and feeling very down about the prospect that I might not have anyone around to celebrate with, and (2) her reason for wanting me to come another weekend instead was that she had one other short event that weekend (during which I would have happily otherwise occupied myself while she attended) but a later weekend was mildly more convenient for her because she had nothing going on. This just corroborated the other evidence that was starting to pile up to indicate that she always only wanted to do whatever was most convenient for her, and was not a friend who would go out of her way for me when I needed someone.

          (You also have to keep in mind that everyone has a different sense of what a “big, special thing” is. I’m not talking about expecting people to make huge expenditures of time and money that they don’t normally make. I’m talking about making the small extra effort to show up even when there’s something else you’d slightly rather do.)

          1. Sorry for the long-windedness, but just want to add: I think what I’m trying to say is that the “pressure” to go a little out of your way sometimes to make someone else feel cared for is not necessarily a negative thing. It’s part of a social contract where people will reciprocate by then going a little out of their way for you in return. I think where we disconnect is that you seem to see any expectation that you’ll veer a little outside of exactly what you feel like doing in that moment as a big negative “pressure” that is to be avoided at all costs.

          2. This is really interesting to me because I’m learning how different people’s ideas and expectations of friendship can be! I don’t think either way is right or wrong, though there’s probably something of a continuum that would affect people’s friendship compatibility.

            Doing things we both want to do when it’s convenient is the essence of what my friendships are. That plus nonstop, free-flowing conversation whenever we’re together.

            Helping each other is also important, but for me, being willing to help in a crisis or being willing to plan ahead of time and then help in a non-crisis are very different things from being willing to do a social activity that doesn’t interest me or that would involve dropping something else important to me.

            I guess I might feel differently if I actually had people telling me they can’t come to an event because it’s not exactly what they want to do or not the most convenient thing in the world. Most of what I get is stuff like going to be out of town, unspecified other plans, family obligations, rehearsals or other commitments, uncertain health/spoons/social energy, and sometimes stuff like they really just don’t do games/heat/long car trips. I don’t feel like I’m in a place to determine whether my thing should be more important than whatever else is going on.

            In the case of the out-of-town friend, I probably would have gone along with a friend in that situation coming up that weekend if they explained how important it was, but I almost certainly would have asked for a different weekend as well because I’d prefer to be able to spend the whole weekend with my visiting friend and it’s less stressful to have to juggle fewer things. YMMV, of course.

      2. “It’s actually a pet peeve of mine when people in a friend group will treat someone’s birthday the same as any run-of-the-mill casual gathering and not make any sort of special effort to attend.”

        I would have a hard time being part of a friend group where most people felt this way. If there are 10 people in the group, that means 10 birthdays every year. It’s not at all unlikely that there will be a couple months with more than one birthday. It’s not at all unlikely that one of the birthdays will fall during a busy time of year for at least some people in the group.

        1. Hmm, we might not be far apart in what we’re saying. I’m definitely not trying to say that I think it should be absolutely mandatory to attend all 10 birthdays, or that it’s not okay to miss because Life Stuff came up. But what I’m reading TheStoryGirl as saying is basically that she thinks nobody should expect any special effort on birthdays and that nobody should feel any pressure to show up if they’d rather do something else. To me there’s a big difference between randomly being invited to watch a movie with someone, and being invited to their birthday. For the movie invite, I might sometimes decline/suggest something different because it’s mildly inconvenient for me or I don’t want to see that movie or I’m kind of tired or… For the birthday invite, if it’s someone I care about, I personally treat that as an “I will be there unless it will be very difficult to go”.

          1. For me, it’ll depend somewhat on what the celebration is. If it’s just dinner or a party at someone’s house, sure I’ll be there if I’m not already committed (or chasing non-rainy weekends for hiking day trips) – though it will likely take some planning ahead to make sure I’m not already committed. But that’s more or less how I am with most invites from my friends, if it’s something I mostly enjoy doing. If the celebration is going to a club with loud music, or if it’s starting after 9:00, or if people are going to be smoking, I need to not be there. There might be a few things I’d attend for a friend’s birthday that I wouldn’t otherwise, but it’s a pretty small group of things. I suspect I’m somewhere between you and StoryGirl on the continuum 🙂

    8. @Story Girl,

      There’s so little here about how you personally enjoy celebrating, and so much about what other people should do and what you think of people who do it wrong. I reckon that these strictures and judgments apply to you, and you can certainly make them known as preferences to people close to you, but they are not even close to generally applicable, and I’d encourage readers who feel “needy” or otherwise wanting by this calculus to scroll on by.

      It’s ok to have desires and needs about rituals and celebrations.

    9. TheStoryGirl; ‘I have an intractable gut feeling… ‘

      So have I, after reading that lot. Perhaps it is catching …

  40. This one struck a chord with me. I had a stillborn twin and so my childhood birthdays were comical miserable and included the ritualistic lighting of the dead baby candle. Now days I’m fairly clear about what I want on my birthday which is cake, no party or presents and some sort of relaxed but fun experience like going to see a movie. This hasn’t stopped people from ignoring my wishes. One year my aunt decided that what I really wanted was a suprise party where every single guest had to write something nice about me on a card and then stand up and recite it in front of me including my cousin’s new girlfriend who I was meeting for the first time (hers was “you seem nice”). It was excruciating and was followed by my aunt presenting me with a literal sack of presents all of which were owl themed. I don’t have an extraordinary love of owls and had never been associated with them before or since

    1. WOW. Your parents and your aunt have all been incredibly insensitive. The childhood birthdays in particular sound like they were punishing you and heaping on the guilt for being the one who lived, when they should have been celebrating their living child and never grieving in front of you if they could possibly help it. All the Jedi hugs if you want them.

  41. Over the last few years I have realised that what I want most for my birthday is for it to go *totally* unremarked upon at work, ideally because I have that week off. You aren’t my friends, work dudes, please lets not pretend. I don’t want any Facebook birthday greetings (they’re so boring and repetetive and I know you’re all trying to be nice but actually my phone is just blowing up with notifications, which I also hate). I just want to have some nice treats – food, drinks, maybe a new book or something – and I’m very happy to get them for myself. The only thing I would want from anyone else – if anything – is a “hey, wanna hang out and do some fun birthday stuff?” because that has more meaning to me. But I also totally get that people don’t remember it’s your birthday if you don’t tell them about it. Basically birthdays are my me-time 😉

    1. Can you mute notifications, at least around that day, for the most likely Obligatory Greetings sources?
      A little muting the night before can save a lot of brain tranquility.

      1. Oh in the end I took my birthday off facebook altogether. Muting them doesn’t get rid of them sufficiently; they still wait for you when you open the app even if they’re not pinging your phone constantly.

        1. Aha, didn’t know that, as I’ve never been on Facebook at all
          High-five of solidarity for the No Greeting is prefered over Perfunctory Greeting camp.

    2. I kind of feel the opposite–I would like to get a card or cookies or something on my birthday. I never will, because I am the office secretary, i.e. keeper of the birthdays, arranger of the snacks, coordinator of the gifts and cards. I remember everyone else’s and no one bothers with mine. I could bring in a treat for myself, but eh.

      1. That definitely sucks, you’re doing all that emotional Labour for everyone else and getting nothing back; I totally see how that would warrant grouchy feelings! (I don’t generally observe coworkers birthdays etc either so the dynamic is pretty reciprocal in my case, whereas it doesn’t seem to be in yours).

        Happy birthday, whenever it is, from an internet stranger x

      2. Oh no! That’s so unfair! I wonder with your office dynamics what is the best way of dealing with that! Because, as miriosaur points out, the burden of unbalanced emotional labour really eats you up. Could you go to your manager or another secretary if you have a good relationship with them and remind them of your birthday and ask if you cam transfer birthday organizing duties for your upcoming birthday? Or is your office open to use of humour and you would feel comfortable openly tabling it as an agenda item at a staff meeting or sending around an email to ask who wants to nominate themselves to be the Temporarily Designated Birthday Organiser to the Substantive Organiser? I’m sure many people in the office would be mortified if they realised they had forgotten and love to make a Big Fuss (or Medium/Low Fuss as preferred)

    3. The custom that has settled out at my work is that it is the birthday-haver who brings in treats for the office on their birthday. For those of us who are twitchy about sharing birthday details, this also lends plausible deniability if one wants to provide office treats “just because”—or not at all.

  42. In a perfect world I would just ignore the whole thing. I feel the same way about. The Holidays.

    1. I don’t suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder, though it would be something people might understand if I did. I suffer from I Dread The Holidays Disorder, which starts mid-October (my birthday through to March 17th (St. Patrick’s Day, which is a HUGE deal where I live now to the point that, for decades, most local businesses have just given up and given everyone the day off).

      My family is difficult. My father died when I was young, my paternal grandparents are dead (and, frankly, were abusive to Dad all his life and pretty much ignored My brother and I in favor of his sister’s kids, then they abandoned us 100% after he died, and extended family didn’t recognize us AND tried to keep us from attending my grandfather’s funeral, so when that grandmother died a few years later, we didn’t bother even trying), and my maternal grandparents are also gone. My remaining family is just…stressful. Narcissist mother is the worst of the batch, and brother is much improved in recent years, but holidays are just fraught. Lots of memories, not all great. Lots of traditions, few of which I ever actually enjoyed growing up. Lots of religion thrown my way, more so as my mother has decided religion is an excellent way to feel better than other people and embrace hypocrisy. I’m also the only really obvious liberal-leaning adult in the extended family, and whereas no one is going to go to a Trump rally any time soon, some also will vote for him all over again, even though they allegedly hate all the things he is doing (his one saving grace is that he says he is not a Democrat, and that is literally it).

      My birthday was an opportunity to abuse me when I was growing up, and it was taken away several times when I was young for minor infractions. Now that I am older, my birthday is often a day to reflect on where I thought I’d be and where I am, and it’s usually depressing.

      Hallowe’en was nice when I was young, and I still enjoy it when I can. If my birthday and Hallowe’en go well, my Holiday Dread kicks in mid-November rather than mid-October.

      Thanksgiving gets overly religious, I really don’t like any of the traditional foods beyond the (usually dry) turkey and (usually lumpy) potatoes. Everyone is either forced to eat long before they are hungry, with all the sports-obsessed distracted by sports, or it starts so late I have or risk having a hypoglycaemic faint, or have nibbled at junk to keep from having a low blood sugar faint. It’s time to nitpick (perfectly acceptable) etiquette. It’s horribly labor-intensive. In the past, I tried to invite friends abandoned by their families to my family’s Thanksgiving and my gay guy friend and my mixed-race roommate were both denied (so i didn’t go either). Friendsgivings are so much nicer.

      Christmas amps up the religion to a whole other level, plus there’s a lot of passive-aggressive gifting of gifts (from my Narcissist Mom) that are intended to tell people you know nothing about what they really like, or that you don’t like something about them. Or there are gifts that require the receiver to do some kind of labor, e.g., a calligraphy set and parchment paper because my mom wanted a hand-calligraphed prayer done by me for free for her home office. I’ve had to stay home, and it’s pretty clear I’m not missed that much by my family (my friends I usually only see at Xmas time miss me more), but my animals like not having to travel. (I am not a total Scrooge: I participate in work-related holiday stuff, and I put up a fiber-optic tree that glows and flickers in multicolors or just white and it makes me happy, and that is sufficient. It is also strung with colored lights that I can plug in or out, so I can have a flickering white tree plus colored lights. Best purchases ever.)

      The New Year is, like my birthday, a holiday to reflect on where I am as opposed to where I would ideally be. I’m not a big drinker and hate crowds, and most of my friends live elsewhere, so it is also a time to reflect on the small size of my social network these days. Of course, there are also LOUD FUCKING NOISES a week before and a week after the actual holiday, because I live in a red state that likes things that go boom. Is it fireworks, or gunshots? It’s BOTH. They will be setting things on fire until the wee small hours for about two weeks straight. Enjoy.

      Valentine’s is awkward whether in a relationship or not. Is this too much? Is this not enough? If single, it’s yet another reminder of old loves lost, and my introversion and awkwardness.

      St. Patrick’s Day is another “drinking a lot while struggling to find parking and dealing with a huge crowd” holiday, plus there’s rain 75% of the time.

      I find holidays stressful because they all seem to cost money and I seem to have a choice of being alone (a choice I opt for more often these days, and am OK with) or I need to deal with being bludgeoned by religion or swarmed by drunk people.

      When I had a large circle of friends, I threw quarterly parties that weren’t really holiday-related (thought we had a Libra party in October, because about a dozen of us were Libra babies). It’s not misanthropy, at any rate.

      Holidays are supposed to be enjoyable. I’ve been working hard the past few years to make them actually enjoyable FOR ME and for my friends who struggle similarly.

      No lightbox or boost in brain meds fixes holiday blues, that is what I am saying. Especially is part of the blues is due to old unresolved family crap that has imprinted on your brain. New traditions will probably be what fixes this, eventually.

      I’ve enjoyed a lot of the ideas people have shared for celebrating birthdays differently. I think many can be applied to other holidays, actually. Thank you.

      P.S. Mister “Bronc” Awkward is adorable. ❤

  43. Thanks for this!

    I have a summer birthday. I was home schooled. So it shouldn’t have made a difference, but summer is summer. So my extrovert sister’s birthday a few months earlier would be lavishly celebrated by everyone…and mine was largely forgotten, even by my family.

    On the other hand, my mom really wanted my sweet 16 to be a BIG THING and I had no idea what to do with that. I had more friends over than usual and we ate cake.

    So, I end up feeling conflicted. Mostly I just want my family to acknowledge it with a gift I would actually like. But not to plan a BIG THING, either.

    1. Wanting to be acknowledged for who you actually are, not who you’re supposed to be or who others wish you were, is perfectly ok.

  44. I’ve been in different moods for different birthdays, honestly.
    I was so excited last year to celebrate with a partner for the first time ever, but when this year rolled around and I was single again, I remembered how his present to me had been a bottle of supermarket wine, and at the end of dinner, he said he was short at the end of the month so could I pay for us both. It felt minor at the time but given we ended because of his looseness with my money, that memory a) meant I didn’t miss him at all, and b) who you celebrate your birthday with in any given year isn’t really the milestone I’d built it up to be.

  45. I don’t celebrate my own birthday and haven’t for years. I don’t tell new people in my life the date until I know they can be good about me not celebrating ever. I just let time happen quietly on its own mostly, maybe get my self a quiet, private self-indulgence. Due to some issues over birthdays and holidays in general, for a long time my policy has been not to celebrate other people’s birthdays unless invited to a Birthday Event of some sort (if I can afford the time/money to go). No one got cards or presents from me unless that was explicitly part of the Event. This was what I needed for a long time to keep my brain quiet.

    Recently I have been doing better mentally and have been looking for more ways to acknowledge things that are important to my friends. The friends who are very vocal about how excited they are about their upcoming birthday and when it is and how important it is to them and how they want it celebrated? I do my best to celebrate their birthday. I adore my friends who spell out what they need. Whether they just need a small happy birthday message or if they are really hoping for a gift. Knowing what will make my friends happy makes it so much easier (in terms of effort and fighting lingering traces of difficult brain) to make them happy!

  46. Being chronically-ill can make birthdays extra hard.

    I often find my birthday a major grief/Depression trigger since it reminds me that it has been
    X years since I was well enough to do any paid work;
    X years since I was well enough to travel;
    X years since I was well enough to do hobbies that I enjoy…

    I didn’t do anything special for my 40th. I was just too sick and too exhausted to organise a big party, plus when I’ve invited people out to dinner for my birthday in the past, I usually only get three friends + my partner turning up, which makes me feel like everyone else in my life doesn’t care.

    People usually have good reasons for not coming to birthday dinner – they need to do childcare; they’re sick; they’re travelling; they have food restrictions that make eating out hard – but it doesn’t make it hurt one atom any less.

  47. I loved this whole entire post. I loved the translation of feelings/questions/issues, and I love that you told your mom about the surprise.

  48. What I DON’T want for my birthday:

    birthday presents [they always make me feel lonely/unseen/misunderstood, because they’re always completely wrong for me];

    birthday cards

    What I DO want:

    Friendly text messages/SMSes;

    Facebook birthday wishes;

    A group of my friends spending time with me on my birthday over a meal or otherwise enjoying each others company

    Unfortunately, since I got sick [and also since my friends had kids], getting what I do want seems nigh-impossible. 😦

    1. “birthday presents [they always make me feel lonely/unseen/misunderstood, because they’re always completely wrong for me]”

      +1000 for this – having a “wrong” present is sadder and lonelier than no present, whether it’s because they don’t understand you or because they want to change you into a different kind of person. Plus a layer of guilt at being ungrateful, and at the *waste*.

