(Don't Cry This Time!)
By Rachel Hendrix
If you’re like me and always end up crying on your birthday, keep reading.
From such a young age, we learn that birthdays are marked by exclusion. Arguably the worst feeling a kid can experience is not being invited to someone’s birthday party. It feels like just yesterday that 4th-grade me was forced to listen to every painstaking detail of the unmissable Sky Zone birthday party that I wasn’t invited to. On the flip side, a surefire way to inflate a kid’s ego is to invite them to the super elite, super secret slumber party taking place after the regular birthday party, an occasion only for the birthday girl’s bestest of friends. We’ve all felt the shittiness of not being invited to a legendary birthday bash, and we’ve all excluded others we didn’t view as important enough to invite.
Coming to Duke, I’ve felt the stress around birthdays heighten. Countless questions run through my mind as my own birthday approaches: Do I plan my own party, or does a friend plan it for me? Who would I even invite? What should I do? A dinner? A party? How many people should come? What if someone feels left out? If I invite this person, then I have to invite that other person, and then I’ve invited too many people! What if no one shows up?
Birthdays are a transactional assessment of social status and the closeness of relationships, made more stressful by the frequent FOMO and fluctuating friendships of college. So, why exactly are birthdays so challenging?
The Birthday Post
There’s a good chance you’ll know by 10am that morning when it’s someone’s birthday. Instagram is often flooded with birthday posts or stories posted by their friends. At their best, birthday posts are a way to express pride in a friendship, to show others that you love your friend and believe everyone else should love them too. At their worst, birthday posts are a vehicle for climbing the social ladder, to show the world “I have a desirable social status because I am friends with this person who also has a desirable social status.” Birthday posts broadcast relationships for everyone on social media to see, and we crave them because we crave being socially valuable enough to be posted.
The Birthday Party
Social media brings back our 4th grade anxieties with an unprecedented force. When I see pictures on Snapchat or Instagram of people at birthday parties that I wasn’t invited to, I can’t help but wonder why I was seemingly the only one unworthy of an invite. This can lead to a negative spiral: the birthday girl must not like me, and therefore all of my friends must not like me either. On the other hand, when I am invited, I instinctively want to make this publicly known by posting it to social media: look at me, I have friends! I’m a social person!
The Evaluation of Friendship
On your birthday, both you and your friends evaluate your relationship with one another. You ask yourself which friends you care about enough to invite to your celebration, and see how much your friends care about you in how much they show up for you.
There is an implied order to how a person shows up for their friend on their birthday, certain actions indicating a closer relationship than others. A Snapchat text implies the least amount of closeness, followed by an iMessage or phone call, a birthday post, maybe a party or a let's-all-shout-happy-birthday-at-midnight crowd of friends at Shooters, and the real ones are invited to the birthday dinner. There have been birthdays when someone I believed to be a really good friend only shot me a half-hearted text, which I naturally took to be an indication that they didn’t value me as much as I valued them.
Furthermore, if you plan your own party or dinner, you have to ask yourself “who do you feel closest to?” At college, your answer to this question can change quite frequently; we are constantly surrounded by so many people, creating so many opportunities to form and lose friendships. Being forced to give a definitive answer to this question on an arbitrary day every year can feel difficult and demanding when friendships are in constant flux.
The unfair thing about birthdays is the fact that both of these things happen at the same time. For example, if a friend sends you a birthday text, and you were expecting it to be longer or more heartfelt than it was, you worry that this friend doesn’t like you as much as you like them. What if I find out me and my friend aren’t on the same page about the closeness of our relationship?
The Element of Surprise
Recently, I’ve noticed an increasing popularity of surprise parties. One or two people who feel especially empowered to do so will create a group chat of people to devise a secret dinner, pregame, or cake-in-the-common-room surprise for their friend’s birthday.
As thoughtful as this is, it’s a difficult game for both the surprisers and the surprisee. The surprisers must attempt to define who the surprisee is friends with and coordinate the whole party. How do you decide if you should be the one to plan it? What if you put yourself in this role, but the person having the birthday would’ve chosen someone else to plan their surprise? What if they hate the surprise because they didn’t even ask for it? The person having the birthday must navigate whether or not they should assume people will throw them a birthday surprise, because it would be phenomenally embarrassing to not make plans yourself only to find out that no one had planned anything for you. The expectation of a secret surprise on one’s birthday keeps the person being celebrated and their friends out of communication, ratcheting up the stress around misinterpreting friendships even more.
Accepting Love From Others
Stress and planning aside, when people reach out to me and tell me why they love having me as a friend, it should feel good, right? For 364 days of the year, it does. But on that 365th day, my birthday, when I’m the undisputed center of attention and everyone is bombarding me with this love at once, every insecurity I’ve ever had seems to come bubbling up. It becomes yet another cycle of overthinking: if I don’t feel confident in myself, I begin to believe the people sending me love don’t really know me at all, and I feel even more lonely than I did before all of the compliments. The pressure to have the best day of my year kicks my self doubt into overdrive.
So Basically, Birthdays Suck.
Every year I stubbornly resolve to do absolutely nothing on my birthday. I decide that it would make everything easier if I just hide from everyone and avoid any form of celebration.
Unfortunately (fortunately?), people want to celebrate you on your birthday. They just do! Birthdays have the potential to be truly beautiful celebrations of love. When multiple people are in agreement that a person is awesome, birthdays give these people the opportunity to collaborate in showing this person just how awesome they are. Birthdays are a convenient excuse to show your gratitude and appreciation for someone when it may feel out of place on any other day. And, even if you can’t enjoy the gratitude on that particular day, this love can be reassuring to look back on later.
The Good News
Although some birthday stress is almost inevitable, here is what I’ve learned to keep in mind on our birthdays to enjoy the day as best we can:
Birthdays really aren’t that special. Everyone has one, and they happen every year without fail.We put so much pressure around a single day, allowing it to make and break our self worth. Birthdays don't deserve this much power! Who says your birthday has to be anything more than an ordinary day with a little bit of cake?
Write your friends hand-written notes on their birthdays. Don’t send a text like you’d do on any other day – make it meaningful, on paper, and slide it underneath their door with their name and a heart. This shows that you are more interested in expressing love to this person than broadcasting your relationship with them to others. The practice of letter-writing allows you to pause, reflect on a friendship, and consider what it is that makes this person special to you.
While it’s stressful to take on the minutiae of birthday party planning, it’s likely everyone involved just wants to express how much you mean to them rather than ruminate on who’s there and who isn’t. No one pays as much attention to what you do or who you invite on your birthday as you do. And, no matter how great or terrible the day ends up being, even you will have forgotten by the time next year’s birthday rolls around.