I'm embarrassed to admit it, but my past few birthdays (OK, the past half dozen) all ended in tears. I self-diagnosed myself as having the "birthday blues" and did some research only to find found out that these blues are a real thing. The feelings of anxiety or depression leading up to and on one's birthday can be caused by common external triggers like the pressure to have an "epic" celebration, lack of close friends to celebrate with, and tricky family dynamics, as well as internal crises such as falling short of societal pressures and expectations, nostalgia, denial of age, and not being where you expected to be at that point in life. I was relieved to know that it was not unusual to feel overwhelmingly sad on a day meant to make me feel special.
For me, the birthday blues are most definitely tied to not being where I expected to be at a set point in my life, and feeling like I'm running out of time to get there. The last time I remember embracing my birthday was in my late 20s, when I had just gotten married and was on track to meet all of my goals. We'd just purchased our first home, I was getting promoted at work, and I still had more than enough time to achieve my lifelong dream of having three perfect children by the age of 35. It was an amazing feeling. I vividly recall blowing out my candles at a fancy restaurant, my right hand touching my lucky necklace, realizing I had nothing to wish for other than life to stay just as it was. I was where I wanted to be in life, when I wanted to be there. It was perfect.
Later that year, I suffered my first miscarriage followed by many, many years of infertility. Ever since that year, I have felt so unsettled on my birthday because I'm not where I want to be in life. I feel behind and like I can't catch up. I'm finally now a mother of one at age 36 . . . I'll never be a mother of three by age 35 like I thought. The passing of another year is a reminder that time is running out. Blowing out my candles represents another year of lost opportunity and a reminder of what I still haven't done — rather than the accomplishments that came with the year. I find myself minimizing all of my other accomplishments (I hit my goal weight, I got a new part-time job, my marriage is better than ever) because I haven't achieved my lifelong dream. I still mourn that I am not a mother of three when I wanted to be. And as another year comes and goes, I fear that it will never happen.
Every year, I try to hold in the tears as long as I can, but they ultimately come. This past year, my husband found me crying in the kitchen, grabbing a second glass of wine after blowing out the candles. I confided in him and explained to him that not only does the passing of another year mean that I haven't gotten pregnant again, it means that my chances of getting pregnant are that much less. To add salt to the wound, unexplained infertility means that I haven't even learned any valuable lessons on how to improve my odds. I cry myself into a ball of pity.
My tears stem from this place of internal conflict where I know I should be content but I just can't be. I feel guilty when the tears boil over. I worry that crying in front of those that I love most diminishes all the hard work that they put forth to ensure that I had a happy birthday. I can see it in my husband's eyes — there's a look that tells me he put it all out there to make me happy on my day and failed. There's a pain because he wants our current blessings to be enough.
I'm so blessed, and I know this. Every year, my friends and family celebrate me on my birthday, and I do my best to live in that moment; to gush over the gifts, to savor the dinner and treats, to truly appreciate every phone call and text. I know how fortunate I am, but somehow knowing this only makes me feel worse because I feel guilty for not being truly content.
As my tears fell into my Sauvignon Blanc and onto my husband's shoulder, I vowed that this would be the year that I claim it. I'm not where I wanted to be, and I'll never catch up to the timeline that I had laid out for myself. But this is the year I will release myself from the goals I had as a child and create a new map for my life, one that is realistic and one that will allow me to look ahead rather than back.
I won't be the young mom with three children, but what can I be? What are my goals? There are still things that I want in life, so I sat down and outlined them. This time, I didn't list timeline dates or ages, even though every muscle in my body wanted to put a date next to each goal. I will no longer measure my life in years. I have one life, and I'll fit in as much as I can. I'll do my best, and in a year, when I revisit this list, some goals will be completed and some will not — but there is no deadline for my happiness. This year, I'll have my cake (and wine) and eat it, too.