Time to Reflect
There you are, spinning the greeting-card racks, trying to find the perfect card to acknowledge a friend's fortysomething birthday. On one rack are the so-called funny cards, each one "humorously" addressing a theme about female aging: the hilarious loss of muscle tone, the comedy of forgetfulness, the laugh riot of lying about your age. On another rack are the hearts-and-flowers cards assuring your pal she's not only getting older, she's getting better, and furthermore, she's the wind beneath your wings. (Yuck. Is this a birthday or a coronation?) You spin yet a third rack, trying to find something that speaks to the witty, wise, complicated, compelling flesh-and-blood woman you know (and are yourself, in fact), the one planning to treat herself to either a Botox shot or a Buddhist retreat for this year's birthday and who has instructed her friends to skip the gifts and donate money to a charity instead.
Is it any wonder the greeting-card industry has a hard time getting it right? Whether a woman is 27 or 67, when her birthday rolls around, she's likely to find herself holding a psychic party bag filled with contradictory emotions. Yet disentangling those fears and hopes and dreams -- and figuring out how comfortable we are with ourselves and with the fact that we are getting older -- can lead to a greater self-awareness, and hopefully a new sense of satisfaction.
But first, there's the matter of mortality. However sweet the spotlight, delicious the cake, and splendid the presents, a birthday is a reminder that time is passing, that this day -- this us -- will never come again. "Birthdays remind us of our impermanence," says Phyllis Koch-Sheras, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Charlottesville, Virginia. Accordingly, we want to seize the day -- or pull the covers back over our heads. Impatient as children are for the privileges that come attached to age -- first bike, first bra, first driver's license -- even they can sense the ending that is wrapped in each of their new beginnings. One woman vividly remembers that line of demarcation more than 30 years later: "At age 9 I thought, 'Well, this is my last birthday where my age is a single digit. It felt like the end of childhood to me.'"
In fact, your birthday is the perfect time to reflect on the person you are and to examine your goals. Birthdays have been occasions to take inventory since the invention of the calendar, a word that comes from the Latin root kalendae and means "the day on which the accounts are due." Now the accounting we do is personal. "Just about any birthday can nudge us into taking stock," says Carol Goldberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. "We compare where we are with where we thought we'd be at whatever age we've reached." It's common to use a birthday to set goals for ourselves -- lose the last 10 pounds, push for a promotion, quit smoking -- but this only serves to undermine the pleasure principle so intrinsic to birthdays.