This past weekend, I had my first birthday party in more than three decades, writes Lee Suckling.
There's an early episode of Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw celebrates her 35th birthday at a restaurant alone. Despite being hesitant to have a party at all, her friends beg her to join them in an intimate get-together but none of them actually turn up on the night.
I understand Carrie's adult birthday party fear – I haven't had a birthday bash since 1986 when I turned one year old. The last time anybody sang "Happy Birthday" to me there was a large bunny-shaped cake in front of me and I proceeded to spit it up over my orange corduroy overalls after taking a bite.
That was until this past weekend. I had my first birthday party in more than three decades.
Celebrating turning one year older has always seemed very odd to me. I've never been able to get excited about others' birthdays because everybody has one, and they come around so damn frequently. The idea of having anyone praise me for having my own doesn't sit well – I haven't achieved anything, except mere survival.
Adult birthday parties are weirdly self-indulgent. Why should anyone buy me gifts, or dedicate an entire Saturday night to me? Why should others pretend to be over-the-top excited for me simply for ageing slightly at the same rate as everybody else? Shouldn't birthdays begin and end with us just telling each other about new anti-ageing eye creams at this point?
If I get Freudian on myself, the real reason I've never had birthday parties is because – true to Carrie's experience – I genuinely didn't think people would come. As a child I was a loner without too many friends. Whenever my parents asked me if I wanted a party, I always refused. I was too scared to be the sad kid in the crêpe paper hat with all the adults feeling sorry for me.
This feeling has followed me into adulthood. I've had a couple of parties to celebrate "real" things like getting engaged or leaving the country, but only a minuscule number of invited guests actually came (I've put this down to a lesson in trusting Facebook RSVPs). If I can't get more than a handful of people to a legitimate celebration, what hope could I possibly have when it comes to attendees to a regular old birthday party? Try as I might, I'm not the bloody Queen.
My age doesn't bother me – I have no problem telling people I've reached my mid-30s – but the concept of trying to enjoy that as a single-night celebration makes me anxious. The idea of all attention being on me is horrifying; just as upsetting as the thought of people singing to me or buying me presents. I didn't have a 21st, and I didn't want the pressure of a proper celebratory wedding. Realistically I'm the kind of introvert who likes to quietly enjoy spontaneous fun (and write about it later) rather than force-feed it to myself and others.
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Yet there I was at the weekend, finally caving in to the mates who've told me, "you never do anything for your birthday". I had a birthday get-together. I invited 10 people with hopes that half would turn up, but all of them did. I did the adult version of the children's party, known to us Millennials as the Bottomless Brunch.
And you know what? It was fun. A waiter asked, "what's the occasion?" and was quickly cut off by one friend, who replied with a curt, Dowager-Countess-of-Grantham-style one-liner: "Saturday?". Nobody brought gifts, so I didn't have to feign gratitude for Sam Harris books I didn't want. Everyone got loose on boozy mimosas. There was no asking, "do you feel any different?" and nobody singing that I was a jolly good fellow in three octaves too low. There were no stupid hats, (okay this is Wellington so there were silly hats, but they were the floppy felt kind that make you look like an unshaven Stevie Nicks).
We got really loud with laughter and sex jokes but didn't care who could hear us. At no point during the event did I remember it was a jamboree about me.
Now that I've done it, this is the only way to have an adult birthday party. Just make it low-key. Yes, it's a celebration about you, but let's not get cocky about it. As long as you don't expect your friends to care that you're a year older – and all your pleasure will come from simply getting them in a room at once without flaking out on you – it seems you can have a non-self-indulgent adult birthday party after all.