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Birthday anxiety: What it is, why it can happen, and how we deal with it

A look at how and why the way we feel about our birthdays changes over time

Sometimes, the way we feel about the day we were born also evolves as we experience the world more.
Sometimes, the way we feel about the day we were born also evolves as we experience the world more. (Pexels)

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I recently celebrated my 28th and felt the anxiety of making small talk with people I haven't spoken to for a year. Thank god for WhatsApp messages; most people rely on that; however, some still insist on calling to remind you of your ticking biological clock.

As a child, I liked the attention I got on the day; my favourite part was receiving wishes and cards and messages from everyone. But as I grew up, somewhere along the way, I lost that part of myself. It's been a few years now since I removed my birthday from all of my social media profiles. My notifications on the day have become quieter now, and I prefer it that way.

I was 14 when I watched Ayesha Banerjee in the Bollywood film Wake Up Sid saying no to a party on her birthday. She didn't want a party, but she didn't want to be alone either. Her idea of a birthday celebration was ‘tum, mai aur do cup chai’ (‘you, me, and two cups of tea’). As a 14-year-old, I was only in awe of Ayesha's independence; as a 28-year-old today, I also relate to her need for an intimate birthday.

Birthdays don't exist in a vacuum, of course. The experiences we have growing up, our families, and our own personalities impact how we feel about the day. My partner, for example, has never celebrated his birthday. He thinks he is yet to do something good enough to be able to celebrate his existence. My father always said birthdays are reminders that one year is reduced from your life; my mother, on the other hand, still has a child-like excitement for hers.

Sometimes, the way we feel about the day we were born also evolves as we experience the world more. “I never liked the sudden attention on birthdays,” says Amit Sinha, who heads digital for an IPL franchise. “The expectation and pressure to be in a cheerful mood annoyed me. But something changed after I lost my mother in 2019 and my father in 2021. I suddenly lost the two people who were responsible for my birth and birthday. After that, it's become important for me to spend the day with the people I love.”

Namrata, a writer and an editor, also had a troubled relationship with birthdays growing up and started celebrating the day only in the later years of her life. “I come from a dysfunctional family where birthdays were never celebrated. Moreover, I was born in an inauspicious star leading to even more negativity around my birth. I grew up hating birthdays,” she recalls. Only when she discovered the 'why' associated with panic attacks and anxiety around her birthday, she started to celebrate them in order “to heal myself,” she adds. 

This is just one part of a huge spectrum of experiencing birthdays, or not. A few years ago, I realised my grandmother did not know her actual birthday. Everyone wishes her on 26 January, which also marks the day on which the constitution of India came into effect. Her parents didn't remember the exact date of her birth, and in the early seventies, for some official paperwork, they arbitrarily just chose 26 January.

A lot of older people around me have a similar story, which makes me wonder if remembering and celebrating the day you were born on has not always been the same phenomenon that we see today. Many families celebrated their birthdays according to the Indian calendars, aka ‘star birthdays’, making it harder to assign a consistent date for these in the Gregorian calendar — or maybe this was only done by one section of society.

Nitin Sundar, a content creator, has quite a philosophical take on birthdays. He says, “as we grow older, we realise we aren't all that special. We are just one of the 8 billion specks of dust floating around. On birthdays, we pretend we are special, and the institution functions in a quid pro quo. Our friends and family make us feel special on our birthdays so that we return the favour on theirs. It's funny, but it's also cute in a way.”

Like everything else, birthday celebrations are also influenced by societal hierarchies. A chat with Mahima Vashisht, writer of Womaning in India, reminded me of that. “I used to be excited about my birthday till the year before my kid was born,” says Vashisht. “The first birthday after that was spent in a haze of postpartum depression. I've come out of it now, but I still don't feel that people around me, including me, see my birthday with any excitement. As a writer of women's stories, I wonder if this is true for most moms.”

While Vashisht spoke about a young mother's experience, Swati Goswami, a freelance writer, highlighted the impact of marriage and moving cities on birthdays. “I'm 37, and for the past six-seven years, I've lost interest in celebrating my birthday. I think it's not just about the age but also marriage and the change of city and friends that comes with it. Having a circle (of friends who are) close enough to celebrate a birthday (doesn’t happen immediately) when you move to a new city.”

Everyone I spoke to generously shared their birthday stories, experiences, and anxieties with me, and I felt seen. I also realised that some of them have found beautiful ways to cope with this anxiety.

One common idea shared was to not depend on people to curate the day for you because it can lead to unnecessary disappointment. Shadma Shaikh, tech journalist and co-founder of FactorDaily, spoke about being in charge of her birthday: “Growing up, I was among the nicest people who always hyped up birthdays and planned the best surprises. After I got married, the pressure has obviously been on my partner to plan a surprise, invite friends, and get a gift until I realised it was too much pressure on him. Birthday anxiety was a thing for me until I told friends and family I was in charge of my day,” she says.

Sreepathy Paliath, who is responsible for marketing at Foodsta Kitchens, also spoke about not being dependent on people and having one's own birthday routine. “I've been following a birthday routine for a long time now, which is basically to spend the day doing things I love. As I grew older, I realised I didn't have to worry about having to entertain people. I'm sorry if it sounds selfish, but on my birthday, only what I say goes.”

In an ideal world, birthday anxiety shouldn't be a thing; but until we get there, I think it's safe to take Paliath’s advice to have a birthday routine that gives us joy. It could mean spending the day with the people we love; it could also mean curling up in bed alone to watch our favourite films. Both should be okay because being kind to our own individual journeys and prioritising ourselves ought to never be considered selfish.

Prakriti is an independent writer. She writes on gender, cinema, and relationships and tweets as @kritipraa

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