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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?