Posted by: Kate | May 27, 2009

Rock / Hard Place

My parents’ birthdays are just eight days apart.  Not eight days and a few years, just eight days.  They went to elementary school together.  Walked next to each other at high school graduation, because by then they were married and I was a few weeks old.  They had more birthdays as a couple than they had prior to getting together.

This created an enormous problem for me, my whole life, because their attitudes about birthdays could not be much more different without one of them renting a billboard proclaiming the anniversary of their appearance on Earth and the other becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.  If they were separated by several months, then unequal birthday celebrations would feel less awkward.  By being barely a week apart, the difference was glaring.

My mother is the celebrant.  She will tell you she’s not; that age is just a number and she doesn’t need extra attention.  She lies like a rug.  She wants – no, needs – you to remember her birthday, preferably with presents, cards and cake.  But – and here’s the kicker – she won’t tell you what she wants, and it’s not until several years later that you will learn just how unthrilled she was with any particular gift or party.  She also never told us, until well after the fact, how much it bothered her to have her birthday lumped in with whatever Fourth of July event was planned.  Seeing as how her birthday is the 6th of July, we would pat ourselves on the back for being able to provide her with a little extra in terms of family gathering and, you know, fireworks and stuff, but apparently we’d have earned more points if we had found a way to completely separate the two concepts.

Then, on July 14th, you get my father’s birthday.  And he really, truly, honestly, couldn’t care less.  He smiles and thanks you if you remember, but he views birthdays as a child’s prerogative, and after a certain age (I’m guessing, about 10), he thinks you should just let it be another day and move on.

Herein lies the problem: my father’s attitude about birthdays is not only self-directed.  He also doesn’t think much of anyone else’s birthday, including those of his own children.  He routinely forgets the dates of his daughters’ birthdays, and if he comes up with a gift, it can usually be described with such words as lame and uninspired.  And if he’s this lackadaisical about his children’s birthdays – days which are, let’s face it, his own damn fault – then you can imagine his ennui when it comes to the birthdays of any adults in his acquaintance.

Say, his wife.

So, year after year, my father would forget until the last minute, and then come up with some random, half-assed attempt to celebrate my mother’s birthday.  Year after year, she would resent his disinterest.  And year after year, I would try to come up with a birthday gift for my mother, only to be left with a sense that I had somehow fallen short of her expectations (though she would never elucidate or even admit that she was disappointed), and then the following week I would give a gift to my father and receive a vague, “OK, thanks, but why bother?” attitude from him.

Crazymaking, I tell you.

I’ve tried to find a middle ground, when it comes to my own birthday.  I firmly expect my husband and children to remember the day, and I want cake.  Presents are optional, but greatly appreciated… as long as they’re chosen with at least some passing thought toward my own interests and preferences.  Friends, extended family, acquaintances… it’s great when they remember, and I’m thrilled when that happens, but I also don’t hold grudges or get upset when people don’t keep track.  Unless we share a bathroom, you have a free pass to forget, or deliberately ignore, my birthday on any given year.  (It’s this coming Saturday, by the way.  Just sos’s you know.)

The other people I know, I pick and choose whether to acknowledge their birthdays or provide gifts largely on whether my computer reminds me of the date, and whether my bank account allows for a purchase.  In my perfect life, the one in which my papers are all organized, my correspondence is up-to-date, and my floors are mopped twice a week, I have a comprehensive birthday list for family and friends, and cards prepared well in advance.  In my actual life, it’s touch-and-go.

But I remember my immediate family’s days, both those who live in my house now and those with whom I lived before I escaped moved out.  And once again, I’m faced with the parental dilemma.  The past few years, the divorce has created a vast simplification in the problem: I’d mail something to my mother, and call my father, and everyone was happy.

This year, however, they both turn 50.  (I know, I just made some of you feel old, I’m sorry.  Reread up above: I attended their high school graduation.  I had Emily before I finished my first master’s degree.  We breed ’em young, here.)  The conundra abound.

First of all, 50 seems like kind of a significant year, somehow.  Nice and round, half a century, et cetera.  It demands a gift.  But I’m only partially employed, and my father is in the same boat, so he has already insisted that no money be spent on him.  His girlfriend will make a big deal of it, I’m sure, and that takes some of the pressure off me.  But still.  He’s my dad and I need to get him a gift.  Fine, I’ll figure something out.

Then there’s my mother.  We’re still not comfortable with each other, or rather, I’m not comfortable with her and I have no idea how she’s feeling.  I gave in and called on Mother’s Day, taking the high road and all, after a month of no communication at all.  I’m still very deeply hurt, more so by her actions than her underlying thoughts, but both are painful.  (No, I still won’t publish details.  Sorry.)  But apparently, by calling first, I’ve sent out some sort of signal that everything is just hunky-dory now, so our phone conversations are, on her end, as lighthearted and cheery as ever.  I’m not sure whether she has noticed that I only call her, now, with a specific purpose or to return her calls, in comparison to the four or five times a week I just to call just to check in.

The original plan, for her birthday celebration, was for my sisters and I to rent a place on the Cape and spend the Fourth of July weekend with her.  I found a place with a really good deal – reasonable rates, lots of amenities, close to the beach – and put in a verbal reservation.  Then things went south between us, and I told my mother, during one of the Very Bad Phone Calls back in April, that I wasn’t completely certain I would be going along.  I would pay for it, and I wanted to go, but I just couldn’t be certain that I would be ready to handle it.  She thought about this for five or ten minutes, and then announced that, given the economy and my financial situation, blah blah blah, she didn’t want to go anymore.  She admitted to me that it was also because if I went, she would feel like I was just placating her, and if I didn’t go, the weekend would be ruined because she would be so aware of my absence.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

So the reservations have been canceled, and now I don’t know what to do.  My sisters and I have an idea, but we arrived at it too late to complete it in time for her birthday (we’re thinking Christmas, now).  So for the day itself, I need to come up with something to send.  Something heartfelt, and yet acknowledging my ongoing ambivalence and pain.  Something valuable, and yet inexpensive.  Something personal, and yet a little distant.

Ah, screw it.  I’ll just focus on my birthday first, and let inspiration strike sometime in June.  This is too much thinking, right now.

It’s madhouse Wednesday again… check the list to see who’s joined in this week:



  1. Happy (early) birthday! I think May birthdays are the best (I may be a bit biased!). Focus on you and your day and let the other stuff happen as it does. You’ll think of something! 🙂

  2. […] Rock / Hard Place « One More Thing […]

  3. Make her something, Kate. Make her a set of handkerchiefs with edging or some pretty doilies. They’re both handmade AND impersonal. How’s that?

  4. Happy birthday in advance because I’m sure to forget. I’m very much like your Dad except when it comes to remembering my own children’s birthdays. And thanks for that! I’m old enough to be your mother GAH! I feel your conundrum but have no solutions, just don’t buy her an electrical appliance!

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