It was my birthday last week. It’s not a big deal birthday – I’m 52. Cards in a deck. Weeks in a year. Nothing to get all exercised about, but here we are.
I like birthdays and cake and having a reason to get together, but I’m just not crazy about being The Birthday Girl. I feel a certain amount of pressure around it, as if I’m supposed to plan some gangbusters thing and be delighted all day. All eyes on me, celebrating me for basically surviving another year. In a sense, by the time you’re 52 a birthday party kind of feels like a participation trophy.
I suspect the origin story of my birthday ennui can be found in my early childhood. My earliest memories of being The Birthday Girl are from age four. My mom went to a staggering amount of trouble for my parties – homemade cake, a house full of streamers and balloons. For one of these parties she made each guest her own red and white gingham apron to wear while we decorated cupcakes. Imagine twenty little girls in party dresses and knee-high socks hopped up on Hawaiian Punch and cake. It was birthday heaven. For the guests.
Multiple years in a row, I cried during my birthday party. I remember hearing my mom say over my sobs, “She gets a little overwhelmed.” Well no kidding. Honestly, just being in a room with twenty little girls in party dresses is enough to overwhelm me now. But looking back, I don’t think I could have designed a more perfect set of circumstances to make a child implode.
Step 1: dress me up in clothes I would never normally wear, specifically Mary Janes whose soles were so slick that every step was a brush with death. Step 2: fill me with sugar and red dye, substances I was not allowed to consume outside of the birthday party arena. Step 3: seat me in the center of a circle of twenty little girls and instruct me to open twenty birthday gifts. Stare at me and wait while I come up with a nice thing to say about each. Step 3 took up about 40 minutes of the party, making the guests just hostile enough to really dig in to Step 4.
Step 4 was a little tradition called The Spanking Machine. Sometimes when I think of this, I wonder if I’ve made it up. If sadism wasn’t a big thing in your town, let me explain – each invited guest stands in a line with her feet spread a foot apart while the birthday girl crawls through this knee-sock tunnel and gets spanked. By her friends. On her birthday.
At the time, I was assured by all family members and guests that this was a time-honored birthday tradition. It happened at every party I went to, and I have to assume I participated with glee in spanking other birthday girls to the point of tears. Truly, I’d be interested to know if this went on in the 70s in any other neighborhood besides mine. Please feel free to reach out to me or contact my therapist directly. You can find that information on my website.
At the time I was embarrassed that I cried at these parties. But when I think of being stuck in dangerous shoes, stuffed with sugar, and then beaten by my dearest friends, I stand by those tears now. And I guess it’s no surprise that I still find my birthday a bit overwhelming. My requests are usually fewer people, less cake and no gifts, making it seem blissfully like all the other days of the year.