Sarah Pizer-Bush and Darice Jones

Sarah Pizer-Bush
“Lighting Rituals, Photo/Graphic”

The Problem with Birthdays
By Darice Jones
Inspiration piece

“Why do you think it is that some people really don’t like their birthdays?”

My work BFF poses this question to me in the downtime between our sessions with students. The timing of the inquiry is on point considering it is my birthday in under a week. While birthdays haven’t always been challenging for me, they have been varying degrees of lonely, sad, and depressing for the last decade or two… but who’s counting?

Why? Why are birthdays so hard for me?

One contributing factor is that my birthday comes right in the midst of winter and I struggle with seasonal depression… so there’s that.

Then there are the cultural expectations of birthdays. After the briefest search on Jewish birthday wishes google shares this blessing: “I pray your day is filled with immense joy and that you are surrounded by family and friends.” That idealized birthday looms large for some of us. Birthdays are kind of like a holiday for one, and just like holidays they have a certain performative pressure attached. They are supposed to be good, we’re supposed to feel happy and smile, comfortable at the center of a big group of adoring loved ones. Instead, I’ve spent many a birthday in bed watching episode after episode of some forgotten show, alone, just trying to kill time until the day is over.

This year feels hard too. I’m in a new relationship that is already rocky, and leading up to this birthday I can feel the tender, aching spaces in me fill up with absence, with unmet need and dreams unfulfilled. Basic dreams: partner, family – dreams that seem so accessible to some and so hard for me. Birthdays in movies are times when the family comes together, and for me, at one week from 47, that form of family
is not yet here. In the SAD of my winter, it’s hard to believe it will ever be. So there’s that seasonal weight of loneliness and absence; the internal equation that links my birthday with lack and grief, rather than with joy and celebration.

Then there is this insight from neuropsychologist Donald Hebb who observed that this kind of equation (ie: birthday = SAD) can be biologically etched into us. Our experiences form pathways in the brain that are reinforced through repetition. He said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  For me, the wiring that linked birthdays with loss, absence, grief, and loneliness started early in childhood and was repeated often. I share a birthday with my mom. My mom is someone with whom I have always felt deeply connected, truly safe and at home. Yet, during much of my childhood, I couldn’t be with her for huge chunks of every year. During those months apart was our birthday.

I have not a single memory of the birthdays away from my mom. Part of that is the birthday I share with my mom was not the birthday I celebrated with my family in New York. With my Chassidic family in Brooklyn, we celebrated my Hebrew birthday – Yud Tes Adar, the 19th  of the month of Adar. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar that slips and slides alongside the Gregorian calendar and thus my English birthday, February 20, was not celebrated. In our home, in my school, and amongst my friends February 20 meant nothing. It was just another day – no parties, no gifts, no celebration. Did I talk to my mom on those days? My mom and dad say I must have, but neither of them has a clear memory of that conversation. In those talks, was I happy? Was I smiling? Perhaps I was, for as a child I was often happy. However, I know

that alongside or under that happiness there was also a deep well of unnamed feelings that I carried around. A well that would not surface until much later. In this well, I feel I must have been sad and lonely, so far away from a mother I wanted to be so close to. This heavy truth was too much to feel, too much for anyone to name. It is this weighty sadness that I suspects sits inside birthdays for me.

To add another layer and complicate the birthday situation further, my years of sadness on my birthday have impeded on my mother’s birthday. My big sad brought on her big guilt and neither of us had the words or means to traverse these experiences at those times, so there were also later years where she didn’t want to or couldn’t be with me on our birthday, And hence the internal emotional equation, the mathematics of my cumulative experiences of this day on which I was born, structured through patterns of absence and unnamed loneliness,
formulated in stark contrast to the tropes of ease and joy and celebration. Yet, I do believe in change, and have been slowly and steadily seeking to reshape my internal experience of the anniversary of my arrival.

3 years ago during pandemic proper I found a cabin in the woods right near the Russian River. I spent the weekend of my birthday alone, making art, sleeping, lying in a hot tub and channeling songs of healing. The sad was there, the alone was there, but there was also creativity, beauty and nature.

During the pandemic, when we learned that singing happy birthday twice takes about 20 seconds, which is how long one should wash her hands, I began looking at myself in the mirror and singing happy birthday, both as little bit of exposure therapy and as way to practice and
invite a new experience.

Last year the birthday was particularly hard, as I had just gone through a break up with someone with whom I had imagined building a life. I felt shut down and hopeless, but my mother invited me to spend the weekend with her. She also was struggling and we silently and lovingly
spent our birthday together. Sitting on the couch in our respective phone worlds, going for a walk around the lake in Folsom, being quiet and loving. In this quiet space of love and acceptance, we planted seeds for a new pattern.

My mom and I talked today, checking in about our upcoming birthday. She is not ready, she says, to turn 75. I say, let’s underplay it. She laughs. We reach across the space between us and find a softness. Together we decide to invite a birthday that allows us each our time to shine or not shine, to be brilliant or dull. A birthday of loving acceptance.


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