  49. I’m kinda fascinated by this whole thing because I have a huge extended family with most living within a half hour drive and we would do get togethers probably 6-7 times per year and celebrate the birthdays relatively close to it. It would generally go with another holiday. So all the septembers birthday people would be celebrated at the labor day party. We just had a July 4th party (on the 6th) that also was a graduation and birthday celebration too. That way, it was only a mess once, only one cake needed, etc. If the kids wanted a party for friends, they would host it on their own at their parents place at a different place and time. Other than that, we just wish each other happy birthday on the day. It also meant that relatives further away could come up and celebrate a bunch if things at once and they aren’t also missing out.

    With my roomie/best friend, we just ask each other what we want. The first year we lived together, she forgot my birthday and was so incredibly frantic about it. After that I made sure to tell her, explicitly that I didn’t care and she could just take me out to dinner around the time of my birthday. Her family made a big deal about birthdays so it was understandable. We both split the difference on birthday backgrounds, we go out for a low key dinner and generally do one relatively inexpensive gift. I honestly don’t care but it also makes her feel better so I go with it. I often don’t know what to get people for gifts so I ask. This year, she wanted a Boston creme pie and to go to brunch. So I made it and did research on brunch places.

    I think birthdays are somewhere you really need to be clear about expectations and what you want because it can vary so much between families, regions and cultures and also personal preference.

  50. A sad subject for me at the moment.
    1. I absolutely love other people’s birthdays and I am the real life Leslie Knope of thoughtful gift-giving. However I was recently told (gently! kindly!) that my gift-giving needs to be dialed down. Which stung.
    2. I am not a huge fan of my own birthday, but I do wish folks would send a card on occasion. It’s such a treat to get an actual card through the mail with a proper stamp.
    And the latest…:
    3. My brother died this year waiting for an organ transplant, at the end of March. On my birthday. A dear friend suggested that now I have two lives to celebrate which I guess is the least-shitty way to look at it.

    So right now I don’t have a lot of sympathy for grown-ass adults who whine that their birthday was not sufficiently feted – and I just mean the over the top types (‘I can’t BELIEVE it was a case of Cristal and not Dom!’). Everyone should have a nice birthday if they want one.

    1. The comment from your friend made me tear up. Jedi hugs if you want them.

      1. Thanks, I welcome all hugs. Yes my friend is really wonderful and I thought it was a lovely sentiment.

  51. I’m having a bit of a nose-out-of-joint moment regarding my birthday on Saturday.

    I’m the youngest out of my friends and we all hit big milestone birthdays in the last 2ish years. Being the last, however, means that very few people have funds left to go all out for my birthday but one friend, in particular, has upset me.

    I spent £800 to go to her birthday earlier in the year (on top of engagement/wedding/anniversary/christening/birthday trips and presents throughout our friendship while being single and childless myself) but although she’s been over here for the last month for gigs/festivals and seeing family (which is obviously, and rightly, her priority) she couldn’t make the effort to come to my party. Or arrange for lunch/dinner/drinks. Or call me while she was here.

    I just feel sad and a bit mad about it. I understand she has lots of friends and family that she has to balance, I understand she gets to spend her time and money how she wishes, I just want her to bump me up her “makes time for list” a bit. Just this once.

  52. Thank you for this Captain, it’s inspired me to do a better job asking for exactly what I want for my birthday next year and pushing back on some of the expectations I struggle with around my partner’s birthday.

    For reference, my ideal birthday:

    Party with a bunch of friends.

    Absolutely no singing, and absolutely no cake. Let’s eat something that tastes good and has neither frosting nor glaze, what I call the devil’s spittle.

    A bunch of Mediterranean food because it’s delicious and I never get to have it.

    A ton of (activity we all like that provides structured interaction, preferably board games) that goes into the wee hours.

    I provide a list of things I would like and my partner chooses one of and gets it for me.

    I get no gifts from anyone else, except my parents because I can’t stop that.

    My not ideal birthday that I usually have:

    An expensive dinner out as a couple in a place I get to float ideas for but my partner has veto power and ultimately decides.

    Either a ton of tchotchke gifts, a bunch of clothes that may or may not fit, or an expensive watch or accessory that I will wear for a month or so and then stop because I have ADHD and legitimately forget accessories if they’re not right in front of me/am uncomfortable wearing them. The only thing they have in common is they are never what I explicitly asked for.

    1. “The devil’s spittle,” I love it! I often feel like I am the only one I know who hates frosting/glaze!

      1. I always wanted unfrosted Angel Food for my birthday but my Mom wouldn’t do it on the grounds that nobody else would eat it.


        1. All of you frosting-haters can send your unwanted frosting to me.


          *shakes head in mystification*

        2. You should point out to your mom that spray-on frosting is totally a thing. (Not taking bets on whether she goes for it, though.)

  53. I love this. I’ll add only that while it can be slightly counter-intuitive at first, at least I found it so:

    If I don’t ask for The Nice Thing and I don’t get it, maybe I’m just not important to the person, maybe they’re having a slow day, maybe I’m worse at hinting than I thought.

    If I Use My Words and ask someone for a Nice Thing and they cheerfully and enthusiastically do that thing, I am DEFINITELY important to that person, and it’s a pretty delightful feeling, actually.

    Side note: when it comes to the birthdays of people one is really close to, if they have very particular desires, write that shit down? “It’s not that I haven’t used my words, it’s that they keep forgetting we had the conversation so I either have to repeat myself every year or pretend I like chocolate and hope they won’t suddenly remember in the middle of Caek Tiem” isn’t a great feeling…

    1. If I don’t ask for The Nice Thing and I don’t get it, maybe I’m just not important to the person, maybe they’re having a slow day, maybe I’m worse at hinting than I thought.

      If I Use My Words and ask someone for a Nice Thing and they cheerfully and enthusiastically do that thing, I am DEFINITELY important to that person, and it’s a pretty delightful feeling, actually.

      The catch is when you use your words and ask someone for a Nice Thing, and they either
      a) make excuses; or
      b) give valid reasons why it won’t work for them without suggesting an alternative that will work for them; or
      c) do nice thing, but are clearly grudging about it,
      it feels REALLY crappy. 😦

      1. This? Is undeniably the case, but at least if it happens a couple tikes running, you know?

  54. I’ve never planned any sort of “birthday week” or even “birthday weekend” sort of thing that’s full of different activities, but I’ve thought about it. If I did, I wouldn’t expect everyone to go to every single thing! The only reason it’s ever crossed my mind is because I know people’s schedules get bonkers around my birthday, and different people like to do different things, so the purpose of a birthday week (TO ME, anyway) isn’t to make everyone spend a whole week celebrating you, but to give everyone you’d like to celebrate with a few different options/chances to participate in the festivities. But I’ve always backed off because I know people scoff at the idea, and I’ve heard people say that only attention-starved divas have birthday weekends.

    The thing that makes me sad is that while there are certainly people around me who make me happy, and seem to enjoy my company, most of the time I try to celebrate my birthday hardly anyone comes, even it’s just one party, or a dinner somewhere. My 30th birthday party was awesome, but in general I don’t really bother.

    I’ve also heard that it’s tacky to throw your own birthday party, because it’s considered a “gift grab.” I don’t really expect presents from friends though, bring me a bottle of wine if you want but the only people I really want presents from are my immediate family and significant other. But apparently, your friends, roommates, or significant other is supposed to do that for you. But I broke that rule for my 30th, and may do it again, pearl-clutchers can die mad about it.

    Let’s see, what else . . . Oh, I’m weird about birthday messages on social media. If we know each other well and speak to each other in person, heck yeah, wish me a happy birthday! If we connected in college while working on a project, but never really hung out or had a meaningful conversation, don’t bother. Don’t just write it on my wall simply because you think you have to. I really wish I could communicate this preference on my actual Facenews without looking like a presumptuous or ungrateful bitch.

    1. A friend of mine loves celebrating her birthday and usually organises a week-long series of diverse activities to spend time with her different circles. It works for her because of the following:
      – she plans it all herself well in advance: suggests plans that would work for her, asks people which dates would work best, makes the reservations, etc.
      – she clearly communicates her expectations: cost of the activity, whether a gift is wanted, which gift is wanted, how much it costs, etc.
      – she tailors each activity to each circle. I.e.: she doesn’t ask her mom and sister to come to a scape room & board games session, nor does she ask us nerds-uninterested-in-nail-polish to go get a manicure with her. This way, she gets her fancy manicure AND her fun board games AND to spend time with everyone.
      – she doesn’t pressure people to attend. She’s ok with scaling down her plans or adjusting them to solo-activities if she wants to.
      This is good for her (she gets to do all the fun things she wants) and for her guests (everyone puts in as much or as little effort and money as they want. I usually just go to one small thing). It’s a metric ton of work for her, though, but she says she likes doing it, so it works for her.

      I think a lot of the “only attention-starved divas throw birthday weekends” mindset is bad ole mysoginia because throwing parties and sweet, pretty stuff are traditionally female-coded things, so. You should totally throw yourself a birthday week if that’s what you want. Provided you communicate clearly and don’t force anyone to attend (which it sounds like you wouldn’t), the nosy strangers who would criticise you can go kindly get fucked somewhere away from you.

      1. * or adjusting them to solo activities if she has to.
        I’m sorry, forgot to proof-read.

      2. YES, a friend of mine does this too and it’s great! There are some low-key hangings-out, some meal-gatherings, and some wild night shenanigans. She’s very clear about not expecting everyone to attend everything but also asking for RSVPs so she can plan, and it’s worked out so well. I’m a little too lazy to plan several things like this, but I love this approach!

        1. If you have the resources and like hosting things, it’s certainly fun! I do a variation on this theme, which is organising a Hallowe’en party for the people who can attend (late October birthdays ftw) and taking the loved ones who can’t out on a meal (or being treated by them) whenever we can get a hold of each other.

        2. I often do birthday week/month stuff because I have a birthday close to Christmas, and it’s much easier to have several dinners/outings with one or two friends apiece, than to try to find a date where more than a couple of people are available!

  55. Thank you, this is perfect timing as I was trying to remember how to say “I would like Indian food on Devon for my birthday and company but I can only pay for myself” and what you have up there is just what I need.

        1. The new (comic sans bold italic) USMANIA (/comic sans bold italic) location in the old Viceroy of India building is also VERY good. Their samosa crust is like a knish had a baby with a croissant.

  56. I could cry my birthday was so perfect this year. I had work and a three hour class, so when I got home at 8:45, my husband had cleaned the whole apartment, dressed up, got a nice haircut and beard trim, cooked a delicious steak meal, loaded the fridge with fancy beers and snacks as my present, and invited two friends over just long enough for cake with the understanding we were all going to bed very soon. (Luckily they live nearby and are night owls.)

    It was like walking into the most beautiful version of my own life.

  57. I don’t work on my birthday, taking a vacation day if I have to. And then I do *whatever I feel like*. I will walk the dog, clear out all dishes the night before, and steadfastly ignore laundry, and what I ask from my husband is that he feeds the kid / handles all kid monitoring unless kid and I plan something together (eg zoo trip). Hubs is welcome to join me for whatever I’m doing. Anyone is welcome to join me, but the last three years have been weekdays and by the time everyone is free, I’m tired out and ready to sleep.

    All I want for my birthday is freedom.

    1. As a child, I told my mother that I thought it was colossally unfair that adults didn’t get a paid day off work for their birthdays.

      I’m not sure I ever changed my mind on that one. 😀 Like, decent employers provide different sorts of paid time off (vacation, sick, bereavement), so why can’t there be a designated PTO day for a birthday? (I mean, even people who don’t want to do anything in particular for their birthdays might like having a paid day off work to do whatever they like, yeah?)

  58. Birthdays for me are…weird. My birthday is Christmas, and when you’re born on a holiday, especially a big one that shapes work calendars in the United States and has a shopping season and all that, you know pretty much from the beginning that you’re not that important and you will be forgotten, so it’s far easier and better for your self worth to just…deliberately stop caring. I’ve asked my parents to really stop celebrating my birthday, and I’ve never celebrated it with my friends. That being said, though, I’m one of those people who LOVES putting together stuff for other people’s birthdays–parties if they want them, presents if they want them, big feeling letters/emails/texts, the whole nine yards. It’s how I show my love for my friends and how much I care about them.

  59. i’m 41 and i always get in a funk around my bday because trying to organize my various friends and the things they like to do is a huge source of insecurity and anxiety. (and also we tend to have lots of hockey-team commitments the weekend of my birthday). best option for most people is a casual brunch at someone’s house (sometimes mine, although i dislike hosting), but sometimes i also want to be more boozy or nightlife-y and many of my friends aren’t into that.

    for my 35th, though, i invited folks to a house i rented in the woods for the weekend, which i thought was a big complicated ask and i was prepared for only a few people to accept. and EVERYONE CAME. some with their small kids, some from other cities. even though there was a snowstorm. they cooked delicious food and went snowshoeing with me and it was amazing. i use it to remind myself of the people who love me. (most of us got norovirus from someone’s toddler, which was horrifying at the time, but it’s kind of a funny story now!)

    one of my closest friends gets anxious being the center of attention. i wish she could let us celebrate her, but she can’t. she hosts for-no-reason-certainly-it’s-not-for-my-birthday parties to have her friends together without it being about her. but eventually people figured out what time of year it always happened and that it was her birthday. and we can still be subtle about it to respect her wishes, but now most people know why we’re showing up at her end-of-Sept party.

  60. I want people to ignore my birthday, but they won’t. Even though I have asked. Repeatedly. I don’t mind if my sister sends me the most rude card she can find – that’s hilarious. I didn’t even mind when my other sister had a giant display involving dinosaurs set up for my 50th birthday this year – also hilarious, plus it was at our oldest sister’s house where we were all staying at the time. But it has come to my attention that, aside from those things, my birthday involves too much time managing other people’s feelings, and I don’t want to do that. Plus, my birthdays as an adult have always been other people doing things they want to do, while telling me it’s for my birthday. No one takes you seriously when you say you don’t wish to celebrate.

    Sigh…I think I’ll start telling my husband that I want parties with everyone we know, lavish vacations, and expensive gifts. That’ll get him to give me what I really want, which is no acknowledgement at all.

  61. A very merry unbirthday to everyone! (Unless it actually is your birthday, in which case happy birthday!)

  62. I have a summer birthday.
    Growing up my school (which had July and August as summer holidays) actually triple-loaded June with the summer birthdays. There would be announcements every morning that ended with “Happy birthday to X in Grade N,” just more of them one each day of June.
    I think I had actual birthday parties in high school, probably involving smores and staying up all night.

    I’ve also spent several adult birthdays taking the day off work, refusing to go outside (Too. Hot.) and eating yummy things procured the day before and/or by delivery. Usually alone in my pajamas. It is the best.

    Now I’m living near family again and the nibling birthdays are a much bigger deal than any adult birthdays. We have a generally agreed upon format for the adults that involves a meal of the person’s choosing, cake, and low-key gifts, somewhat larger gifts for milestones.
    Until the niblings are old enough to prefer parent-free birthdays that’s probably how it’s going to be.

    The only thing that makes a birthday “bad” (to me!) is if my explicitly stated wishes are ignored, like the year I asked for this type of cake and got this other type of cake, because the family member who offered to make it felt like making the other type? Like what even? I would understand “can’t” or “ran out of time” or something logistical like that, but “I felt like making this other recipe” was a bit hurtful at the time and still baffling now.

    If someone tried to steamroll my birthday with “We’re taking you to Destination” or “here’s a loud party (because *we’re* extroverts)” that would be pretty horrible.

    So I guess the point is, know what you want, state those wishes to the relevant parties, and treat -yourself- to the extent possible.
    You don’t have to have a party, but you’re allowed to want one.

    Platinum rule, more valuable than gold, is to treat others as THEY want to be treated.

  63. I would hate a surprise birthday party. Haaaaate. I find social things really draining and would be a mess if a bunch of people turned up expecting interaction when I had thought I was going to get some quiet time. Luckily I think everyone close to me knows this about me.

