I have big plans for my birthday this month. BIG ones. Wanna hear them? OK, I’m gonna sit at home in my pajamas, eat chocolate cake, and watch reruns of “The Gilmore Girls.”
I love celebrating my birthday solo. Partly it’s because I’m shy. The last thing I’d want is the waitstaff at Chili’s to sing me a rousing “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” or for my loved ones to jump out at me from behind furniture, then wait for me to say a few witty, well-chosen words. I’m like my father, who wanted nothing for his 70th birthday — an important one in Chinese culture — except a nice meal with his family. But people don’t understand this.
For my first birthday after my divorce, I had plans to play hooky from work, splurge on a eucalyptus massage at my favorite spa, and order yummy Korean take-out. Then my mother called.
“Are you doing something?” she asked, her voice trembling with worry. “Do you want me to come into New York and take you out? I could spend the night.”
While this was very nice of my mother, just the thought of Mommy coming in from New Jersey to babysit her lonely divorcee of a daughter on her birthday made me want to throw myself off a bridge.
So for my next birthday, I lied.
“A whole bunch of people are taking me out,” I told my mother. “We’re have a big dinner at this fancy restaurant.” In the meantime, I’d be having burgers with one dear friend, followed by decadent red velvet cupcakes and a new episode of “Ghost Hunters.”
To some people, being alone equals being lonely. Once, when I told a friend that I was going to take a break from dating for much needed “spinster time,” she said, “Nooo! You’re not a spinster!” She didn’t understand I meant “spinster” as a good thing. Just me, myself, and I without the drama of whether or not some loser likes me. To my friend, a spinster was a sad single lady, home on a Saturday night with her knitting and cats. Being alone on one’s birthday is surely just as sad.
But I’m not knocking having a big party with friends. One of my best memories is the blowout I had when I turned 14. Swimming parties were the thing back then, and after a few hours at the Y, my friends and I headed back to my house, where we gorged ourselves on my mother’s home-cooked Chinese food. After my parents left for their weekly all-night mah jong party, we went wild: blasting Duran Duran, dancing, and just being stupid and crazy.
How can anything I do as an adult live up to that? Do I even want to try?
It all has to do with expectations. Senior year of college I was annoyed at my roommates for doing nothing on my birthday when I had set up mini-fetes for them. Another time my ex-husband forgot. We weren’t married then. He was in law school and completely overwhelmed. I told him about the cake my co-workers had gotten me, and he looked at me blankly.
“Why did they give you a cake?” he asked.
In both cases I had relinquished control. I sat back and waited for what I thought was my due instead of taking the reins. I should have realized my roommates would be flaky and arranged a dinner myself.
While my ex was jerky for not at least remembering to say “happy birthday”– well, there’s no getting around that. He’s my ex for a reason.
We’ve been geared to expect big things on our birthdays, just the way we expect New Year’s Eve to be fabulous and Valentine’s Day to be the most romantic day ever. But what’s fabulous? Milling around a party with strangers or watching a movie with loved ones? What’s romantic? A meticulously planned weekend at a bed-and-breakfast or spontaneously happening upon a nice restaurant with a lovely view?
Do we try to match our expectations to reality, or do we release our expectations all together? Having no expectations is different from having low ones. With low expectations, I’d think, No one’s going to do anything for my birthday. With no expectations I think, It’s my birthday, here’s what I’m going to do. What other people may or may not do doesn’t come into the picture.
Celebrating on my own is a way for me to take back what’s mine. If I want to do nothing, that’s my right. If I want to have a bawdy bash complete with male strippers, or take a trip to Vegas, or eat noodles at every meal to ensure the Chinese tradition of eating long noodles for a long life, that’s my right too.
So, on my day, when I turn yet another year older, I’ll sleep in and let myself loll in bed till whenever. I’ll splurge on that chocolate cake I’ve been eying for weeks for breakfast (that’s right: cake for breakfast). I’ll take a walk, and think about everything I’m grateful for and mull over regrets. Maybe I’ll have a massage. Then I’ll go home, and my boyfriend and I will have a nice dinner. No strippers (unless my boyfriend is feeling particularly rambunctious) and no big party. I’ll be satisfied because everything has been what I’ve decided to do.