There is a guy on the new (and very good) Showtime docuseries Couples Therapy I have not been able to stop thinking about since watching it. His name is Mau, and though he appears to be well into his 40s, he is obsessed with his birthday. He comes into the therapist’s office complaining that his wife, Annie — a literal angel — “only” arranged for group sex for his last birthday because she thought it was what he wanted. According to Annie, this behavior is typical: Every year, Mau treats his birthday like a multiday festival focused on him, and every year he is let down.
Mau and Annie have a host of other issues (they quit therapy early), and Mau has some early-childhood trauma that makes the birthday fixation easier to understand over time. Among adults who care too much about their birthdays, he is on the most forgivable end of the spectrum. On the other end are Birthday Adults, who have no excuse. It’s them I have in mind as I say what I’m about to say.
You get one day. Every year, once a year, you may celebrate your birthday however annoyingly you want, but you must confine those celebrations to one day. If I hear one more person over the age of 17 refer to their “birthday week,” I’m going to throw up. That is not how this works.
A birthday is a singularly self-involved holiday, one from which nobody benefits but you. Friends and family are happy you were born — sure. We’ll take that for granted. But after a certain point, birthdays get redundant. Time is made-up. Consider our reactions to new couple Keanu Reeves and Alexandra Grant: Everyone acted like 46 and 55 are the same age, and in a way, they are. Both Keanu and Alexandra are far too old to make a big deal about their birthdays. And I bet neither of them do, because they seem cool and well adjusted.
Birthday Adults, on the other hand, stress me out. They also stress out their friends and family, and it is that willingness to stress other people out that I can’t abide. If you make a big deal of your birthday, it follows that you expect others to make a big deal of your birthday, too. These are people who want lots of gifts, or say they don’t want gifts but secretly do, or genuinely don’t want gifts but will be depressed if there aren’t several moving speeches given in their honor.
If you must be a nightmare, be a nightmare for one day only. Make your plans and be (privately!) pissy when people tell you they can’t come. Complain about how quickly others left, and go to bed feeling as existentially depressed as you wish. But — please — don’t extend the madness beyond its natural endpoint.
I know you might be thinking that there are certain birthdays that deserve extra hoopla: your “dirty” 30s, your over-the-hill 40s. But you are wrong. They don’t. They are years like any other. Thirty is not that different from 29 or 31, and it’s time to stop the charade. You may choose to spend your one day complaining about how old you are now, if you really want. But you don’t get to rope other people into your mortality crisis for a full weekend.
There are some tolerable workarounds: Your one day doesn’t have to be ON your actual birthday if it’s a weekday or a major holiday or no one will be in town. Everyone’s allowed to make a substitution. Then, on your actual birthday, you’re still allowed to low-key observe your personal holiday: Post a flattering photo captioned with your age on Instagram, buy yourself a little treat, go to dinner with your partner. You just can’t be mad if people wish you ‘Happy birthday’ on the day of the party instead of the actual day.
Take it from someone whose birthday is always on or right around Thanksgiving: Nobody is going to remember what day your actual birthday is for your whole life. But if you’ve made it well into adulthood, and everyone still has the day memorized, you’re probably a Birthday Adult and you could afford to cool it. When you make a huge, prolonged deal of your birthday, you’re setting yourself up for annual disappointment and resentment, and that’s no way to spend an already painfully short life. Plus it makes you seem like a little baby.