    I love receiving presents/cards and so on from my immediate family because I love seeing what the kids chose, and my mum always gives good presents. Husband is excellent at buying exactly what I ask for and I do not at all mind asking. I wouldn’t expect to receive anything from friends, we don’t tend to celebrate each other’s birthdays like that. Facebook messages are nice. On my perfect birthday, husband would take on most of the general household planning and functioning for the day – I wouldn’t be the one figuring out what to feed everyone for lunch, for example. The house would also have been tidied in advance by someone not me. I would get to sit in a coffee shop by myself with a new book. I would get fed some nice things I can actually eat (no cake! Last year I asked for birthday candles in a rotisserie chicken but I think they thought I was joking, bah). After the kids go to bed there would probably be a curry or something and a superhero movie on the TV. Basically I want to feel a little bit special but relaxed.

    The main thing I like about my birthday is that somehow it allows my brain to celebrate without any second-guessing. Normally I can’t do that. My jerkbrain will ALWAYS find some way to self-criticise, or will spend a lovely day out telling me I’m horrible for enjoying myself because atrocities are happening in the world, or send me into a panic spiral for no good reason. But for some reason, jerkbrain really believes in birthdays and Christmas, and on those days I’m allowed to feel good for a whole 24 hours. That’s… a bit sad now I come to articulate it.

  64. Ooooooof. I have birthday feels.

    My birthday lands on 21st December and I have a history of family completely ignoring it, and asking friends to turn up at my house to eat pizza and play videogames with me for it and having NOONE turn up, repeatedly. Then there was the boyfriend who, despite me requesting a nice lowkey meal out for it, weeks and weeks in advance (BECAUSE ITS 4 DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS AND RESTAURANTS GET BOOKED UP), who failed to book a table anywhere, and when we found one with a table on the day, made me pay for taxis there and back. Not a good birthday, that one.

    I have a lot of negative feelings about my birthday because of this and struggle to acknowledge my own desires about it because I have been let down so often after making it clear what I want even though they’re not exactly big asks.

    I don’t know what I want from this message, but I feel validated by everyone’s crappy birthday feels so I wanted to post

  65. My birthday was 8 days ago and a miserable affair. I took my aging cat to the vet and myself to a therapist because it was the only day they were available. For days I’d been getting cards from far-flung loved ones that made me tear up because they reminded me that I wasn’t alone in the big wide world but also that I was super alone in my small narrow hometown.
    In retrospect I think inviting a few people over for movie+cake+everyone-out-by-8pm would have been awesome, but Jerkbrain was being all U R A LONELY LOSER FROM LOSER-VILLE IN LONELY COUNTY and I did not ignore it. Super helpful, jerkbrain.

    1. but Jerkbrain was being all U R A LONELY LOSER FROM LOSER-VILLE IN LONELY COUNTY and I did not ignore it

      Oh, I’ve been there. *solidarity* *empathy*
      One birthday, when I was too shy to ask people to do something special with me [even though they probably would have] I ended up getting takeaway from an Indian restaurant by myself and I felt so self-conscious and horrible because I was convinced that the person handing me my takeaway knew that it was my birthday and I was spending it all alone and was judging me. I cried in my car after I left the restaurant. 😦

    2. Oh, I really feel you there :C

      Back when I still lived in Hometown, I had many friends who had birthdays the same week as I did – all highly social dudes that everyone loved. Year after year, I would see Birthday Week crawl closer and hear about how Dude A was renting out a bar and Dude B was having a video game drinking game party, and I would always be overcome with thoughts of how no one liked me, I had no real friends and there would be no point in inviting people because they wouldn’t want to make time for it with all those other parties happening. So I wouldn’t organize anything.

      Then my birthday would come around, my secret hope of having my boyfriend or bestie throw me a surprise party would be dashed against the rocky shores of reality, and I’d end up coming back from work, sticking a candle onto a muffin, watching a movie and crying.

      I still have the same jerkbrain thoughts every year because a chronic fear of being unloved is a tough thing to break. I however have become pretty adept at kicking my own butt and organizing my own birthday party because I *know* that if I do, at least a couple people will turn up and I’ll have fun, and if I don’t, I’ll feel like the scum of the earth.

      This year we went axe throwing and had sushi, and it was fun.

  66. For the past several years, I have observed the following tradition, which has worked Very Well for me and my friends group.

    The Saturday closest to my birthday is International Eat Ice Cream day. I tell people that I’ll be at the local parlour and getting ice cream at 8 and 10 pm, and that they should feel free to join me. Lots of my friends do! It’s great! It’s extremely drop in and out, sometimes whoever’s in line behind me buys my ice cream for me (and sometimes I buy my own and both of those are okay), the weather is generally cooperative for ice cream (late August ftw), and we stand around The Square chatting and eating ice cream and I get to feel like I facilitated a bunch of people having positive social interactions which is extremely great for me.

    Meanwhile, for all of my friends who AREN’T local, or who are local but busy (first day of school! moving season! lives, anxiety, adhd!), I actively solicit photos of them enjoying ice cream, or whatever frozen treat equivalent is easily available to them. I have had years where I’ve gotten photos from 10+ different countries, which is just _awesome_. And it’s become enough of a tradition that in the time around my birthday I now just…get these pictures dropped on my Facebook wall or texted to me or whathaveyou even if I’ve been delayed in soliciting them.

    So picking a thing that’s fun and easy to do and actively soliciting other people to do it is how I get my birthday celebration. Eat ice cream (or whatever delicious cold thing you enjoy*) in my honor! Share a picture! You get a yummy thing, and I get a “thinking of you” and it’s all just lovely.


    *Including one year when my Finnish friend sent me her eating a Salamaki (sp?) ice pop. Having tried the salamaki candy, I can definitely say that I would not enjoy it as an icy treat, but I’m glad it made HER happy!

    1. This is SO delightful! I love that now you just get ice cream pics on your birthday. Tremendous.

    2. This is an absolutely fantastic idea and I’m using it! It’s the perfect low effort birthday for my stupidly busy self and my widely-spread friend group. Thank you very much for the inspiration!

  67. Birthdays are pretty fraught for me. When I was around six or seven I had horrible, undiagnosed social anxiety and my mom would arrange parties with 10-15 kids for me, then when the anticipatory anxiety made me act out she would threaten to cancel the party with an hours notice. Every. Single. Time. (It took me many years to realize she’s just as anxious as me, but takes it out on others instead of dealing with it and that I wasn’t a bad kid, I just lacked coping skills to keep myself from spiraling.)

    My mother also has a way of making birthdays all about her, and getting upset if we don’t celebrate the way she has in mind. This has lead to things like me angrily baking my own cake while I was stressed to the max between college classes and working part time. Because we HAD to have a cake but she was too busy to make it so it fell to me, on my birthday while I was exhausted and just needed a break.

    She has also done things like arrange a dinner at her house for my siblings and I (who mostly live out of town) that was allegedly to celebrate all the birthdays that fell in that month, but it quickly became apparent that it was all about mom and her fantasy of a having a hallmark family.

    The takeaway is that mom will always make birthdays about herself and add to my stress. Now that I’m older and meaner and have better boundaries (plus a partner who will make damn sure my family stays in line when he’s around), I find ways to excuse myself from the drama and my mother’s expectations. My birthday is about me having a special day, not performing for anyone else.

    In recent years, Husband and I have made a tradition of celebrating my birthday at the local wine festival that falls the weekend of my birthday. We have a great time together getting day drunk and feeling like we’re on a holiday from all obligations and can just enjoy being silly with each other. And that’s exactly what I want from a birthday

  68. For my 50th birthday, my mother gave me a membership to the AARP (American Association of Retired People). This was not ironic or a joke on her part.

    NOT a good present, people, not a good present. I’m generally pretty blasé about my age, but the explicit reminder that Now In The Eyes Of The World You Are Old reeeeeeeeally sucked. (I wept so hard I couldn’t breathe.) The fact that once you’re on their mailing list you are always on your mailing list means I get continual reminders of this awful present.

    All of this is to say: even someone who usually isn’t bothered by the whole Getting Older part of birthdays may find milestone birthdays tricky. Be kind!

    1. I can relate to that. There is apparently another person in the US with the same name as me, and she’s a few years older. I think that’s why I started getting invitations to join AARP in the mail when I was 45 or so. Bugged the hell out of me!

      1. I started receiving AARP junk mail in my early 30s—a friend of mine got his first on his THIRTIETH birthday. ?!

        1. I got my first AARP mailing when I was *25*. It said that they knew it was early, but it’s never too early to start thinking about such things. I laughed, said “Yes it is!”, and pitched it.

    2. On my 40th birthday, I came to work to find my desk decorated with black crepe paper and black balloons. Har-de-har-har. Went home at the end of the day and what did I find in the mail? An invitation to join AARP. NOT my favorite birthday ever.

  69. Excitedly bookmarking this thread with the intention of stealing every good birthday idea I find here.

    The spouse and the adult kid and I are all introverts, and two of us are at zero on the spontaneity scale, and due to college and commuter marriage we spend most of the year living in three different towns (I KNOW). Every birthday we go out to dinner, hand over gifts, and then sort of say sadly to one another, “I would have liked to do something more fun, but I couldn’t think of anything.” “I know, me either.”

    Hoping someone else’s cool stuff can inspire us. Maybe I’ll make a Birthday Spinner and use it to randomize.

  70. I’m not super big on my own birthday. I usually go out with my husband the day of, and my best friend and I switch years taking each other out to dinner since our birthdays are within a couple weeks of each other. I host a party about every five months (intentionally, so that the time of year rotates), and if it lands within a few days of my birthday, I’ll call it a birthday party but really it’s just another party that happens to be on my birthday. Whoever can make it is great, but it’s not more important than any other party. I like to have acknowledgment from my parents and my husband’s immediate family, but I don’t need it from anyone else. I enjoy the FB birthday wishes, and I always give them for anyone whose birthday is public that way, but I don’t notice if any particular person doesn’t do it.

    I noticed myself feeling stressed about what it seemed other commenters wanted for their birthdays, but I eventually figured out it’s a levels-of-friendship thing for me. For my husband, my best friend, and my parents, I would do pretty much anything. (And also for any members of my husband’s immediate family if he took point on it). With my next five or so closest friends, I could probably have one must-attend celebration per year, whether their birthday, a milestone anniversary, a graduation, or something else (weddings don’t count, of course I’d go if the were getting married). For people who are less close, it would be more like a must-attend every three or five or ten years, depending on just how close we are. And if it is a must-attend, I need to be told explicitly – just saying on social media that it’s really important isn’t going to do the job. Similar for cards, gifts, whatever. If a friend tells me it’s really important to them to get a birthday card, I’ll do it, but they have to tell me specifically, not post that they wish more people sent them birthday cards.

    I also have a nephew who was born on Christmas Eve. I’ve always been very clear about his birthday presents being different from his Christmas presents, down to different wrapping paper if I’m seeing him in person, and two book gifts. (For their birthdays and Christmas, my niblings all get a book gift (single book, boxed set, first few in a series, etc) and some other gift)

  71. As a person who enjoys the anticipation of an event probably as much as the event itself, I’m a ‘don’t throw me surprise party’ person. Tell me what’s a-coming, and let me look forward to it! ‘On Friday, I’m’a see my friends and we’re gonna see a cheap off-off-off-off B’way show! Whee!’ I once had an s/o, however, that didn’t think it was a party unless there was surprise. Which, I mean, I appreciated the sentiment, but: eh. Happily, my bestie would reliably clue me in about any upcoming surprise. I am a good enough actor to feign shock if it’s important for the ego of the surprise thrower, but I find that kind of emotional labor tedious after a bit. The s/o is now well out of the picture, the bestie isn’t.

    Good on you, CA, for letting you mom know!

  72. Just want to give a quick shoutout to others who may have the same experience as I do–where your mother decides that your birthday is about HER, not you (I mean, SHE was the one giving birth after all, right?) and uses your birthday as an excuse to try to impose her wishes on you. AKA “I deserve to see you on your birthday.”). In my case, my mother has quite literally said the words, “Your birthday is more about me than it is about you. It’s really MY day.”

    I deal with this by turning off all communication devices on my birthday and possibly fleeing to an undisclosed location.

  73. I like low-key birthday celebrations. I always have even as a child/teen. I’m not ashamed of my age at all (I’ll be 46 later this year). I’d prefer no acknowledgment at all for work because they always go over the top (presents, singing) and 86 people saying “Happy Birthday” can get…tiring. I know they mean well and always respond with ‘thank you/thanks” but I’d be 100% fine if nothing was said.

    My idea of the perfect birthday is sitting around eating Chinese food in pajamas watching a movie. My husband likes to go out to eat, so I’ll always take him to wherever he wants to go and he gets socks for his birthday because he goes through more socks than any human alive.

    I’ll do big birthday stuff for friends if that’s what they like but they know by 9pm I’m ready to head home.

  74. How are you reading my thoughts?! Have I been thinking *that* loudly?!

    In all seriousness though, this came at a perfect time for me. I just recently had a birthday and a friend who lives far away came to visit. In general, it was fun, but towards the end of her visit it felt far more like a vacation for her than anything else (not an issue when we lived closer). For example, she doesn’t drive, so I did all of the driving and I ended up paying for all of the gas, tolls, parking fees, etc. as well as a lot of miscellaneous expenses for her. This ends up being quite a lot of money over the course of the week, and she never expresses any kind of appreciation for these things. In fact, I don’t think they even register that these are things being taken care of. She’s also recently forgotten the words “please” and “thank you” exist, not just for me but everyone she asks things from.

    I know that a big part of this is on me for not bringing this issue up in the moment. I struggle with how to say “girl, I ain’t your momma, I don’t need have to do this ish” and “didn’t anyone ever teach you to say please and thank you?!” because it’s not a financial burden for me to do these things and it might be for her. I also feel like maybe since the places that we go to are usually fun for me too, and *someone* has to drive us there, this is just the cost of her coming to visit me? Ultimately, I would like the costs of her trips here to be more evenly split, but some appreciation for doing these things would be a great start.

    This is only really birthday related because this has happened for the past two years specifically on my birthday and I always end up feeling used instead of appreciated on that day.

    Any suggestions from the awesome Captain Awkward community would be very, very much appreciated and Happy birthday to Mr. Awkward!!!

    1. I think it might help first to schedule her visits sometime that’s not your birthday so you don’t have to deal with all the related stresses when you just want to relax and enjoy your day. You can tell her you have other birthday plans so that’s not a good time.

      And then maybe as a separate conversation, discuss what the budget should be for her visits, what each of you is willing/able to spend, noting all the costs related to driving as part of the budget. Since you say things might be more of a financial burden for her than for you, it might be worth also figuring out on your own how much of a disparity in money contribution to the weekend you’re willing to accept. Is there anything else you could ask for in return, like could she cook dinner some night or do some of the planning or be the one who packs the sunscreen and snacks? Some sort of non-monetary contribution to the visit to help things feel more balanced?

      1. Non-birthday visit is an excellent idea! Something I forgot to mention above, was that I didn’t know until 5 days before when I received email copies of the receipts for her travel that she was even coming! I was starting to get frustrated because it was getting too late to make any alternate arrangements with local friends.

        I’ll definitely be implementing the separate budgeting discussion as well, that’s an excellent idea! Thank you!

        1. Only 5 days before, yikes! You might not be as strongly planning-oriented as I am (Myers-Briggs J through the roof!) but I would definitely need lead time approximating at least a week per night to be spent at my house.

          1. I have generalized anxiety disorder and my primary coping mechanism is being extremely organized. Leaving things to the last minute and not knowing when or how long she was coming, after literally months of me asking her to please let me know the plans nearly sent me into an anxiety tailspin. It also started the whole visit off on a bad foot.

            This is the second year I’ve lived in this state, so I definitely want to break this pattern before it gets too established.

          2. I’m so sorry you went through that! Solidarity on the anxiety! I wish you the best in getting it all sorted out with your friend.

        2. Five or four days before sounds like an excellent time to send a “Sorry, I already have other plans” message. Or a “Great, I will celebrate my birthday watching movies in pyjamas, please bring a pyjamas and snacks” if you really want to hang out with the friend.

  75. I don’t like a Big Deal for my birthday, but I do like A Deal. So I told my (now) wife and BFF that I wanted like a nice dinner or something like that but not a big party. And every year I get a nice dinner or a night at the wine/jazz garden or something my speed.

