In defense of throwing your own damned middle-aged birthday party

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My beautiful 2018 cake, by Jeff Pavlik at Sunflour Bakehaus.

I remember the first time it really hit me that adult birthdays can kind of suck.

Two years before we had Lily (2006), February arrived, and I told Joe that all I wanted for my 35th birthday was to go out for dinner and to see a movie in the theater, which is something I love to do.

We did that. And as we were driving home, I stared out the window and inexplicably started to cry.

That sounds stupidly childish, I know, but friend-filled birthday celebrations were close enough in my rearview mirror that I suddenly, desperately missed my closest girlfriends from grad school, who were spread across the country. I felt dull and pathetic – and old. As if friendship was something you got to enjoy in your youth, and then you had to white knuckle it the rest of the way with your partner only.

“I don’t understand,” said Joe. “You said you didn’t need a party, or a dinner with friends, and that you just wanted to see a movie.”

“I know,” I blubbered. “I really did think that was what I wanted. But I guess I was wrong?”

In retrospect, this little breakdown feels inevitable. Adulthood is so much lonelier than we like to acknowledge, and though Joe is a wonderful partner, your spouse can’t realistically fill every need you have. It’s simply too much of a load to carry. (For more on that topic, I recommend this awesome Hidden Brain podcast I recently listened to. Great stuff.)

Plus, I distinctly remember having thought that year, when Joe suggested possibly trying to get friends together for my birthday, that everyone was so busy – many of our friends had started having kids – that it wouldn’t likely work out, anyway. So I thought I’d save Joe and our friends the trouble and not even bother to try.

Which turned out to be the worst of all worlds.

So in the years that followed, Joe threw a lovely party for me at our small town’s movie theater (screening one of my all-time favorites, “His Girl Friday,” for friends); or I flew to visit one of my girlfriends; or Joe and I gathered others to see our favorite local Irish band play; or, a month after my mom passed away in 2009, three of my best gal pals came for a multi-day visit to meet 9 month old Lily, listen to me talk about my mom, make me laugh again, and, of course, take me out shopping.

After January 2016, though, when I was laid off from the job I’d loved, I stared down what had the potential to be the most depressing birthday yet. I knew I’d be alone all day while Joe was at work and the girls were in school, and then I had to take the girls to their swimming lessons. Blech. I mean, I was already struggling daily not to drown in my identity-crisis grief, and turning older (and seemingly more irrelevant) by myself – let alone getting a constantly distracted 4 year old and a stubborn 7 year old to Goldfish, get them changed into their suits, then get them dried off and dressed and back into the car again – made it seem I had absolutely nothing to look forward to.

When you reach that point, you kind of have to shamelessly MAKE something for yourself to look forward to. So I planned a birthday brunch for that weekend.

And I pretty much did everything for it. Joe was utterly buried at work just then, so I created a Facebook page for the party and invited neighbors, friends, and family members, explaining that I didn’t need or want any gifts (but if they wanted to do something, they could donate to one of several listed charitable organizations I support). I submitted an online catering order for bagels, pastries, and coffee from Panera. I chopped fruits and vegetables, and bought dip and hummus and orange juice. We all pitched in to clean the house over the course of a few days. And I ordered a cake, to my specifications, from the fabulous nearby bakery, Sunflour Bakehaus.

Not everyone could make it to the brunch, of course. We’re all so busy, with a packed-to-bursting calendar, and I get that. But with that in mind, I’d cast a pretty wide net when sending invitations, and that Sunday, in the middle of winter (a/k/a human hibernation season in Michigan), people streamed into our home and sat on our furniture, or stood in the kitchen, and ate and drank and chatted with each other. With my family. With me.

All this made me feel so much better. It was glorious, and I felt downright joyful, for one of the first times since my layoff.

Because losing your job (as I’ve previously noted) feels like the professional world of adults has broken up with you. As if every other person your age is out there, doing Important Things that employers value and pay them for, while you’re the worthless reject no one wants anymore.

It’s hard to counter this awful narrative when your many, many attempts to find a new job go absolutely nowhere. I desperately needed to feel like I was still visible to those around me; like I was still part of some community, even if I didn’t have a morning commute and an open workspace (ugh) and a domineering boss to grouse about with coworkers.

Miraculously, this silly little brunch somehow achieved all of that. So I didn’t see any point in not doing it again and again, making it my own personal tradition.

On the morning of my birthday brunch last year (2017), the sun shone brightly and fueled a ludicrously warm day – so much so that we pulled a table out from the garage, set it up in the driveway, and served cake outdoors. Definitely a first for this Michigan girl with a February birthday.

This year, we were back indoors, and I did the second-guessing I always do when cleaning and getting the house ready. “Am I vain and ridiculous?” I’ll ask myself. “Is this silly? A middle-aged woman throwing a party for herself, like I’m a child who needs pointy hats and noise makers to feel special for a day. Is there something wrong with me?”

But then I had a fantastic time again, and all those anxieties got folded up and put away for another year.

Because just a few weeks ago, a couple dozen neighbors and relatives and friends squeezed into our modest, quirkily-proportioned old house and laughed and talked for a couple of hours. When the cake appeared, there was singing, of course, followed by my daughters and my nieces chanting, “Are you one, are you two, are you three … “ all the way up to 47, so I took my phone out and snapped a photo, enjoying the moment for what it was: a time when I was surrounded by goodwill and many of the people I’m so, so grateful to have in my life.

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Which made me flip the script and wonder why others, in fact, haven’t followed my lead and planned celebrations for themselves. As we previously determined, adult birthdays, particularly as you age, can suck pretty hard (getting older AND no fun?), and unless you’re a celebrity, waiting for the world to celebrate you is probably a loser’s bet – not because you’re not worthy, but because people are overwhelmed with their own stuff all the time. Plus, in our Digital Age, when we’re all compelled to stare at our phones every fifteen seconds, the face-to-face connection that happens when we actually come together and just hang out is all the more fulfilling and profound for its rarity.

Yes, you have to invest a bit of effort, time, and money to throw a party, and I know that might be the stopping point for some. But I’m here to tell you that each of the three times I’ve planned this brunch, the joy and satisfaction I’ve derived from it have made EVERYTHING more than worth it.

So consider this a modest proposal. If you have a reason, any reason, to gather those you love around you, TAKE IT. For God’s sake, run with it. Revel in it without shame.

Because while Sartre insists that “hell is other people,” I’d actually argue that something very akin to heaven is your people. 

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Since we had the brunch the day before my actual birthday this year, the girls made my breakfast and hung out with me in bed the next morning. Also lovely and so, so appreciated.

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2 thoughts on “In defense of throwing your own damned middle-aged birthday party

  1. Barb says:

    Love this, Jenn. This is why, as I looked at the calendar turning over this year and my 50th birthday staring me down, I decided to declare 2018 “The Year of Barb”, claim my own hashtag, and prepare to celebrate. Hope you’ll join me for one of my birthday week shows at The Ark this May. Glen Phillips! Susan Werner! Chris Smither! #barbfest2018.

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