My birthday is this week and it’s weighing on my mind. That’s not because I’m turning 41. That’s fine. It’s because, well, it’s my birthday and I always get weird with my birthdays.
For most of my life, and especially as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt uneasy about people celebrating me. I’m not the type of guy to ever ask for a present or wear a T-Shirt that says, “This Guy Loves Being Awesome!” Becoming a parent helped push that feeling of self-unimportance, but it dates further back than that. Whatever the reason, though, I never want to feel like a spectacle or, worse, a burden.
Ugh. A melodramatic sounding statement like that brings up some pretty sad images of a not-so-distant future. It’s as if I am destined to one day be the old man shuffling around with hard candies and telling everyone not to worry about him as his fingers start to fall off. Go on. I’ll be alright. Poor me.
This is a part of my personality that I am very aware of. Sometimes I can be astounded by how far that instinct to put myself last goes. I was reminded of it as we approached the family plans for my big Four-One.
Sitting around the dinner table, I learned that my birthday conflicted with my daughter Olivia’s final basketball game of the summer session. He reaction was quick.
I don’t want to go to basketball on Daddy’s birthday.
For some reason, I sprung back just as fast.
No. That’s silly. You’re going to play. I don’t want you to miss your last game.
Daddy. It’s fine.
She says it’s fine, so it’s fine. Right? Nope. Not for me. I imagined her eventual regret when my celebratory plans soured in comparison to her friends having a FroYo after-party. I could visualize her pouting face in the backseat of the car as we drive to a destination she won’t enjoy. I couldn’t have that happen. I doubled down.
I don’t want you missing it. You want to go. You should go. Don’t worry about me. You’re going to go.
No one agreed with me, but I felt strongly about not forcing her to miss out on time with her friends. So, we dropped the subject. Well, maybe we didn’t drop it, but rather we tabled if for a later discussion.
After Olivia went to bed that night, I went over it all in my head. I kept telling myself that she was agreeing to miss the game out of some obligation to her pathetic father. I was projecting this feeling of guilt onto her and then pretending that her actions were because of it. She has to be doing it out of obligation, right? It’s the only motive I could imagine. That’s when another option suddenly jumped into my head.
What if she just wants to spend my birthday with me?
I felt ridiculous. Of course, she wanted to spend my birthday with me. We spend a ton of time together. Why wouldn’t she want to celebrate my special day? Why wouldn’t I be worthy of that? Have I, in my worry about being selfless, falsely made her think that I didn’t want her around for it? Was I so worried about her resenting me for making her miss fun that I accidentally made her resent me for pushing her away?
The next morning, when Olivia woke up, I told her about my new point of view. She seemed relieved.
I told you that, Daddy. I said I didn’t want to go to the basketball game. I want to go to your birthday.
I know. That makes me happy. I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to spend my birthday with me when you have other things to do, but know that I always want you around as much as you want to be. I always want you around.
Her reply didn’t just make me smile. It assured me that I wasn’t just being appeased.
I don’t want to go to the basketball game… But, mayyyyyy-be if they all go out for ice cream after, I’ll stop by just briefly.
Then she grinned and did the thing where she makes her eyebrows go up and down. I laughed. She laughed. We both laughed. Cue the closing credits and theme music. The situation was now over after a conversation that we should have had the day before, but didn’t… because I have obvious issues.
The thing is that I know I have these issues. I could probably trace this whole mindset back to where it began. It’s a mixture of bad advice growing up and a few too many times where I felt that I was putting other people out with my mere presence. Those days and people are long gone, but my somewhat warped mindset isn’t. I know that.
Keep in mind, this isn’t being done with the expectation of recognition. At no point during my birthday-protests did I ever think, “Oh, good. Everyone will see how great I am for doing this.” That doesn’t happen. Most times, people just shrug and assume I’m apathetic to them or the situation. It might actually make me less likable to them. There’s really no real positive benefit for me at all.
I don’t act this way in order to impress anyone or get sympathy. I’m sure some people might, but it’s not my goal. In fact, I always feel stupid afterwards. I watch as other people eat the last of our shared appetizer or take a good seat that I refused and think, “Well, now I’m sitting in a bad seat and craving breadsticks. What was the point in that?”
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction but also speaks to how little emphasis I often place on situations that directly impact me. If it comes to my family, I will gladly sit in the front row and share the last box of candy. If it’s just me, I’ll sit outside and eat nothing. It’s not the most glamorous truth to know about yourself, but it’s still the truth.
I’m working on it, though. It might not seem like much, but at least I’m aware of it more now. I also realize that, as a dad, it’s my responsibility to make sure my children grow up to be the best they can be. That includes not pushing people away from celebrating them and taking the time to do nice things for themselves. As strange as it may sound, to be better to my kids, I have to be better to myself more too.
Even if I didn’t have kids, I still would need to adjust my thinking. Life is short. Soon enough, I’ll be walking around with those hard candies and falling fingers. When that day comes, my best memories will be of the birthdays where I sat in the best seat and ate the last of the candy. If I don’t live those days now, I won’t have them to remember when I really need them most.