    My wife mostly cares that people don’t try to roll her birthday into Christmas, as it’s in the week between xmas and new year’s. For her 30th, she told me and her friends “I don’t care what happens, but I want a party, and I want everyone to pretend it’s not christmas”, so we threw an in-house tacky luau in December and she loved it.

    My BFF had several years of disappointing birthdays because she wanted a Huge Deal to be made, and then assumed that me/her other friends would divine what sort of Huge Deal she wanted and we never correctly read her mind. After one year, when she got hurt feelings again, I told her that we don’t know what she wants unless she tells us. If she doesn’t want to plan, that’s fine, but she needs to give us some guidance. So now she lists some things and tells me how many/who she is interested in chilling with, and we do that. This year, 3 of us took her to the wine/jazz garden, then we walked around the French Quarter and had a fancy dinner and went to her favorite bar for cocktails. She was happy. We were happy.

    Basically, you have to give people guidelines.

  76. I ended a relationship over this. I asked Primary Partner (11 years, unmarried) what he wanted for his birthday, and I delivered exactly what he wanted – the expensive gifts and the two parties, with a smile on my face, even though he makes more money than I do and I’m not a party person (there were also some unplanned threesomes…he had a REALLY good birthday, is my point). My birthday rolls around a few months later – “Primary, I don’t like parties but I would like to do this four day adventure camping trip [it fell on a 3-day government holiday weekend and I planned to take one vacation day, Primary also would get the long holiday weekend]. Would you like to come out and do a day or overnight thing during that time?”

    Somehow I already knew he wouldn’t commit to taking a vacation day and doing the whole thing with me. He declined, saying it was like asking someone to a destination wedding. I asked Secondary Partner (about a year in at that point), and he was an enthusiastic YES and took two vacation days to do it and made sure I didn’t die alone in the woods. I tell Primary that I understand he’s not interested, but could he maybe do something else that *I* would like for my birthday at a later date? I seriously suggested going out to see a movie (so something vastly lower effort than a four-day adventure) and he said he wasn’t interested. He suggests a date activity that he did two weeks ago with *his* secondary partner, which I decline. I suggest a specific couple date thing that just so happens to cost exactly as much as his birthday presents were. He forgets to schedule it until the morning of, and only signs me up for it so it’s not even a couple thing anymore (and half the price).

    I seethed about this for a few weeks, until Primary Partner takes his secondary partner out on a four day camping adventure that he takes two vacation days off for later the same month. I DTMF, because this was the last straw but also he’d established a pattern of being emotionally distant and not prioritizing my clearly-stated wants and needs over a period of months.

    Happy ending is that my adventure buddy and I are still disgustingly in love and talking about gettin’ hitched! And no small part of that was his enthusiastic YES, AND let me take vacation days to do the whole thing and also secretly bring you a different chocolate bar for each day and also just function as an amazingly seamless cheerful team to set up and break down camp even when we’re both exhausted…it was the most loved I’d ever felt. We’re planning our next birthday adventure trip now!

    1. This story filled my happy little poly heart with bubbles and I’m thrilled to have read it! I’m happy that adventure buddy-who-brings-you-chocolate is such an utter champion!

      1. I’m glad!
        I also just had a lot of baggage around my birthday that it took me a long time to work through. My 22nd birthday was my grandfather’s funeral, and at the wake there was a really very kind moment where my uncle announced “We also have a birthday girl here!” I mean, my relatives were all there and we were eating food, so that was nice but I also felt horrible and undeserving of attention? The following year, I told ex-Primary that I wanted a quiet night – dinner at a restaurant, home to watch TV. Absolutely no friends and no surprises. I got a surprise party. He meant well, but I had told him beforehand and he did have time to call off the surprise after I’d specifically told him, no really, I don’t want to deal with people I just want cuddles at home and to be sad about my grandpa.

        Then there was the year that I had funeral-anniversary feelings as well as having a bigger depressive episode. I suggested two different events that I wanted to do (again, no friends/no party, just us). Ex pointed out that it would be logistically difficult to do both, so instead I cried and cleaned the bathroom and did nothing for my birthday.

        The year following that, I decided to reclaim my birthday and do the Birthday Week thing. I took the whole week off work and had different events and activities – not with any expectation that people would attend all, but that they would show up to whichever event they liked best. My mom visited and she and I took an overnight trip to sightsee, and I had dinner and cake at my place with friends later. I planned and coordinated everything (except my mom made the cake), and I enjoyed it a lot. But this also meant that Ex could then point back that “whenever I try to do anything for your birthday you hate it!” Ugh.

        The Birthday Week was nice as a way to reset my negative associations with my birthday and feel positive about it, but I’ve hit upon “take Birthday off from work” + “some kind of adventure, solo or with partner” as my preferred way to celebrate.

      2. I’m glad!
        I also just had a lot of baggage around my birthday that it took me a long time to work through. My 22nd birthday was my grandfather’s funeral, and at the wake there was a really very kind moment where my uncle announced “We also have a birthday girl here!” I mean, my relatives were all there and we were eating food, so that was nice but I also felt horrible and undeserving of attention? The following year, I told ex-Primary that I wanted a quiet night – dinner at a restaurant, home to watch TV. Absolutely no friends and no surprises. I got a surprise party. He meant well, but I had told him beforehand and he did have time to call off the surprise after I’d specifically told him, no really, I don’t want to deal with people I just want cuddles at home and to be sad about my grandpa.

        Then there was the year that I had funeral-anniversary feelings as well as having a bigger depressive episode. I suggested two different events that I wanted to do (again, no friends/no party, just us). Ex pointed out that it would be logistically difficult to do both, so instead I cried and cleaned the bathroom and did nothing for my birthday.

        The year following that, I decided to reclaim my birthday and do the Birthday Week thing. I took the whole week off work and had different events and activities – not with any expectation that people would attend all, but that they would show up to whichever event they liked best. My mom visited and she and I took an overnight trip to sightsee, and I had dinner and cake at my place with friends later. I planned and coordinated everything (except my mom made the cake), and I enjoyed it a lot. But this also meant that Ex could then point back that “whenever I try to do anything for your birthday you hate it!” Ugh.

        The Birthday Week was nice as a way to reset my negative associations with my birthday and feel positive about it, but I’ve hit upon “take Birthday off from work” + “some kind of adventure, solo or with partner” as my preferred way to celebrate.

  77. I have an open google doc that I share with all my friends at all times of the year with gift suggestions (ranging from cheap to expensive, from items to experiences, to categories of thing and general preferences so that people can still have the fun of choosing, like, “I like these flavours or scents”) that I update often so no one ever has to guess at what I’d like or what I’d like to do for any given holiday. Obviously I’m not mad if I get something off-list, but I truly wish more of my friends would embrace the tackiness of it. I think it makes gift giving holidays a lot easier.

    1. Not quite the same, but for my housewarming, my best friend asked me for a google document with things I needed around the house so that if anyone asked him what to get me, he could tell them. It was very sweet.

    2. I tend to keep a “wantlist” on my dreamwidth, which includes a link to an “aestheticslist” (orange, spiders, naturey-witchy stuff, pumpkin colours, clocks, space). I update it around Winter Holiday and should definitely update it more often than that. I love being That Sort Of Tacky, because it means that the new umbrella my mother bought me was _perfect_.

    3. I use my Amazon wishlist as a bookmarking tool, but around late September or early October I clean it out and remove o(or relocate to a private list) any stuff I don’t expect anyone to buy for me (e.g., a couch) or ridiculous stuff I just thought was funny at 4 in the morning when I was insomnia-shopping (but not buying) or stuff I actually was intending to buy for someone else. It’s ready to go for my birthday in mid-October and the holidays. I think only my brother uses it, and often he cops out with an Amazon gift card (which is aces, thank you). Now I’m having all kinds of feels about how Amazon exploits workers and sat out Prime Day this year, but up until now, it was a great tool I wish more people would use.

      I honestly APPRECIATE knowing I am getting someone something they actually want or need! I can personalize it with a little something else, like some wine or food, or something handmade, but at least I KNOW one thing I give is going to be appreciated. I vastly prefer giving to getting (getting can be so loaded for me, and I have rather specific tastes). Holidays for me are about making people happy using my language of love, little gifts.

  78. I am not into birthdays and I am finally becoming ok with that. I am also very much in the birthday celebrations can happen when it is convenient even if not really that close to the actual birthday camp too. We try to celebrate the weekend before or after when we can, same or adjacent month when not possible. But yeah, it is weird I am NOT into birthdays (or really most holidays honestly) because my parents, Mom especially, are SUPER into them.

    So for my 40th birthday this year, on the weekend adjacent I bought myself some flowers, had my husband make me a favorite meal, bought myself a few books on my kindle and had some extra alone time. I had planned to make my favorite cookies that weekend, but ran out of time, so did that the next weekend as my substitute for cake (I don’t really like cake, but enjoy a special desert for a birthday). It was perfect for me! My husband asks me to make rum cake for his birthday (it is pretty yummy for cake), we’ll drink a bottle of wine or two over the weekend and he’ll usually make one or two extravagant meals. My parents will usually visit on our birthdays, so we’ll share the meals/wine/etc. with them. He does not buy presents for himself for his birthday or ask me to buy him stuff.

    For our kids, I get them presents, make the cake they want (within reason 🙂 ), usually get balloons at their request and my parents again usually attend. They are getting older and starting to request having friend birthday parties, so probably will start doing that with the oldest this year too which makes us odd in our locale as most other families have been doing them since their kid was at least 3 (since we are in daycare it started before school), some before that.

    I do try and give people the celebrations they want for sure!

  79. Most of my family and friends are scattered across the face of the Earth, and because I am horrible at remembering special life events like birthdays and anniversaries, I never expect anyone to remember my birthday. In fact, I often feel guilty if they remember mine when I forgot theirs. If we do remember, it’s usually just a card or e-card, phone call, email or text. That’s fine.

    While part of me would like to have those milestone birthdays surrounded by people, that’s just not possible with my life situation. I did have one, once – which I planned myself, to make sure it was the party I wanted. Although I specified no gifts, family and some people brought gifts anyway, and then family members insisted I open them then and there, which I did not want to do. (In my family, Opening The Gift is a mandatory spectacle to make the giver feel appreciated, even if they gave you an ugly sweatshirt that you’ll never, ever wear.) So I won’t consider having a large party again with family attending.

    Crappy, disappointing birthdays usually involve my parents. From sending gifts in spite of clear requests for no gifts, to sending a Christmas-decorated grocery store cake through the mail. I still don’t know what that was about, because obviously, it would and did arrive a mess. (My sympathies lie with the Captain on having a birthday near that time of year, too.)

    Or how about this: my father wanted to take me out to dinner for my birthday, but immediately shot down my request to go to a local restaurant/bar. He suggested another, similar place I’d never been to, so okay, sure, why not. When I met up with him and his wife, only then do I find out the step-grandkids are coming along, which is why he said no to my place, which was 21+ only. Which I am still bitter about his dishonesty at giving me insufficient information to make an informed choice. Plus the food sucked. After several more family events of being an uninformed second-class citizen, I decided I was done with trying to maintain a relationship my father. (There were other, more important reasons, but it finally became clear that I was putting up with and ignoring his other shit, only so I could be a spectator and second-hand guest even when the event is supposedly for me. I am happily done with all that.)

    But back to useful commentary: As a child-free adult, I’d generally rather spend my birthday doing adult things without children. Exceptions would be Disneyland, LEGOland, and places where it would be fun to be around kids and families. So if you are someone who does most of your activities with kids, please remember that your friends and family who don’t may have entirely different ideas of what makes for a good birthday party. In other words, ASK them if having kids around or bringing the kids along fits in with their plans.

    Actually, just asking people what they want is highly effective in many situations. Every year, I ask my mom what she wants to do for birthday, Mother’s Day, etc, and sometimes she wants to stay home, sometimes she wants to go to lunch or dinner, sometimes she wants to take a short trip somewhere special. It varies with her (as it does for me), and we have more enjoyable times together when we know the other person is getting to do what they actually want to do.

  80. I’ve never commented before but this thread is bring up some old wounds, so looking for advice —

    My SO and I separated this past spring (he’s an alcoholic) and things have been going down hill for the pasty several years. I finally was able to leave, but I’m working on separating what he wanted from my needs and wants. I’m facing my first birthday without him, in nearly 20 years – I’ve never really figured out what I want to do for my birthday, except be acknowledged somehow

    Growing up, my birthday was never a big deal. A few friends, dinner with my family, and a few presents. My mom never made a huge deal about birthdays (and still doesn’t – she doesn’t care whether she gets a celebration or not). I got married young, and for the first year or two, my SO tried to do something for my birthday but I never told him what I wanted, and he just kinda guessed. After a few years, that sort of fizzled out. My parents would usually try and do dinner, but he never did any planning – well, once he did. When I turned 27, he told me he would plan a party (after I said wanted one)….but two days before the party, my dad phoned and asked what I was doing that weekend. Turns out, my SO never bothered to actually invite anyone. I ended up planning and inviting everyone to my birthday party. (When I asked him why, he says “but I was *GOING* to invite everyone.) When I turned 30, I was at home, recovering from a miscarriage. When I turned 31, he did invite close family members to dinner, but when I turned 32, he’d forgotten my birthday (my mother-in-law took me and the kids to MacDonald’s to celebrate my birthday, the day before). My parents would always come to anything planned, but they assumed that it was my SO’s responsibility to plan something for my birthday and not them. Once them, and I realized the extend of SO’s problem, my mom went back to planning a birthday dinner for me, and I feel like that should be enough – somehow, it doesn’t feel like it is, though.

    But for his birthdays, I always planned something. Usually dinner with both families and once we had kids, I always made sure they got him something. When he turned 40, I threw a big party which he wanted. For every occasion, I always tried to make it special. The thought was rarely returned.

    My kids say they want to do something, but they’re between 6 and 14 and will need help — I feel bad for asking, but I can direct them to my parents (who have been great through this whole mess) or to my sister and give them a list of what I’d like? (Once I figure that out!) Rationally I know it’s fine but I’m having a very hard time in putting my wants first.

    Hope this makes sense, I probably rambled a bit, I am in therapy to help work out my issues, but this birthday thing gets to me. It seems like it should be small but it isn’t.

    1. Absolutely tell your parents and sister “my kids want to do something special for my birthday and I want them to do so, please will you help them so I can have a surprise?”! I bet they will love having the opportunity!

      Congratulations, by the way

  81. Birthdays are complicated. Maybe my experience will be helpful to someone: I have COMPLICATED feelings about birthdays. It’s this combination of “I’m still alive and I’m very pleased with this, let’s celebrate” and existential dread because I’m still alive but there are many people I care about who never made it this far, and …. complicated. So many feelings.

    Which means for years, this is what happened every birthday: I would organize a celebration and somewhere along the line I’d have several panic attacks about everything being PERFECT. I would feel like if everything wasn’t sufficiently perfect and people did not express enough love and adoration then I was worthless and … etc. etc. And my depression brain would be like, “You’re having to plan this yourself because nobody loves you enough to do it for you.” And every year, my best friend would be like “oh god, here we go again….”

    So, when I turned 30, I went to best friend and basically said, “I am really struggling with this, can you help me?” And he just planned a whole day for me where people were able to drop in for whichever activity appealed to them: brunch, escape room, board games, dinner, or karaoke. It was a very long and very wonderful day. And now we seem to have sort of settled into a thing where I can plan as much as I’m able to without having a breakdown and he’ll help me with the rest.

    Plus I talked to my therapist about all my complicated birthday feelings and how to cope with them a bit better, and it’s made things easier.



    Just thinking about people dropping by to surprise me on my birthday, which I have been known to forget or blow off, especially when I am probably sitting on the couch with my hair like a hedge, eating a fattening gross food, wearing just a t-shirt and underwear, with my little houseweasels capering about underfoot because they have no sense of self-preservation and will just let people unfamiliar with how to avoid tiny bearnoodles step on them…this provokes GREAT ANXIETY and, wow, a tiny bead of sweat rolling down my neck right now. *shudders* Please never do this, anyone who knows me IRL. Please don’t do this unless your loved one is in on the surprise. (Also, people get shot by their loved ones for far less, especially in dumb red states like mine, and people you wouldn’t think have guns probably have guns, and it’s just not a good idea.)

