To You, Dear, on the Cusp of 30
I have always loved my birthday. Anyone who knew me as a child and was present for the annual gathering together in song around a grocery store cake might believe otherwise, but I do indeed love my birthday. As a child, I didn’t have the language to say “I’m an introvert, and a group of people staring at me expecting a particular expression and reaction makes me want to die”, so I did what I always do when feeling an overwhelm of feelings: I cried, further fueling my reputation for being “fragile” and “sensitive”. I now have the language and self-awareness to own that I am indeed an INFJ/HSP, and I wear my various identity badges proudly.
While I didn’t love (and didn’t understand that I didn’t love) a handful of key birthday-celebrating components, I did love what a birthday stood for. I loved that it meant it was my day: a day to acknowledge my existence and presence on this earth. A day to feel love and kindness from those who knew me, whether it was my parents orchestrating a celebration or a teacher who took the time to look me in the eye and say “Happy Birthday” with sincere conviction. Being acknowledged on my birthday felt like cheering for my work in being a human, which is a hefty role for all of us, let alone those of us with a super sensitive disposition.
My formative decades on this earth have been absorbed in seeking external affirmation: measuring myself alongside my peers and my not-peers, questioning nearly everything I do and how it will be received, living within the confines or what feels “right” or “socially acceptable” or “safe”. In that vein, birthday-celebrating has come to feel like a selfish act that I must be careful not to expose too much anticipation for or joy in. Birthdays are a dime a dozen, and to adult means to flex modest hesitation when acknowledging them, especially because celebrating a birthday is a social act: we don’t want to burden others, exude a sense of selfishness, recognize aging, or act too loudly. Self-control suggests having it together. Don’t rock the boat.
I have found myself trying to mute my excitement for my own birthdays because that is what feels socially acceptable. I don’t want to rally others and present myself as needy. I don’t want to be at the head of the table crying because all eyes are on me and we are going through the motions.
But I love celebrating others’ birthdays because I love cheering for them and supporting them in acknowledging how fucking awesome I think they are and how happy I am to know them. Certainly, everyone has inclinations around how they want their birthday to be acknowledged or celebrated, which sometimes involves me having my own quiet internal celebration for them, but I love it nonetheless. The older I get, the more I realize the importance in acknowledging the self as human equally if not more deserving of the love, respect, time, intention, and patience we grant others. Why would I let social constructions define how I engage with my birthday as an adult (or ever)? Despite all the wonderful plans and celebrations made on my behalf over the years, why wouldn’t I cultivate my own celebrating, my own unabashed acknowledgement of praise for my work as a human in the same way I do for others? Why am I so reluctant to acknowledge and revel in myself?
Instead of seeing myself as a human to learn like any other human I work hard to learn (friend, student, spouse, etc.), I have spent most of my life seeing myself as a human to regulate, control, and improve externally. Self-discipline has always been at the crux of most conversations with myself and any measures I have taken to grow as a human. Not surprisingly, that behavior is incredibly destructive and counter-productive.
I always imagined that I would reach a mystical Nirvana period or state in which all the hard work I had invested in shaping myself would pay off and I could just cruise on what I built. I would toss around ideas like “embrace the journey” or “be okay with not being okay”, but I wouldn’t actually invest in them. I was working against myself and my primal instinct to veer from where I thought I needed to go. The past year of my life has been my most challenging and my most significant (more on that later), and I couldn’t be more pleased that the anniversary is aligning with not only my birthday, but the closing of one decade and the entering of another. There could not be a better time to revel in new perspective and experiment with adding another layer. There could not be a better time to celebrate and acknowledge me.
A birthday marks a trip around the sun. It leaves as fast as it approaches. It marks another seemingly arbitrary amount of time as a human, and yet it holds 365 days of growth and humanity. It is a perfect time to reflect on the last trip, anticipate the next one, and check in/celebrate my relationship with knowing me. Transitioning between decades is an endeavor all its own: an extra special time to celebrate. I have a vivid memory of my 10th birthday riding in the backseat of my parents’ immaculate Honda Accord. I remember looking outside at the rain rappelling down the windows and thinking “I am ten years old. This is significant.” There was something about being a double-digit age: something about the number "1" leading for the next decade. The ten years ahead would mark growth and stretching and crying and screaming of all kinds, and I seemed to know it.
I couldn’t tell you about my twentieth birthday, because, true to my development, I was probably drowning myself in alcohol, convinced that it was a lubricant I truly needed to connect with other people and leave everything else behind. Regardless of what I was or wasn’t thinking on my 20th birthday, true to form, the "1" in the front of my age was indeed replaced by a "2", marking a whole new pocket of time that would look significantly different from the last.
I’ve always enjoyed magazine spreads and advice from elders that touch on what it means to live in different decades of life. I like seeing women representing distinctive periods of living within a human lifespan. It feels clean, timeless and universal. A woman in her 40s is remarkably different from a women in her 30s or 20s. While we are trained to loathe changing out the number in the front placeholder of our age as we grow, I want to mark it and celebrate it. Some of my most treasured advice has been gleaned from women suggesting that with each decade they age, they have come to know and like themselves more. They have learned the importance of cultivating a relationship with themselves.
For this particular birthday, on the eve of a transition from one decade to another, of changing out a “2” to a “3” in the front placeholder in my age, I plan to stretch my intention/celebration/reflection out over the course of my month with the following acts:
- Farewell to my 20s (a reflection):
- What to leave behind
- What to take with
- Timeline of growth and development
- Time capsule
- Cleanse: release of energy into nature
- Take myself on a date
- Thinking ahead: “Year Ahead” and “Decade Ahead” letters
- Refine “Secrets of Adulthood”: a tool to carry with me as a navigate a new space (my 30s)
- Self-interview: mark the process of continuing to ask myself questions and learn who I am, who I’ve always been, and how I’m changing.
- Who am I?
- What do I like?
- What do I definitely dislike?
- What gets me out of bed in the morning?
So to you, Melissa, I vow to acknowledge your trips around the sun with intention, celebration, and reflection, even on the years you don’t feel like it (and especially on the years you don’t feel like it). Your life is too short and important not to.
A special thanks to my mom, my KiKi, for gathering childhood birthday photos at my immediate request and for birthing me.