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All of my twenty-seven years of wisdom can be boiled down to one single truth:
You are either a birthday monster, or you’re not.
If you’re not sure if you’re a birthday monster, you aren’t. Birthday monsters know who they are. They’ve been warning family members and friends to watch out for as long as they can remember.
You know a birthday monster by how much mental space their birthday takes up for them. Do they tend to cry on their birthday? Do they think it should be a birthday month? Do they start to talk about their birthday weeks in advance?
For example, my boyfriend G is not a birthday monster. To him, a birthday is just another day. A great one for him is dinner with his family. I asked him what he did for his thirtieth and he could barely remember.
Meanwhile, I cry on nearly every birthday (I wrote about this last year). Each year, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out precisely what to do so I won’t. No matter my effort, how many messages I receive, how beautiful and kind my friends and family are, somehow I always end up in tears. This is the hallmark of a birthday monster.
Every birthday monster has an origin story. Mine is at Mongolian BBQ. I’m turning sixteen and my parents have surprised me by letting me invite twenty people from my grade to come to be treated for dinner. I’m wearing a tiara. For my middle-class upbringing, this is true indulgence.
It starts out great. The food was amazing, but when we went back to my house to cut cake and open gifts, all of my friends left but two, citing various excuses. Turns out there was an end-of-summer party the same day that I hadn’t been invited to. I ended up opening gifts with my two closest friends, wiping at tears and feeling doubly horrible as my parents watched on, knowing how hard they had tried to make my day special.
Birthdays, they’re tough.
My anxiety around my birthday gets worse the more “important” the year is. Important is in quotations because important is subjective. For example, twenty-seven feels like is a bigger deal than thirty.
To me, twenty-seven is adulthood. You are no longer a twenty-something, you are in your late twenties. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, when I imagined being twenty-seven, I dreamed I’d be with my soulmate, write for a living, have a beautiful home, treasure my close friends, and be deeply connected to my family and God. These are all happening in my life right now!!!
So why did I have so much trouble with twenty-seven? I spoke about it in therapy ad nauseam, trying to decide if I should plan a trip or take a huge hike or something huge to commemorate the year. Finally, my therapist asked me point-blank, “What is it that you’re expecting will happen on your birthday?”
“I expect the world to stand still and everyone who has ever known me to relish in the joy of my existence,” I responded without hesitation. We both cracked up.
“I’m not sure,” I said finally. “I don’t know what I want. I just want to feel good.”
As we kept talking, a message started to become clear. Keep. It. Simple.
This is easier said than done. I am a dreamer. I have huge expectations of everything. Not just of other people, but of myself, of nature, of timing, of all things. I know my standards are impossible, but still, I don’t know how to change them.
Whenever I imagine wanting less, I don’t know how that actually works. If I did, was that settling? Giving up? Only until recently, when I tried narrowing the scope of things, did I see how expecting less can be so much more.
One example is that I’ve started hosting dinners with & The Table, a global dinner series where women around the world host dinners. The only specification is that dinner attendance is capped at six people, which frankly, I thought was nuts. Is it not the more the merrier? I’m used to packing a table that comfortably sits six with thirteen chairs, cramming bodies so everyone can fit.
Last week I hosted my first dinner. There were five people including me. At the end of the night, I was overflowing with joy, having learned so much from the guests. I noticed how much deeper we could go in conversation when there were fewer people; I really got to know them and be known by them.
Aiming smaller doesn’t just mean having smaller events, it can mean preserving energy. I learned this the hard way after spending 10 days in Barcelona running around like a crazy person, committed to seeing every person I’ve ever known and trying every restaurant that opened since I left.
When I came back to Scotland, I showed up to the airport exhausted and bleary-eyed. G picked me up at the airport and took one look at me.
“You look tired,” he said with a laugh.
“Yeah, I went New York-style,” I said shrugging, referring to the back-to-back social life I used to maintain when I lived in New York.
He looked at me and said plainly, “It’s not the city, it’s you.”
I started to protest and he reminded me that when we went to New York together, he didn’t see all of his friends. He saw the ones he could. He didn’t try to cram everyone in. Meanwhile, I raced around trying to catch up with everyone. He returned from our trip energized, I returned exhausted.
Shortly after he and I talked about this, I got this newsletter from the queen of gatherings, Priya Parker, about generous exclusion and why smaller events can be immensely impactful. I took it as a sign that I’m on the right path.
Fittingly, today on my twenty-seventh birthday, I returned to the question I explored with my therapist.
What is the point of a birthday? Today I’d say it’s connection. Reflection. Peace.
This morning, I woke up at 4:30am to the sun streaming through the window. I got an email that said the first rolls of film I shot on my new analog camera were developed and the scans were available for download. As I flipped through the pictures of this past year, a year marked with major changes and so much love, I teared up looking at the memories. G woke up (sorry!) and I showed him my favorite pictures. We cracked up and awed in the beauty. After some minutes, he asked if I was going to go back to bed. I assured him I would.
Only once I put my phone down and pulled the comforter up to my chin, did I realize why this year already felt different. If peace, connection, and reflection was the goal of my birthday, it had already been met. Even before I had gotten out of bed.
Narrowing the scope made it easier to tame the birthday monster. All she wanted was what the little girl opening her gifts alone had wanted. To feel connected, to take time to reflect, and to fall asleep filled with peace and love.
That’s all to say, I like birthdays now.
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