    Likewise, I have nothing against black balloons, but maybe don’t remind me of my decrepitude and impending death on my birthday. I don’t find anything one might buy in a Spencer’s Gifts or adult toy store particularly hilarious and anyone who knows me would only buy comical boob / fart / butt / penis-themed joke gifts or black “HAR HAR YOU ARE SO TOTALLY OLD NOW” black balloons for me if they hated me.


    I am time insensitive and have to put my niece’s birthdays in my phone because they are minors and one of their birthdays falls outside of EVERYTHING IS EXPENSIVE season (Xmas Hell) and the other is a week prior to Xmas (poor kid), so there are no seasonal triggers to urge auntie to remember buy a bunch of gifts. My SIL and I are equally scatty about remembering each other on our birthdays (usually my brother does it, I think). My brother is easy, about 14 of my friends all have a June 20 birthday, so I hear birthday-related rumblings from the more outgoing of the group in advance. Remembering my own birthday is not a given. I also have two friends who I try to remember with little thoughts / cards. These are things other people don’t necessarily do for me. I’d love a card and a few little thoughtful things to open, and/or a birthday phone call. but we’re all grown-ups and busy. My love language is little gifts, and allegedly I am good at divining what people need or want.

    I like doing a small special thing on or near my birthday if everyone is up for it. I don’t want hours of fuss, especially on a work night. A dinner and concert, drinks and dinner, brunch and cake, nothing super expensive. I will live without it. How would you know this? I’ll tell you, if you make noises about wanting to do something on my birthday. I’ll veto paragliding or going to a shooting range or getting matching neck tattoos, but I will be down with consumption of sustenance and good company.

  83. I spent so long on team I’m Not Allowed To Ask For Things Or Even Want Them Because It Makes Me Bad And Needy that I dreaded my birthday every year. Not because people did things that I didn’t want, but because I Really Desperately Wanted a nice thing done but there was so much self-loathing wrapped up in that that I could never enjoy it. When 30 rolled around this past year, I decided to start asking for things that I wanted but also to start small: I wanted to go vote and then have a nice quiet dinner at a restaurant down the street with three of the most important people in my life. So I did, and they didn’t let me pay for it, and then one of them baked me cupcakes and the other two got me nice things and that was that. It was all very low key but it was so nice and so freeing to be able to say “I’d like to have a nice time and here’s what I think that looks like”, and to have that respected because we’re all grown ass adults! I actually can’t wait for next year and what I can do now that I’ve taken that first step into team Ask And Ye Shall Receive Because Your Friends Are Awesome.

  84. Wow, until reading through this thread I had no idea that I have THAT much resentment and shame built up about my birthdays in the past decade. I have this massive guilt around being ~ungrateful~ for not appreciating any effort anyone goes to, no matter how obviously thoughtless or dramatically underwhelming (and I’m not expecting That Much). Plus on the day of, I try to just put aside whatever and enjoy the day because I want to make the most of it and not spend it angry, so I don’t say anything but end up stewing later. It feels ten times more self-centered and bratty to bring up birthday hurt feelings than on the 364 other days of the year. I know, logically, it shouldn’t. It’s honestly a relief when people forget or are completely unable to celebrate with me.

    I’m also realizing I really need to up my game wrt other people’s birthdays. I’ve been letting myself phone it in because I’m using the excuse that birthdays aren’t a big deal for adults, but I think I was lying to myself. Plus I just realized I feel ashamed to get excited for other people’s birthdays, but it has more to do with shame and resentment about my own.

  85. Oof, this is right in the feelings and very apt timing because my birthday is in 2 weeks.

    I feel like I try to be very explicit about what I actually want each year (go out for dinner or ice cream with a few friends, play board games, maybe an escape room) but I’ve learned to keep my expectations low… I’ve had so many bad birthdays at this point. Back in college/grad school I had a friend who insisted on making a big deal out of it but never paid attention to what I actually like to do and actively dismissed me saying I didn’t want to do whatever she planned, leading mostly to me being miserable in bars every year.

    Last year was BAD though. I was in Vancouver with a set of coworkers during my birthday for a conference and before we all left, they spent a solid two weeks obsessing over the fact that my birthday was during the conference, insisting that we all needed to go out for something extravagant, etc. Seriously, it was a daily topic of conversation, with a big emphasis that I was “turning 30 on the 30th!”….. Fast forward to my actual birthday, during which everyone. completely. forgot. Not a single “happy birthday” let alone doing anything fun. All this ended basically with me sitting on the floor in a corner of the Vancouver conference center crying not because they forgot, but because they forgot after obsessing over it for weeks in a way that was honestly uncomfortable on my end… Literally the worst of both worlds.

    Anyway, I keep my expectations low nowadays…

  86. Worst birthday experience: Being tricked into paying for my own birthday gift.

    I was a longtime friend with a couple. They invited me and my spouse for my birthday, at a hip new restaurant. Sweet!
    But when we arrived at the place, the wife said: food is on us, but drinks are on you. I felt a bit miffed as I assumed I would be treated for my birthday, but didn’t want to spoil the mood so I said nothing. I didn’t want to come across as stingy.
    The couple proceeded with ordering gin tonics, then onto the full wine list and grappas and irish coffees afterwards. They ordered a lot of drinks for me and my husband as well, way more than I’d normally drink.

    The drinks bill racked up to over €250, well out of my artist income affordabillity range. My husband noticed my distress, and covered the bill for me, but it was the shittiest gift I’d ever received. Not to mention the hangover from hell, also.

    At the time, I wasn’t very assertive and never mentioned this incident to my friends (or anyone) again, but this event marked the beginning of the end of that particular friendship.
    (These days, I assume I’d be able to open my mouth in such scenario. I’ve also learned to turn down unwanted drinks.)

    I don’t think this couple even really understood how shitty their gift was; they’re affluent and have a history of heavy drinking, so nothing out of the ordinary for them. I don’t see them no more.

      1. Yes, it was. But they gave me something good after all. They unknowingly gave me the gift of knowing I needed to change. This event was the beginning of my journey into discovering the concept of boundaries, and finding better friends. (and finding this site!)

  87. I threw my own 30th birthday party and it is one of the best things I ever did. I was single, my family’s not local, and I just knew nobody was going to do anything FOR me and I wanted something done. I have social anxiety and I legit thought–even when I was arriving at the bar–that nobody was actually going to come. But they did!

  88. I personally don’t make a big deal out of my birthday, so I love the scripts for asking people what they like. My friends and I usually get together (3 of us plus my spouse) for all of our birthdays, for an overnight in an Airbnb or fancy dinner in the big city nearby. None of us cares about presents or cake, and it’s nice to just get out and hang out and have something new to experience.

    We have one friend, “Adventure Guy”, who always wants to do something adventurous on his bday. One year we went on a 29 mile hike! One year we went white water rafting! Obviously that wouldn’t work for everyone, but those who choose to attend will get a crazy new adventure once a year. I, “Introvert Cat Lady”, prefer mine to just be dinner and a quiet hotel room with just my spouse. 🙂

    I have a coworker who has ended up sobbing at her desk mid day one year because nobody recognized that it was her birthday. I was surprised at first, but she is allowed to feel her feelings. She has continued to not mention wanting to do anything for her birthday, which would be helpful, but we recognized that doing “something” / anything would help, so we call out peoples’ birthdays on the internal chat group now.

  89. Birthday celebration styles vary so much between people that I really thing it’s best to make absolutely no assumptions. There’s just no way of knowing who likes to keep it quiet vs throwing a giant bash without asking (and no one can automatically know your preferences without you saying them, either).

    So if you want yours celebrated a certain way, plan that thing, or tell someone close to you what you want and ask them to plan that thing. If a friend is having a birthday and you want to celebrate with them but don’t know how they prefer to celebrate, ask them. If you can be that person who remembers how your friend (or relative, or SO) prefers to celebrate and just does it for them, that’s extra special to a lot of people—but asking is plenty to show you care and are thinking of them, which is really what most people want when push comes to shove.

    For myself…I like being celebrated, but given when my birthday is (early December) and my work (grad student, who invariably has a ton of end-of-term work in early December), I never have any time or mental space to plan anything for myself. I really appreciate people who ask if I want to celebrate and plan a dinner or something for me. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it makes me really happy.

  90. I don’t like being surprised or having a fuss made over me. The worst birthdays are the ones where we go out to eat, and someone tells the wait staff it’s my birthday, and I end up being obnoxiously sung to or whatever. I hate that.

    On the other hand, I love spending time with my friends. I will treat if I have the money, or invite people over if I don’t.

    My sweet 16 was a surprise party for my friends. I invited them over for something specific, then at the end of the night offered them cake as they were leaving. No one even realized it was cake for my birthday – they just knew they got to spend the evening with me. I have spent many years trying to replicate that.

  91. My dad died a couple of days before I was born, and in fact I literally have the birthdate that I do because I had to be induced a day early as a result. So there’s no separating the emotional impact of the two things, and my birthday is important to me because it’s essentially the release after dealing with his anniversary every year.

    And then there’s this other complication where I have all the usual culturally induced hangups about getting older, but at the same time, I’ve got serious medical problems and so every birthday is also kind of a “Screw you, body! I’m still here!” thing.

    So I like people to make a bit of a fuss, but I’m not into drinking or pampering or surprise parties, so honestly just having people notice and understand what it means to me is nice. It’s in October, and last year we had a late birthday/early Hallowe’en party because I was going to be spending Hallowe’en in hospital and it’s my favourite thing in the year, and I’d happily do that again.

  92. The best birthday I ever had was when my husband made me a surprise birthday cake. My husband is neither a cook nor a baker. I came home to a kitchen covered in flour and powdered sugar, a cake that oddly resembled cornbread, and frosting that proved that not every idea is a good one. The surprise was that it wasn’t my birthday yet; he’d gotten the date wrong.

    My poor husband — he tried so hard and was dejected. I kissed him, sent him to bed, cleaned up the kitchen and made cupcakes for us to enjoy on my actual birthday. It was hands-down my favourite birthday though because all that chaos was born from love. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had cleaning a kitchen, too.

    1. I love that he tried!

      (And every great (or even just adequate) cook or baker starts off doing something wrong like misreading a measurement, or substituting sugar for salt or v. versa, or using the wrong flour, or confusing baking soda with baking powder, and so on. He got the necessary failure out of the way, and now the only way left is up!)

    2. Honestly that’s adorable. I feel like ‘it’s the thought that counts” get used for things are that actually-disappointing often, but it feels really applicable here. He meant so well and clearly tried so hard!

      As a amateur cake-decorator and baker I have had many “this was supposed to be a simple cake but something has gone… awry” experiences so… he has my sympathies.

  93. I have a holiday-adjacent birthday, so I’m used to celebrating it a week or two before or after so that most people are in town. For a while I lived in a place where most people celebrated their birthday ON THE DAY, and my “hey my birthday’s in two weeks, time to party!” invites were met with general bafflement. I ended up downshifting to a smaller get-together with a few close friends because it was less stressful that way, but still made me a little sad. My current friend group just goes “yay party!” and arrives with food, which is a lot more fun 🙂

  94. A lot of these questions want the magic.
    Clarke’s Laws: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    I recently found a thing: Gmail’s [send] has a down arrow that allows a scheduled send.

    It’s amazing. You can send yourself reminders.

    Or: You can, some time long before your birthday, send messages to Significant Other/Good Friend, telling them exactly how you want your birthday (not) celebrated. They will get it a week/month before your birthday, and you will have forgotten about sending the message.

    Magic! They figured out what you want, without you telling them!

    1. I once went shopping together with a friend who was looking for something to get me, and told her exactly which earrings I wanted for my birthday (*wink wink* these would be so great! I’m gonna walk over there!) And in the two or three weeks before my birthday I completely forgot. Cue me unwrapping the gift and being totally shocked that she had gotten me something *so perfectly my taste*. And her looking at me like I was a space alien until I remembered. It was great.

  95. I have SO MANY BIG FEELINGS about my birthday. For a long time, I hated it because I was living on C-PTSD planet hating myself and wishing I had never been born. Throughout my recovery, I’ve been hating myself less and less and actually…wanting to…celebrate? But I feel like I’ve created this thing about “CatMom hates her birthday” that’s hard to undo (I was always incredibly irritable and sad on my birthday before).

    I enjoy other people’s birthdays and like to make people feel special with thoughtful gifts, planning a special meal, whatever. But…nobody seems to do the same for me. People in my family ask me to provide a specific thing that I would like for my birthday, and when I say, “I would rather you pick something out that you think I would like” they seem annoyed. I literally can never identify any particular material thing that I would want, so it’s not like I’m being coy! I can’t identify anything! And I feel resentful because I am able to think about what I know about the people in my life and figure out something they would like, but nobody else seems to want to do the same for me.

    Not sure what I’m looking for here, but maybe someone has a similar experience?

    1. I come from a family with The Art of Gifting, this is actually a skill that was learned and honed and isn’t as common as I’d grown up believing.

      I’ve had some luck with giving people categories or a theme for gifts rather than having to think of explicit, unique, individual things. “Books or giftcard for a local to me used bookstore”, “reading suggestions!”, “cake or baking pans, I like aluminum not nonstick”, or “this year is the year of frogs!” If books arrive that are not my thing, I make an adventure out of finding a free little library to donate them to. If the bakeware is too much, I can donate it. Strange frog things? Decorate for a month, keep the good ones, and donate the rest to better homes who will love their froggy ways (“yes, it was the year of frogs but I must make room for [next theme]”).

      Mostly, I’ve found that people don’t always need specific Things to Get, but are nervous of not knowing what will be appreciated vs something that might show their tastes more clearly than yours. They want a little guideline to work with so the present isn’t an insta-trash contender or a “remember that one time you got me [gift that totally wasn’t me]?”

  96. Thanks, Captain! I needed a bit of birthday-related commiseration and a healthy dose of “Oh, right, everybody has feelings about this stuff” right about now. Since my mom died a decade ago, it’s been my dad who triggers all these feelings for me. He forgot my birthday the year my mom died, and since then, sometimes I get an e-card. He has forgotten my daughter’s birthday (his only grandchild) three times. She’s three. You can imagine how hard it was to maintain a neutral, totally not sarcastic tone when I suggested to him, “Well, it might be easier to remember Grandchild’s birthday if you thought of it as five days after yours?”

    My in-laws, Difficult People though they can be, make up for it on the Grandchild front. They can be absolutely over-the-top about it, but I’ll take a giant play-house rocket ship taking over the entire living room and delighting my child any day, now that I know what the alternative is like. They acknowledge my birthday every year, even! And my husband is a rock-star, as long as I tell him what I’d like he’ll make it happen (and if I don’t tell him, I get an amazing dinner out as the default).

    So I’ve found the people, and now the project is to make peace with the rest.

  97. On surprises:

    Some people really like surprises! Some people do not. I am among the latter.

    When my husband proposed, it was so out of the blue that it literally gave me a panic attack. I hyperventilated, and it took me over an hour to say yes (even though I KNEW I wanted to marry him). Ditto when he bought me theatre tickets for my birthday. I love the theatre, and I love my birthday. I was so anxious and worked up about the surprise event, whether I’d be dressed appropriately, if I’d fall asleep (I was heavily pregnant), whether it would really be something for me, or actually something for him, I couldn’t enjoy it at all.

    Gretchen Rubin writes about how enjoying events takes place in three parts – the anticipation, the event itself, and the savoring. You can significantly increase your enjoyment of an event by extending the first two. I delight in anticipation, and try to savor afterwards by printing photos, journaling, etc.

    If someone is consistently trying to surprise you, it probably means that they personally enjoy surprises. Preemptively surprise your partner/spouse/friend/whatever periodically – it’s a great way to prevent them trying to surprise you. Spread your hatred of surprises far and wide (my co-workers warned me in great detail when they threw me a party, and emphasized that it was not a surprise, but they wanted some of the details to be – great success!).

    Folks who love surprises: we know you love us! If this is really about us, please ask us if we enjoy surprises well in advance of planning one.

    All of this reminds me that I’d better do something for my husband again before our fifth anniversary…

  98. So, my birthday falls on the same day as my dad, and at a time that was normally just slightly after school let out for the year (but sometimes not). I loved sharing with my dad, and he was fine with me getting most of the attention. However, as an adult I’ve really struggled with my birthday! It falls right in the busiest period of quarter system of my partner’s university, so he’s always been focused on either writing or grading or coordinating with students (now that he works there). Many of my friends also had teaching positions there (fewer of them now), so I’ve always felt terribly guilty asking people to make time to celebrate my birthday, and making my partner coordinate it. I also generally don’t want to make people pay a ton to celebrate me…so I feel too guilty to organize my own party.

