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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.
If we can instead tap into their potential for delight -- the way kids experience them everywhere -- the rewards can be rich indeed. "I like to make a fuss, and the one year I skipped celebrating, I wound up feeling sad about it," says Melissa Sandor, a fundraising consultant who lives in New York City. "So last year, I went to dinner with friends. Someone brought sparklers, and when we lit them, you could see delight on the face of every single adult in the restaurant. We were all transformed into children. I had a ball."
Treating that one day as the sugary rose on the year's cake, an orgy of wish fulfillment, ego stroking, and gluttony, is exactly the sort of childish behavior we should refuse to outgrow, says Sheenah Hankin, PhD, author of Complete Confidence: Playing the Game of Life with a Winning Hand (Regan, 2004). "Your birthday is a day to celebrate the year gone by in whatever way that feels special to you, glory in what you've achieved, and toast the year that lies ahead," Hankin says.
Why is it so hard for us grown-ups to wallow in the cheeky, sneaky pleasures of blowing out a birthday candle or delighting in a brand-new trinket? After all, this is a time when many of us are abandoning society's fixed ideas about what any given age is "supposed" to look like, feel like, and signify. We live longer than any previous generation. We're far more health- and fitness-conscious. The smoke-and-mirror effects of wrinkle creams and cosmetic surgery have blurred reality even more. Could it possibly matter how many candles are sparkling on the birthday cake when every 40-year-old first-time mother, every 50-year-old college freshman, every 60-year-old marathon biker expands our understanding and experience of age?
Milestones are always tricky and always will be. When we're young, birthdays serve as reminders of imminent adulthood and all of its intoxicating freedoms -- "I'm 16, now I can drive" and "I'm 18, now I can vote." Once we settle into midlife, birthdays are reminders, no matter how positive our attitude toward aging, of less exciting markers. It can all be a little stunning, as when the day arrives that you definitely can't read the menu without glasses...your doctor or boss turns out to be younger than you are...you realize the guy standing behind the Starbucks counter isn't flirting with you at all but with your 13-year-old daughter.
Everyone brings to birthdays a perfectly normal human vanity. And even as we compare notes on this astounding and mysterious journey, we can't help but be anything other than our own idiosyncratic selves, variously insisting that 40 was a cakewalk and 50 a shock -- or was it the other way around?
The philosopher Kierkegaard's famous observation that we live life forward but understand it backward is a birthday paradox we're all destined to appreciate. "I have this photo of myself on the beach in a bikini from the summer I turned 40," says 48-year-old writer Fran Jacobs. "I remember hating this picture. I thought my thighs were too heavy and my stomach wasn't flat enough. Today I look at that picture and think, God, I look great! No, I didn't look 18 -- when you're 18, you're a miracle of nature -- but at 40 I had a nice body and didn't even know it." Others cling to the thought that we'll never look as good as we do on this birthday right now -- until we get to our next birthday and think exactly the same thing.
In other words, age is in the eye of the birthday beholder. "When I was 38, the terrible year of my divorce, I felt ancient," says a friend. "Now I'm 48 but feel light years younger because I'm so much happier." And then there's my favorite birthday mind-bender: Another dear friend, this one in her late 60s, confided in me that she routinely adds five years to her age and, as a consequence, is always being told how wonderful she looks.
On any given day I'm one age on my driver's license, one age on my yoga mat, and a third age in my head. Researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, wanted to know if feeling younger was tied to feeling happier -- having higher self-esteem and better body image and being more satisfied with life. They predicted that as women continued to age, their subjective age (how old they "feel" inside, regardless of their birthday) would continue to drop. Well, they were right about that.
But the researchers had also expected that the older women with the greatest discrepancy between their actual age and their inner age would be the happiest with how life is going -- and they were completely wrong. It turns out that the women who were most accepting of their age, and had no interest in disowning it to anyone, were the ones who scored the highest satisfaction with their lives. Conclusion? It isn't how young we feel but how in sync we are with our chronological age itself that determines our feelings of well-being.
So when another birthday rolls around, don't ignore it. Don't obsess about your age or your undone list of lifetime "to-dos." Do what I plan to do each October 13: Wake up happy and proud and primed for the pleasures the day will bring.
Sparklers would be nice.