    But I would like to be made much of! But my very closest friends live elsewhere! And now that my generous, talented, cake-baking friend has moved away, either I bake the cake or I pay someone else to do it. And I don’t want to bug my partner to plan something for me when he’s so busy with his job. And we can’t just take a mini-vacation, because work. Did I mention I have anxiety, and so does he?

  99. I’ve discovered weirdness around my birthday that I’ve worked to put words around for years. It likely goes back to being a summer baby in a rural town–birthday celebrations were lovely (my mom ROCKED birthdays and most celebrations), but frequently just family; inviting friends was fraught with emotional peril because no one was around, the week of July 4 being a prime travel time.

    I realized when planning a wedding that I really, really don’t like being the center of attention for celebrations. Things I feel I’ve worked to achieve, or am known for? Okay, I can handle that. I have a couple of really good friends who have hosted things for me over the years and they’ve just been lovely; OTOH, I sort of hate surprises. And my partner is significantly disabled and doesn’t drive–there are limits (he feels) to what he can do to celebrate me without me planning the whole goddamn thing.

    As the “sighted spouse,” a break from planning and decision-making for anyone other than myself is perennially high on my wish list. This is not a complaint–it’s an acknowledgment of the need for self-care. (I am getting better at this.)

    And so: My partner and our boys celebrate me at home with presents and cake many renditions of Happy Birthday and it’s lovely. I tend to host friends for a birthday-adjacent gathering with lots of food and fun and no cake, candles, or presents. (Hooray for July 4, now, because having a family-friendly BBQ is just the thing for, like, all of us without the funds for vacations.) But I otherwise decide what I want to do that day, by myself or with a few close girlfriends, and then go off and do it. Typically, it involves being on or near the water and some level of pampering–a long-overdue pedicure, or a massage. Sometimes, for a big number, it’s a weekend away with the same list of friends, but it’s been a while since we could pull that off. I get the sense sometimes that my partner resents that I just want the time to myself, but I’ve learned to let him manage his own feelings about it.

    Now, if he could just be clear about how he wants to celebrate his birthdays, that would help tremendously… :/

  100. I have one of those Inconveniently Close To Christmas birthdays, and I was teary-eyed-level grateful when a lovely close friend (who is much more organized than I am) offered to throw me a party at my house, and invited people in OCTOBER, and friends brought food and helped clean up, and I felt SO LOVED. ❤

    It had been maybe 15 years since I’d had a birthday celebration that felt halfway successful (there was the time 15 people RSVP’ed and one showed up), and it meant the absolute world to me, to get to spend that afternoon surrounded by friends and celebrating.

    And, yes, I always do my best to make friends feel loved and special on their birthdays, too — this was a step above, though!

  101. Embrace the tacky! I have a friend who is a big birthday person. She creates a Facebook event for the whole month and usually ends up planning at least a weekend worth of activities. Is it “tacky”? Maybe. Does it work? Yep! Does anyone care that she planned her own birthday stuff? Not as far as I know. We’re just pleased that we have a chance to hang out and do fun things. (She’s very chill about people not being able to come/only coming to a couple of things, which helps.)

  102. Several years ago I took the day off work for my birthday and it was so brilliant I didn’t know why I’d never done it before and now I work very hard to make sure I have enough leave in the bank so I don’t have to go in on Me Day. I spend the day while everyone else is at work doing whatever I want: napping, spa day, extra yoga class, movies, whatever.

    We also usually go out for dinner some time in the general birthday area, but scheduling that when you’ve got a little kid as we do can be a challenge, so luckily I’m not fussed if it’s literally on the exact day. (Also, my birthday and Mother’s Day and our anniversary are all within a couple weeks of one another, so it’s a festive dinner-out sort of time of year.)

    Himself is sufficiently introverted that the nicest thing I can do for him for his birthday is let him disappear for a day or so if he wants. It’s sort of the same as my own preferences, I guess, with a little bit less family time at the beginning and end of the Day Of Self.

    The kid’s birthday is right around Thanksgiving, so by the time he’s in school we’re probably going to have to have his friends over for half-birthdays instead of whole ones, on account of on the real birthday the odds are good that all his friends will either be out of town or have company in.

  103. My parents didn’t do birthday parties when I was a kid, so it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and friends had stopped organizing things for me that someone pointed out you know you can just host your own birthday, right? I love birthdays, so I go big. However, I like to be budget conscience for my friends too. I started to organize a one night only choose your own adventure birthday. I will be going out to dinner, dessert, and dancing/drinks. Please pick one or all as you like it or if nothing suits, let me know when you’re free around that month or after and we’ll get together then! I just want to see you!

    People really do take me up on it and show up for what they can (just dessert, thanks, or dancing but I can’t afford drinks so none for me, or sounds great I’m all in whooooo!). Now that I’m older and people get busy I end up extending it for different groups. One night of dinner and ice cream followed by board games with the group that’s into it and an afternoon cheese board picnic at a local winery for the group that’s into that. The focus is still come for what you can, I’m just hype to see you.

  104. Have been creeped out by birthdays since teens. Partly from not wanting to be the center of attention unless I am in control, partly from not having any interest in celebrating something that happened before I was conscious or could remember, and which was pretty disgusting anyway. So I don’t observe. In the place where I worked so many years, one’s birthday was on a chooseable day, and I always used another day. When they made that no longer a “floating” day, that was the first small sign that that job, and maybe that place, was headed down the drain. (I don’t know what happened to them. The building is occupied by someone else now.)
    My family understands and doesn’t push me. Friends also. I wish them happy ones for their own. I can’t afford to buy stuff for them, and they have so much junk already; we live far apart and only get together on the big holidays. I don’t know how much more freebies I’d get if I started “doing” mine, letting it be observed, but my mom does like to spoil me rotten anyway, so there is that. I’m still working on learning how to spoil *her* rotten.
    I have a bunch of private personal holidays that I celebrate alone. This year, one coincides with a big holiday and I’m still working on what I’m going to do. Maybe tell them something came up I don’t want to talk about? No, maybe just say prior commitment…
    But I’m not going to crap on people who *do* do birthdays.

    1. “When they made [birthdays] no longer a ‘floating’ day, that was the first small sign that that job, and maybe that place, was headed down the drain.”

      Does that mean that someone with a birthday that fell on a weekend or holiday just wouldn’t get a celebration? If so, that’s just…bizarre and unfair. It reminds me of that Ask a Manager letter from the manager who didn’t want to give her employee her birthday off every year (a benefit everyone else got) because she was born on a leap day:

      And the even worse update:

      1. After 15 years I don’t recall, but I think they got the next work day after off, if it came on a weekend. My life fell apart around then due to other work problems not my fault, and I don’t remember.

  105. I think the reason I feel a lot of dread and anxiety about my birthday — even months in advance — is that my social circle has continued to shrink and shrink every year since college.

    This is a little bit of a tangent, but…

    I don’t currently have any local friends and it makes me feel deeply sad and alone, and even though my birthday is 7 months away, my chest feels tight and I want to cry thinking about not having anyone local to celebrate with.

    Everyone says “just make new friends!,” but anxiety makes it so hard. Every time I make a new friend, they move away. Everyone seems to have their established friend groups and I’ve even had people tell me I should “reexamine my friendships” if all of my friends move to different cities.

    It’s really hard.

    1. I feel you on this! I’ve been in my “new” city for 6 years now, and I don’t have any close friends here. I have folks who are happy to see me when I show up to, say, choral rehearsal, and I have kind coworkers, but no friends to hang out with. On top of that, my beloved parents are a minimum 4-hour flight away…I’m alone most of the time.

      The only person I see on a regular basis (besides said coworkers) is my SO, because we live together. But our interests are wildly divergent, so I’ve become more and more comfortable doing just about anything alone. A few days ago, I went white water rafting “alone” and was the only solo party in the group!

      I cycle through sadness and self-pity about it on a regular basis, but I just…have to keep doing the things I love and hoping to meet some simpatico folks.

      Here’s wishing us both peace and friendship! You’re not alone in this!

  106. This great advice also applies to Work Stuff! I had worked at a non profit for ten years and I wanted the occasion marked. But I knew my boss was bad at Recognizing People and even if she had been good at it, there was no budget for it. So I talked about it for weeks in advance, ordered and picked up a delicious cake on the day of, and we all stood around in the break room awkwardly eating amazing cake for a few minutes. Boss even gave me a small bouquet. I was very happy because I got to celebrate a big milestone. It still makes me happy when I think about it.

  107. Thank you for posting this Captain. I’ve had uncomfortable feelings around my birthday as I’ve gotten older, and I’m so glad that it’s not just me.

    Beyond the general anxiety around party planning and feeling like I haven’t achieved all the things I thought I would have at this point (my 29th birthday is looming in early August), I have an additional woe. My ex’s birthday is the day after mine.

    We haven’t been in contact in nearly 2 years. But I have lingering feelings for him, and it’s hard. We used to celebrate back to back, and now my birthday comes with sadness that I can’t spend it with him.

    I spent a fair share of my 28th birthday, my first birthday post breakup, crying over him. I’m generally in a better state of mind this year, but I’m still worried about my birthday being triggering. I know that as life goes on it will impact me less and less, but this year he’s on my mind as our birthdays get closer.

    Any thoughts on how to approach the birthday days? (I’m trying to plan fun celebrations/distractions at least!)

    1. That must be really tough, I’m so sorry.

      I wonder if a kind of anti-birthday on his birthday might help? I don’t mean anything mean-spirited. I mean maybe doing things you love to do, listening to music you love, eating food you love, that your ex really hated so you couldn’t do/listen to/eat/experience them together.

      Just a quiet sort of reminder that yes you’re sad and you’re acknowledging that he is absent and you miss him and it sucks, and a reminder at the same time that you have freedom to enjoy some things now that you certainly wouldn’t have thought to do on his birthday when you were together.

  108. I have an Actually On Christmas birthday, and man did it ever make for bad birthday feels for my entire life. Everyone else’s celebrations took priority, so nobody could ever come hang out with me on my birthday. Or if my ex-partner’s friends wanted to do Christmas stuff with them, I’d feel obligated to be ok with that, even when I had requested a chill December 25th spent with me. I’d get dragged to parties I didn’t want to go to, dragged on vacations I didn’t want to go on, because Christmaaaas. The pressure to shut up about what I wanted and cave to everyone else for Holiday Reasons was INTENSE.

    I used to cry every year on my birthday, either feeling guilty about being a selfish jerk who steals people away from their Christmas celebrations OR like a dumb crybaby who said “it’s fine” with a stiff upper lip and is now being utterly ignored/overruled by everyone who wants to do Christmas things only. I felt shitty and anxious and secretly sad every December 25th, for a very long time.

    December 25th is now an enforced Not Christmas day for me and my current partner, who has made his family and friends understand we will join them for Christmas Eve activities but not day-of. We do all the Christmas-related stuff, like the gift exchange, on the 24th but we don’t do any of it on the 25th, which we keep clear of activities and spend 100% normally, maybe with a nice afternoon activity like going on the swan boats, or getting dumplings for dinner. Maybe we invite over some friends for dinner–and it’s normal dinner, not Christmas dinner. It’s nice to not feel the intense pressure of pleasing everybody else on the one day I don’t want to please other people. I still feel a twinge of guilt sometimes, but my partner isn’t a big Christmas person anyway, so it works out perfectly for us.

    If we have kids, I think we might start up Christmas on December 25th again, or split the day so morning is Christmas and evening is birthday–but for now, this feels nice.

  109. Lessons learned and grievances from my most recent birthday:

    1. I made a gift wishlist. I sent the list to my mother. My intention was that she would pick 2-3 things depending on size… she purchased fully half the list, and stuff that was on another list that was on the account but I hadn’t specifically linked, and various other things as well. I don’t want to think about how much it all cost! I’m someone who *hates* having a lot of money spent on me, which I thought she had cottoned onto by now. It was super horrifying and uncomfortable on my part! But it made clear to me that this is a problem that crops up every year, and that next year I need to explicitly tell her “more presents actually make me feel worse, please keep it to two maximum.”

    2. For the past two years on my birthday, one of my friends has messaged me…… to pitch an elaborate, time-consuming birthday present for our other mutual friend, whose birthday is a month later, and ask for my help. On My Whole Actual Birthday. While not getting me anything. I’m struggling with this, y’all. Can anyone recommend a way to explain that being asked this particular favor on this particular day makes me feel like shit? It feels obvious to me, but evidently it isn’t.

    3. My boyfriend turned up to birthday dinner with a bouquet of roses and I nearly cried. It felt exactly like a Sappy Romcom Moment in the best way. If you had asked me that morning if I wanted flowers, I would have said, “enh, they’re fine, I could go either way” and meant it.

    So the takeaways, for me – more presents aren’t better and I need to make that clear; at a minimum, I need to feel prioritized on my birthday; but also, I’m apparently still not the expert in what I want 🙂

    1. I think this is a time when being gentle but direct might work well. I’d aim to have the conversation maybe two months before your birthday, and say something like, “Hey, you know how we’ve planned the big birthday party for [Other Person] the past two years? Both times, the day you asked me to help was my actual birthday, and I felt really sad/lonely/forgotten.”

      A good friend’s answer will be something like “I’m so sorry; I can’t believe I didn’t realize! That must have felt awful. How do you like to celebrate your birthday?” followed by planning something for you that year (which is part of why you bring it up a couple months before your birthday) and ideally not asking you to help with the other party at all that year, then maybe planning something for you the following year and if they involve you in the other party not bringing it up the week of your birthday (and ideally asking you if/how much you want to be involved), and then afterwards reaching some sort of balance with how much energy they put into your birthday and the other one and how much they ask of you.

      1. Thank you so much!! I think this would work great. I really appreciate you replying and I’ll try it out 🙂

  110. I’ve posted here before but not often so I have no idea what name I used previously, sigh… anyhow, lovely to see an open thread about birthdays when I have many thoughts about them and it’s only a couple of weeks until mine….

    *Probably birthdays wouldn’t be as fraught of a subject if they HAD gone well up until I was 21… I might have had a couple with friends as a very small child, but after that, since I lived way out in the country and didn’t really have friends at school (and my birthday was during the summer), not so much. There were also many summer birthdays in my family, so that led to a “combined summer birthday” celebration for children and adults that was basically an excuse for the adults to get drunker than usual in a room with cake.

    *As a tween/teenager, even though my birthday is the second to last day of the month, my mom would say she wouldn’t have money for anything until the last day of the month so I would generally just be alone on my birthday and then maybe get a present from her the next day. Things were still sub-optimal with friends… I remember the summer before my senior year, 3 acquaintances dropped by my house briefly with a small gift after spending the day shopping in a fun nearby town… I would rather have hung out with them during their shopping trip and not gotten a present than see them for 5 minutes to get a gift, but I tried to be happy to see anybody for even such a short time.

    *My husband and I have been together for many years so these days I generally get to pick out a reasonable gift and plan to do something including a nice dinner (when it’s his birthday he gets the same plus usually a home-cooked meal/dessert on a different day). But still the friends thing… I remember the last time, around a decade ago, that I tried to get multiple people together for my birthday. A couple of weeks in advance, I tried two different inexpensive events on two different days, in the larger town where most of my friends live instead of the smaller town where I live… meeting for dinner at a pizza place or going to a movie together. The only person who showed up for pizza was the lady who cut my hair… she was very nice but we barely knew each other. No-one came to the movie. So I basically gave up after that.

    *This year things are also not working out how I want them to… I tried the aforementioned tactic of trying to plan around one person I really wanted to see/one activity I really wanted to do/a convenient time rather than my actual birthday, but that didn’t work out. But it does seem like at least one friend wants to join my husband and I for brunch, so I will try to count it as a positive since it’s important to be flexible and all.

  111. Logically, I know that this post exists now because the next few months are the beginning of Birthday Season, that most people are born during these months, at least in this hemisphere. In my lizard brain, I can’t stop myself from feeling like it’s perfect cosmic timing and feeling so seen because I’m dealing with Recent Birthday Trauma right now. I’m not even a big birthday person, but this was so hurtful I couldn’t NOT be affected.

    My abusive family, who live about 1000 miles away, made plans to come up “for your major milestone birthday.” Also to see some local sites, make it a proper vacation. But mostly for my birthday. So they claimed. You know where this is going. On my birthday, I was excited for a nice night out with a fancy dinner, they were going to bring a fancy cake, and I could pretend for a few hours that we’re NOT a totally dysfunctional family. But they never showed up, and no word from them all day. So I contacted my mother’s phone and left a message: “Are you on the way?” About an hour later, she sent me a photo of them eating fast food and lounging in their hotel room: “We decided not to come.” Apparently they also decided not to TELL me they weren’t coming so I could make other plans. It was far too late to go out by then. I cried all night, feeling abandoned even though it’s not like it was the first time they’ve done nasty things to me. My “birthday dinner” was canned soup and a few slices of cheese because I had planned to eat birthday leftovers the next day and then do the grocery shopping; my kitchen was empty. I had to buy my own cake a few days later because my irrational-brain had latched onto the injustice of not having cake on my birthday. It was whatever the grocery store deli had left at the end of the day. It was slightly stale. Because I was still too depressed to order a nice cake.

    And then, after bailing on the birthday plans, my family made plans to meet at a brunch restaurant on their way back home. Again, the time to meet came and went with no word from them…but I didn’t trust them and ate a proper meal at home this time, figuring I could get something to go if they did show up. Eventually, I got a text from my mother that they were eating Cousin’s (fantastic, he’s a master griller) steak. Because they had left without telling me, and had already made the ~1000 mile trip before our brunch plans. Leaving me waiting and holding the empty bag yet again. I still have no idea what was actually going on. I suspect they were “punishing” me for yet another imagined slight, and thought the most hurtful thing they could do would be to come all the way over to my part of the world and then completely abandon me on a major milestone event (they really are THAT petty, to schedule an entire trip for the purpose of hurting someone.) They were right. Unfortunately.

    On top of all that, not a single person in my social circle acknowledged my birthday, even though I posted about it and make an effort to be there for them and acknowledge their big events. It’s been made even worse by the fact that Open Birthday Season starts right after my birthday, and now my social feeds are flooded with everyone wishing everyone else happy birthdays when they didn’t bother with mine. I’ve been pretty depressed for a few weeks now.

    I wish we had open events held throughout the year for people who felt abandoned on their birthday, where we all get together for big block parties with amazing food and optional “secret Santa” style gift exchanges where no one feels like they have to perform to some stupid public standard for their gifts and no one has to be the center of attention if they don’t want it. What would we even call it? Hmmm….

    1. I know you don’t need this validation, but allow me to provide it anyway: Your family sucks. You’re completely justified in writing them off after this kind of performance, if that’s how you want to roll.

      You, yourself, sound pretty fucking awesome. I’m sorry you had such a shitty birthday; I’ve been there.

      1. Drew, that actually really helps. Thank you very much.

        I try to stay Low Contact with my immediate family, but have learned the hard way that when they come barreling in it’s best to let them run until they lose steam so I can have a few months of peace after. I’d cut them out completely but that would cause too many problems with the very large extended family I do want to maintain contact with.

        I really truly hope that you’ve had much better birthdays since your own shitty experience(s)! One good thing about being an adult is that I can, usually, make my own plans for my special days that don’t include toxic people.

    2. Happy birthday, Day’s End Walker. I’m sorry this happened. If you were local to me, I’d be happy to take you to get some fancy dessert somewhere.

      This scenario is an echo of what happened to me on more than one Christmas, when I couldn’t afford to travel or participate in gift exchanging. My family all got together, after abusing me over my decision not to come (couldn’t afford it, old car not trustworthy for a along distance during the holidays when everything is closed and most of the trek is through many, many miles of nothing but red dirt and pine trees). They then couldn’t be bothered to call me, and since there were multiple small children who might be taking naps and multiple elderly people who might likewise be appreciating some quiet time, I arranged in advance for them to call me, then stuck by the phone all day and heard not a peep, even on social media. When I did break down and call at 8 PM, more children were being rounded up for bedtime, it was chaos, they deigned to talk to me for about 90 seconds in between handing the phone to non-verbal infants and babbling toddlers, and that was it.

      I know what that sting feels like. They made SUCH a fuss when I couldn’t figure out a way to afford the trip, too. But clearly it wasn’t ME they missed.

      Families can be hard, my friend.

      1. Your offer is very much appreciated!

        I’m sorry about your family. Your experience sounds so similar to some of mine, and the part about driving through the middle of nowhere through red dirt and pine trees to see family sounds a lot like our awful families might live in the same region. Which would not surprise me at all since that kind of toxicity seems to be fairly accepted as normal around there.

        Families ARE hard. One thing I’ve been trying to do since moving away from my relatives is to build a new family of my choosing. But even that can be difficult.

    3. This reminds me of the saying, “Of course your family knows how to push your buttons, they installed them.”

      They knew it would hurt you because they knew you would want to see them, and would value milestone events, and would be willing to make plans with them and keep the space clear on your calendar, and all sorts of totally reasonable or even good things. I am so MAD at them.

      But also, I wish you could laugh in shock with me at how totally ridiculous they are. Like, “oh, we’re going to spend a lot of our money and time on a trip to that part of the world… *Dr Evil cackle* just so we can mess with our kid!” This isn’t just mean, it’s absurd, over-the-top, Cruella Deville mean. It’s not middle-school mean, it’s middle-school-in-the-*movies* mean. And this is a group of grown up adults who all decided this is what they were going to do with their one wild and precious life. I invite you to join me in looking at them jaw agape in total bafflement if you ever find it possible.

      And also to spend a lot less time with them and be clear next time they invite you to do something that you unfortunately can’t reserve time for them anymore after the last two no-shows but would love for them to meet you at (restaurant you enjoy) at (half an hour before you’re going to order your favorite dish and eat it cheerfully without them).

      1. Than you! You are right! It *is* ridiculous! They weren’t even subtle about it; I only saw them for about two hours total during their week vacation here because they were hungry when they arrived in my area and wanted to eat something before they headed to the hotel.

        These comments have been very soothing for me. I got a lot of positive toxicity when I tried to explain this to friends. A lot of “Well, you didn’t want to see them anyway, so you should be glad!” Like I couldn’t still be hurt that they did something deliberately to mess with me in the worst possible way.

        I am planning for a second birthday celebration in September when all the summer stuff calms down. I had to cancel all my potential birthday plans with friends because I did not want my family trying to butt in and mess everything up. Hoping that it will be everything I missed out on on my actual big day. 🙂

    4. “Logically, I know that this post exists now because the next few months are the beginning of Birthday Season, that most people are born during these months, at least in this hemisphere.”

      SHOULD SAY: Logically, I know that this post exists now because the next few weeks are the beginning of Birthday Season, that most people are born during the next few months, at least in this hemisphere.

      I had two thoughts in my head and mashed them both up while writing this. The next few WEEKS, I meant. If that’s the only mistake I made in that long screed, I’m doing very well! Though I’m sure there’s others, hehe.

  112. Just forgot my mother’s birthday. In my defence, I was away on holiday with little phone reception (no reminders of date), I have a mental condition where I mix up dates easily, and at home, growing up, my family almost never celebrated birthdays.

    The reason being, my parents vocally hated each other and were chronically depressed.

    Every year the same “What do you want to do for your birthday mom / dad?”
    “Nothing / It doesn’t matter / It won’t make me happy.”
    “What can I buy you?”
    “Nothing / It doesn’t matter / It won’t make me happy.”
    “I’ll buy you [XX], will you be free?”
    “Don’t waste your money / It doesn’t matter / I don’t know…”

    When your folks don’t care, the importance of any birthday in the family is minimised, including your own. Each year is usually a major source of anxiety and bad memories. This year, my dad sent me a spiteful email and my mother phoned me up the day before, only to go on about how much she hates our father (I know this speech ad verbatim and it is 85% of what she will talk about) and forgot to mention the words “Happy birthday.”

    Nonetheless, I still feel like shit for forgetting hers. She sent me a passive-aggressive phone message “So strange our family never celebrates birthdays…” and isn’t answering my phone calls.

    I almost wish I could say she’s doing this deliberately but I really don’t know if she’s aware of it.

    1. Send her a birthday card through the USPS. When it arrives late, maybe she will assume it is the post office’s fault. Won’t fix the underlying issues, and I don’t recommend it if it feels sketchy to you, but it’s one way to address it. People who want to take offense will always find something offensive. Forgiving people will always forgive genuinely innocent lapses.

  113. *”Our father” as in her husband and the father of my three siblings and I. Otherwise, that would be an entirely different set of problems…

  114. I’m someone who has a lot of birthday anxiety* and both likes being pampered/celebrated a bunch but hates feeling high maintenance, so I have developed a system that usually works for me:
    – super chill dinner on the day of my birthday with a friend (the day of my birthday tends to give me the most anxiety, last year it was “dinner with a close friend who knows i might cancel day-of due to stress”
    -something small for a close group of 4 or so people (brunch or drinks)
    – one sprawling and expectation-free night at a local bar. This lets me invite a lot of people I know (coworkers who I never see out if the office, a friend I see once a year, etc) and not be upset if anyone cancels. The happy hour can feel exhausting so I usually keep the next day quiet. This is only useful for folks comfortable at being at a bar – but I can see something similar working at a park or at a busy coffeeshop for anyone who doesn’t drink.

    *when I was a kid I’d plan heavily themed DIY parties that took loads of prep and I always ended up crying because it didn’t turn out or my friends wouldn’t care or whatever else

  115. When I turned 30 I had just moved across the country and only knew work people. I took myself away for the weekend to Nearby Town. I stayed in a B&B, had a moderately fancy dinner with very chocolate cake, wandered around, and went to a dance workshop. It was great.

    The next year I took myself out to dinner, and discovered that I find Indian food alone kind of depressing. Which wasn’t a win, but also wasn’t the end of the world.

    By the next year I had found my local people, and I started what I’ve done since – I bake ridiculous cake and have people eat it with me. I like to bake, and while sometimes I’ll bake complicated things just because, sometimes I feel like I want an excuse, and my birthday is that excuse. There’s been cake + games nights, one year I carted cake to an Ingress recharge room, once we went to brunch and then back to my apartment for cake, last year D&D that week featured multi-layered cheesecake. But it’s a thing that I enjoy doing, with the right (to me) amount of fuss (friends acknowledging that my birthday is a thing, no additional “stuff”).

  116. Can I just say that I absolutely love that you told your mom about the surprise party? I absolutely hate surprise parties, and I would totally appreciate someone warning me if one were being planned for me. (Although I’ve told everyone I love how much I hate surprises, so the chances of it happening are slim.)

  117. I like to observe my birthday with An Activity and a Small Group of People. I would prefer not to plan it but somehow despite making desires known, no one ever steps up to the plate. Sometimes then the birthday becomes A Trip to Not Too Far Away because I’m planning in anyway, and its less work to plan myself than a Small Group. As long as I’m not sitting home alone (I think I like but do all the time) it’s fine.

    This year I have a New Friend and I was very invested in his birthday, but he is not a Big Birthday person and requested only chocolate cake. I ended up taking him to brunch and making him flourless chocolate cake and then he let me beat him at cards. Voila, an Observation that was not a Big Birthday.

  118. My birthday is very close to my mother’s and for most of my life, “we” have jointly celebrated “our” birthday. Considering that I am going to be 60 this year, that’s been a lot of joint celebrations…for which my mother chooses the venue, the food, the type of cake, the date and time, etc. And pouts if I don’t want to join in or seem insufficiently pleased. She’s so…selective…about what she can eat and where she can eat that it’s not worth the effort to change her mind, and if I do, and then anything goes wrong, she blames me, and isn’t _that_ a pleasant way to spend a birthday meal?

    This year, I intended to throw myself a party and invite a lot of my friends, and make it something of an event–milestone birthday, you know?–but unanticipated expenditures related to my daughter (a young adult; not a health issue) have made that a non-starter unless I wait several months past my actual birthday to build up the necessary savings.

    I’m feeling rather peeved. I don’t want “cake with mom” (yes, it’s wonderful that she’s still around and healthy in her 80s). I can’t afford a party. But I wanted more than the usual string of Facebook birthday greetings this year, and that’s not going to happen, and I am having trouble getting over it, even though I am a fairly grown-up grownup.

  119. My two favorite adult birthdays involved 1) attending our regular dance class on my 50th (no one knew it was my birthday ahead of time and I did not make it “all about me” just said “there is nothing I’d rather have done for my birthday than dance with my tribe!” 2) a weekend at our favorite yogic retreat center in 2017. My least favorite adult birthday was in 2016 and involved nearly being disowned.

  120. All through school, my birthday always seemed to fall during finals/testing week. So it was never a forethought for anyone – combine that with some very traumatic 13th birthday drama and you get an adult who just wants to spend her b-day week drinking wine and going on hikes with her dogs and partner. He’s cool with this, because that’s how he likes to spend his birthday too! His little brother and him were born literally 1 day apart (with an 8 year age gap) and right around Father’s Day, so his birthday has always been of the joint celebration variety. We just alternate between spoiling each other with lots of us time, hobby time, and impromptu weekend trips during our birthday weeks.

  121. Birthday trauma — I has it.

    My father straight-up forgot my birthday several times when I was a kid. Just plain forgot to pick up the cake once, which made the (tiny) party I had a bit less than party-ish, and then, once when we were visiting my grandparents three hundred miles away from home without my mother, took my brother shopping and bought him some nice toys, but didn’t even think about me. Threw a five dollar bill at me when I asked about a present. Thanks so much, Dad.

    And even when I did get presents, what did I get? My birthday is right around Labor Day, so school always started the same week. That’s right, I got school clothes. Which everyone else was getting anyway. Toys? Books? Right out. School clothes.

    So I was always a bit sad and uncertain about my birthday.

    When I grew up and got married, I had a few “I planned a party and nobody came” experiences. Really saddening. I still (thirty years later) get upset about a couple of them. After I had kids, we usually did a family-style dinner with kids and mother-in-law, which was ok. Low-key, but not unbearable.
    I still got depressed around my birthday, but I at least had my kids and husband and mother-in-law to celebrate with.

    Of course, once the kids got older, particularly after they left home, I was feeling really depressed. I got a bit self-harming for a while. So, I finally came up with what works for me, now, in my sixties. I have dinner at a local restaurant and invite all my friends. If they don’t come, I still have an awesome dinner with my husband (and likely daughter/grandchildren, since they are local). I do note that presents are welcome, but I really don’t care if it’s a hand-made card or a dollar store pen, as long as it’s a present for me. I still have some unhappy days in the month before my birthday, but I don’t stress/self-harm anymore.

  122. Oh my gosh this is so relevant. My birthday was a month ago and on a Saturday. I’m 27 and my parents had separated out of the blue the month before my birthday. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with having a birthday and planning it knowing both my parents would want to be there and I was having major anxiety around it.

    So. I went to my husband and my younger sister, the two people who know me best in the world, and asked them if they would be willing to plan the whole day for me as a day of surprises. They enthusiastically agreed.

    The day of my birthday, from the moment I woke up, I had no idea what was happening (and I love that!).
    We had breakfast with my mom, then went to the zoo, then afternoon tea with my Dad, then home with just me and my husband to watch a movie. I had a lot of fun and it was the perfect birthday for me. It didn’t make it any less special that I had to ask someone to plan it.

  123. My birthday is in May, and often falls on Mother’s Day. I’ve never really liked celebrating that holiday. I have a lot of FEELINGS surrounding it. I’ve seen many people do really mean and exclusionary things with the holiday, and I feel like it’s sort of reductive. My own family would often make a big deal about doing MOTHER’S DAY STUFF FOR MOTHER and just sort of ignore me, with many guilt trips. And now that I am a mother myself, I dislike the holiday even more, because it feels like now people treat me as if my “true” value is “being a mom,” and forget that I’m a whole entire person. Which makes me feel like going on a feminist tirade every time someone wishes me a “happy mothers’ day” when they are just trying to be nice.

    So my point is twofold: 1) just wanted to vent 2) how can I not be a raging emotional jerk during this time? I don’t bother myself if someone else wants to celebrate it – that’s their jam, go forth and celebrate. And I know I can’t stop acquaintances/strangers from wishing me a “Happy Mothers’ Day,” so I’m not too worried about that group. But are there words I can say when my closer friends/family seem to focus solely on the “mother” part and forget about the “Catsaber” part? (Thankfully my husband is on board with me about these types of holidays so there’s no issue there.)

  124. Hi! Long time reader, long time commenter with maybe a new name – hopefully this one keeps me more anonymous, except to a few friends.

    I’ve had a variety of different birthday types and I think what it comes down to for me is wanting to feel special and cared for by friends and partners, whatever way that ends up happening that day. I never really had many birthdays as a kid where my parents would allow me to invite friends or throw a ~party (my mom thought it was too much trouble, that it seemed annoying, that she didn’t like my friends’ parents… the list goes on) so now I try to plan a lot of the bare bones stuff myself to prevent myself from being disappointed, I think.

    For my sixteenth birthday, I assumed my friends would set something up for me, and they … all ditched me to go to a queer prom party that I wasn’t allowed to go to. My dad took me to buy a drawing tablet that I had wanted for years, and I could tell he was doing it because he felt sorry for me, and it felt even worse. I ended up walking down to the local arcade and getting a flavor swirl ice cream, half heartedly playing arcade games, and walking home and crying.

    So, yeah. In interest of that not going that way again, I usually set things up like “I would like to go to x and do y today. Could you take care of the particulars?” And often I’ll buy myself bath bombs or a special lunch.

    Now that I’m an adult I’m often pleasantly surprised when friends offer to take care of it for me, and go out of their way to make my day awesome, but I never expect it, and I still hesitate to make “too big of a deal out of it.”

  125. Hmm – as CA suggests, the “zou-bizou-bizou” example is a very good instance of the wrong sort of birthday present – something given because *you* like it rather than because the recipient likes that kind of thing. It’s also very much “all about Megan” with her as the star of the show and Don as the passive spectator. Poor guy looks mortified.
    Events like this are in the same ball-park as those public wedding proposals that happen during baseball games or at the podium after Olympic events – they are all about shining a light on the doer, and extorting the desired reaction from the person being targeted.

    1. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, the second-hand embarrassment was too much for me.

  126. I had a lovely birthday experience recently with one of my friends. She usually doesn’t celebrate her birthday at all, but this year, for birthday 33, she decided she would like to. So she mentioned this to her husband and her 2 best friends, invited me down (I live in a city ~2 hours away), and we had a lovely weekend.

    I got her some fancy bubble bath and a nice card, her besties organised Champagne and cake, then we went on a pub crawl and all stayed at her house. The following day we went for delicious lunch. It was so delightfully lovely.

  127. I’ve noticed that, no matter how many times or ways I remind people that I don’t want a birthday party, don’t want any matter of cake or presents, and don’t want any kind of celebration or acknowledgement of my birthday, it never goes well. People take offense. They get mad. They pout. They get pissy and passive-aggressive. They ignore what I say and do it anyway. People have even complained about it at work, as if a sloppily-cut piece of somebody else’s crappy sheet cake was part of their benefits package. Any idea how weird it is for your boss to reprimand you in their office because you told someone you didn’t want a cake? It’s even weirder.

    1. “They ignore what I say and do it anyway. People have even complained about it at work, as if a sloppily-cut piece of somebody else’s crappy sheet cake was part of their benefits package”

      Pure gold. Succinctly embodies the “anyone who has different wants/desires is a threat to mine” mindset.

  128. Just wanted to mention some things that I personally like and dislike on my birthday; nothing too far off from what other people have said, but I love birthdays, so was excited about this post!

    First of all, I always take my birthday off, and have done so for as long as I’ve been at a job where this was an option. I do all sorts of things; often I’ll spend part of the day cleaning (since I’m often getting ready for the Party, see below), and then do something fun like sit around reading a book, get a massage, go for a walk, make my favorite food (whatever that might be at the time), and so on. I deliberately choose not to plan something big, and just relax and enjoy the day.

    I also have a birthday party each year. It’s pretty laidback; I send out a feeler email to a group of close friends to see which weekend (before or after my birthday) will work best, and then pick a Saturday and hope others can come too. The coolest thing about my birthday is that I have a bunch of college friends in the area that will all come (we’re all in our 40s now). I invite friends from other walks of life as well (church, hobbies, etc.), but the core group is from my college. They range from people who are still in close regular contact with each other to others who were in different social groups that I participated in back then and so they mostly only knew each other from eating dinner together with me at the cafeteria from time to time. I’ve had some of my friends say that they love the [College Name] reunion every year on my birthday; it’s one of my favorite parts too! I’ll make up a bit easy meal (although mixed success at people actually eating dinner with me; I don’t mind this because I love leftovers) and we’ll hang out and play games and such.

    My personal least favorite thing about birthdays is the way people get funny about desserts. I hate cake and cupcakes. (Those of you who love them, you can be my friend – you’ll get ALL the cake! It will be wonderful!!) My go-to dessert is pie (I make this lovely apple custard pie), although I have a good friend who brings me the birthday present of a gateau des rois (this is a seasonal French pastry that’s out around the time of my birthday, and it’s basically flaky crust and almond paste, which is a beautiful, beautiful combination…) as well. My preference for my birthday dessert would be either of the above, made by me or by someone else, I don’t care too much, but I want homemade pie! (The gateau des rois comes from a French bakery, which is fine because making flaky pastries is a bear, but I hate most store-bought pies. I’m fine with other people eating them, but I can’t stand them after years of homemade.) My friends and family are all fine with this (and none of them are going to argue with lovely homemade pie! Did I mention the pie??), but for some reason my co-workers are *not*. There is a firm belief at my job that you are NOT allowed to make your own birthday dessert, and nothing I can say will change their minds. I am happy to bake enough pies to feed my roughly 50 co-workers, but apparently this is WRONG WRONG WRONG. A few years ago I was on a birthday committee at work and proposed that everyone should be able to suggest what they wanted for a birthday dessert (after a couple of years of having people bring in cake and watching everyone else enjoy my birthday dessert while I didn’t have any). Someone else said, “No, we should just offer the choice of cake or cupcakes. I mean, what if they wanted something completely different, like pie or something?” I didn’t tear out my hear, but I thought about it. I argued back about this, and explained that I was that person, but that my goal wasn’t to make it hard on people to get desserts (which was her concern); I would even make it myself. I just wanted pie. I don’t remember what the official answer was, but I do know that now every year there is some kind-hearted co-worker (it changes each year) who will run to Safeway and get me a pie so I can have pie but not be forced to do anything so awful as bake it myself. Sigh. tl;dr Desserts are my case study (accidentally typed “cake study”; hah!) in not forcing your own ideas on someone else about what birthdays should be like.

    1. My MIL still does cake for all her kids’ birthdays, but refuses to do birthday pie. Even though she makes great pie. People really do get weird about it.

      PS: WordPress is refusing to remember my name or email here, and the problem has cropped up in another comments section too (despite working fine on a third WordPress-based site). Weiiird.

  129. I have been living alone for a number of years, and I actually prefer to celebrate my birthday solo. I do a birthday weekend if I’m free, or adjust it to suit my schedule. I like to write out a plan if I’m staying home so I don’t slump over the computer all day. Usually I do home spa stuff and plan the coming year on at least one day, and I go out on another. I’m a summer kid, so I like to go to botanical gardens if the weather’s good, or I’ll go shopping somewhere fun like the local antiques district. There’s normally at least one bookstore involved on a birthday shopping trip.
    My family was never huge on birthdays- we’d do dinner and cake, plus presents, but after my brother and I were about twelve the parties stopped- though we were fine with that. My mom was the present person, my dad not so much, so after her death we stopped doing presents. I send dad homemade cookies, and he’s thrilled.
    I’m fine celebrating other people’s birthdays however they want, including if they don’t want it mentioned at all.

  130. Cake. I want cake. Bake it, buy it, steal it, I just want someone to give me some cake. I don’t want presents or fanfare or even to go out drinking, but cake makes me so happy!

    I like doing things for other people’s birthdays, but I’m often get nervous that I’ll get it wrong.

  131. My birthday is irritatingly close to xmas, so it because just another social obligation in a time of year crammed with social obligations. (Which is particularly annoying because I don’t even celebrate xmas, but a lot of people around me do.) Even my birthday cake is like “Ugh, another dessert!” because there’s been a constant influx of cookies since early December.

    So with my family and closest friends, we arrived at a solution that I get a surprise birthday at some point during the year. Not a surprise party (definitely not my thing!), but a cake/gift/card/whatever is the norm for that particular relationship, at a time that I’m not expecting but is convenient for the giver.

    That’s far more delightful and meaningful to me than another December obligation!

    On the flip side, my December birthday pet peeve is people who send me an xmas card and then believe this means they have marked my birthday.

  132. I’m on Team Assorted Then-Undiagnosed Traumata and Neurodivergences That Made Traditional Children’s Parties Exquisitely Hellish, and also Team Still Would’ve Liked a Card and Maybe a Nice Cake, But My Family of Origin Started Ignoring Birthdays Altogether When a Child Turned 13 or So. I have lately joined Team Guess What, Everything Tasty Now Makes You Desperately Ill.

    After a lot of therapy, I still wince at cards and cakes and things because they bring up uncomfortable memories, but dammit I would like my existence to be noticed on the one day of the calendar that is dedicated to actually noticing that I, in particular, exist. So what I’ve told my spouse is:

    1. I don’t want to do any chores on my birthday;
    2. I don’t want to cook anything on my birthday (but you’d better not surprise me with treats because desperately ill);
    3. I want to control what movies or shows are playing in the house on my birthday (because Spouse watches a lot of TV, most of which I loathe).

    And that’s enough.

    For our children, we let them pick the guest list (size and names) and choose the venue and activities. We’ve had pizza-and-bowling, pool parties, board game tournaments, run-around-outdoors-and-make-lots-of-noise-fests, and tent sleepovers. When they were younger we just blew up a whackton of balloons and let the kids go nuts. (Nobody was afraid of balloons.)

    One of my children has a birthday extremely close to Christmas. So we don’t decorate the house at all until the day after his birthday, and if we rent a space for his party we ask the owner if we can take any Christmas decorations down for the duration. So far, so good.

  133. I like a nice family dinner at home and a sushi adventure lunch. It’s not really my birthday if there isn’t a sushi adventure lunch. Most years I want the same cake my mom has been making since before I was born, but at least once I wanted to get a bunch of different kinds of cake one slice at a time and divvy them up into bite sized portions so everyone got to try as many kinds as they wanted. And I did. While the Harry Potter novels were being published I got the latest on my birthday and spent the whole day reading it (my birthday is at the end of July.) This year, I literally emailed my mom the link to a crazy good deal for the complete collection of Ghibli movies. Fingers crossed.

    When I am not in full spoonie mode, I love making a fuss over people who show the slightest wish for a fuss. I bake, I throw parties, I make sure it’s a good time. Right now, I can’t, and that’s a bummer.

    Very much on team Ask For What You Want. I’ve had to say no, sometimes, but I’ve never said How Dare You Ask.

  134. Thank you so much for laying this all out so neatly, Cap! There are alqays so many Feelins about birthdays, and its hard to sort them all out at times.

    I love baking, and I’ve become the cake-maker for birthdays over the past few years. I love baking cakes for friends and family, but it’s been frustrating how few of them tend to view cakes as *gifts* (home-made ones at that!) and/or don’t reciprocate for my birthdays. I genuinely love how appreciative everyone is in the moment (and getting so many compliments is lovely), and I obviously don’t make cakes just so that people will “owe” me, but it’s frustrating when not everyone realizes how much time, effort, and money goes into it!

    It didn’t bother me for the first coupke years, but now it can really grate on me when i think about how many times I made cakes for X and they’ve hardly done anything for me, or stopped getting me gifts altogether when I couldn’t make one or two years.

    Anyone have any good scripts for telling people “hey, I’d appreciate a small gift for my birthday, even if it’sjust a dessert out”? Maybe also some scripts for myself, and helping give myself permission to not get so invested in this? I haven’t really given myself space to think about it and feel my feelings (so guess what I’ll be discussing in therapy soon)! ❤

    1. I sometimes use the script “If you’re looking for gift ideas: nice food is always welcome. I love little cakes, jams or lunch invites”. It’s a bit direct, but sometimes people are just oblivious.

      I also ask for birthday decoration. It is tradition to decorate people’s studio doors on their birthdays in our (self employed creative workers) studio building, and I was in tears when they forgot to do mine one year. So now I ask in advance to one trusted person if they can take care of mine. I feel a bit pathetic in asking, but it’s better than falling apart weeping when I find an undecorated door on the morning of my birthday, while the other people get all full garland and confetti explosions on theirs.

      So I suggest you to just ask, your script is fine already.

      1. I was raised so much with the you don’t ask for gifts unprompted under any circumstances, so I wouldn’t be able to do that, but I do think it would be totally reasonable for Anandatic to say something like “So do we want to observe each other’s birthdays? I’m really good at making cakes but I could also do [x, if there is an x]” I feel like that would set up the expectation that celebrating birthdays is a reciprocal thing.

    2. I get that this is difficult, but I’d stop making cakes if it is frustrating you. It sounds like this is a question of categories. You’re right, a lot of people will not see a birthday cake as a gift, and in my case that is because birthday cake and gift are separate categories. If someone produced a surprise cake for my birthday I’d see it as very nice gesture, totally appreciate what went into it, and assume that they were someone who liked making birthday cakes and that people find it delicious was their reward. I definitely wouldn’t think that it was intended as a birthday present that needed to be reciprocated, and if I realised that they did see it like that, then I’d potentially be uncomfortable and my preferred solution might well be that they should not make me a birthday cake, not that I get them a present because from my POV we might not have a present-giving relationship. Kacienna’s suggestion of having a conversation about how you want to celebrate/observe birthdays seems to me a good one.

    3. If you’re looking for gifts in general, I think Tortoise’s script is perfect.

      If you’re specifically hoping for someone to bring you cake, there’s another thing that might be going on: it’s possible you’re intimidatingly good at baking, and people are specifically avoiding giving you cake because they’re worried it won’t be up to your standards.

      In that case, it’s helpful to be super explicit about what sort of cake you’d enjoy:

      “If you want to bring a cake, I particularly like the chocolate mousse cake from Fancy Local Bakery!”

      “I’m not picky, grocery-store cake is fine!”

      “I’d love it if someone could make me a cake, but it doesn’t have to be fancy — cake from a box is fine!”

      I’ve been on both ends of this situation, and it’s so relaxing when someone tells you exactly what they want and you can just get it for them. Good luck, and keep on being Terrifyingly Amazing ❤

  135. I’m late to the party, but wanted to tell about my favorite birthday tradition in my family. My genius mother invented “Have-it-your-way-day”, aka the day we celebrate your birthday (usually first weekend after actual birthday, but could be farther out since we always got sick on our bdays like clockwork), the birthday kid got to plan the entire day (within reason). Where we went, what dinner and dessert were made, what movie we watched or board game we played. As a kid in a large family, it was magical getting to make all the choices for once. I always chose to visit the pet store to admire the animals, bookstore to pick out a new book, spaghetti and cake for dinner, and the Lion King and games afterwards. It was simple (and my mom got out of planning a huge party lol), but still made the day feel special.

    If I’m not up for a big birthday shin-dig, I do Have-it-your-way-day instead, go to my favorite restaurant, play my favorite board games (even the ones my husband hates), spend at least some of the day reading without interruption, and do zero chores. If someone asks what I did for my bday, I don’t downplay it (oh, you know, nothing too special). I tell them I got to do everything I wanted for the day and it was perfect.

  136. What a timely thread! My birthday is next Thurs and for the past three years I was at work during my birthday at a summer theater festival, and it always happened my birthday was on some Busy Day like a tech rehearsal so I got a “surprise” cake and celebrated with the cast and crew. This year I’m not at the festival and decided to have a casual drink and invite people to stop by the bar in my neighborhood at their leisure. Cue a melt-down– nobody was going to come, I was going to be all alone on my birthday, nobody would want to come on the day I picked, nobody would come all the way out to Queens, should I move it to a weekend day? but half my friends are working on the weekend? Should I do Manhattan? But then I won’t feel comfortable at whatever random Manhattan bar I picked and I’d have to worry about getting home and blah. My best friend finally had to say “HEY people will show up and you should have it at your favorite place because it’s YOUR birthday” before I calmed down. Feelings about birthdays! They’re wild.

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