“What are we doing for my birthday this year?” I asked Michael. He ignored me and turned on an episode of Criminal Minds. After three years of listening to me complain about being born on Valentine’s Day, it was clear that Michael would rather watch a gruesome murder scene than have this conversation.
I didn’t blame him. Planning my birthday often comes with a lot of stress. Every year, I convince myself that Valentine’s Day won’t swallow the joy of my birthday. I set lofty expectations, like dinner in a fancy restaurant or a big party, and then struggle with the disappointment of having to eat at the Olive Garden for the third year in a row because I can’t get a reservation at a good restaurant, or with friends blowing me off because they want to have a romantic evening with their significant other or get chocolate fondue with someone they’ve just met on Tinder.
“What if we stayed home this year?” Michael suggested. “I can make you a nice dinner. We can watch a movie and cuddle. It’ll be nice.”
“That’s boring,” I responded, sounding like a 38-year-old brat. “It makes me feel like I’m giving up.”
Michael was quick to point out that, when he took me out last year, I spent the whole night in a foul mood: “You ranted about the marked-up prices and being forced to order from a special menu. You thought the heart-shaped decorations were tacky and kept giving the couple next to us dirty looks.”
“Because they wouldn’t stop kissing one another,” I responded. “I mean, why do we need this kind of phony display of affection? Can’t they just stay home?”
“You’re impossible,” added Michael. “Honestly, I feel like whatever we do won’t make you happy.”
Although I didn’t want to hear it, Michael had a point: Having a Valentine’s Day birthday has never made me feel particularly joyous or especially loved, which is a shame because I really love birthdays. There’s nothing like being in a room filled with good friends singing “Happy Birthday” with a blazing cake in front of you. Yet I’ve grown bitter about my birthday because I can’t stand watching everyone else get cards and gifts on what’s supposed to be my special day. And I hate that I have to plan parties before or after Feb. 14 if I want anyone to come.
As a kid, I was excited to celebrate my birthday and Valentine’s Day. When my mother made me cupcakes to take to school, I insisted that she top them with candy hearts. I loved getting valentines, even if most of them were sympathy handouts because it was my birthday.
Then puberty happened, and my friends started ditching out on my birthday parties to go on dates. “Don’t worry, we’ll find you a girl soon,” said my best friend at the time. I felt abandoned and a little jealous. I was a short, chubby 14-year-old who wrote sad poetry. I didn’t exactly drive the girls wild. Plus, I would have preferred to go on a date with him but was too afraid to admit it.
I remained single through my 20s and most of my 30s, and became even more sensitive to friends putting Valentine’s Day above my birthday. They’d vow to be at my celebration and then flood my phone with last-minute excuses.
“Sorry, Mark, but my boyfriend really wants to take me out tonight. You understand, right?” said one friend.
“Sure,” I replied. “But I can’t come to your birthday, either, because it’s Earth Day and I’ll be hugging a tree.”
“Marky, don’t be mad,” she told me. “You’ll have other birthdays. But I want this Valentine’s Day to be special.”
“It’s not even a real holiday!” I protested.
“Maybe you’d feel differently if you had a boyfriend for once,” she responded.
“Die in a fire!” I screamed, and then hung up the phone. I’d later called my friend to apologize. I was ashamed of how I let the pressure of having a birthday on Valentine’s Day get to me. Years later, I’m still embarrassed by this.
She was wrong, however, about one thing: Having a significant other on Valentine’s Day hasn’t changed my outlook. I still think it’s a stupid holiday, and I’m lucky to have someone like Michael who refers to my birthday as “Mark Jason Williams Day”; fills our apartment with balloons (the normal kind, not the heart-shaped ones); and showers me with ridiculously generous gifts, like trips to Sydney and Hong Kong. Yet I resisted giving him the simple gift of quality time at home on my birthday, because of my fear of missing out and determination to stand up to Valentine’s Day. I was no better than the friends who canceled on me because they thought they would find something better.
“I think we’ll just scratch my birthday this year,” I told him. I was pretty anxious about turning 39, anyway, because I had yet another ridiculous notion that I needed to accomplish a whole bunch of stuff, like winning a Pulitzer and sailing to Antarctica, before I turned 40.
“I don’t believe you for a second,” Michael told me, taking my hand and pulling me toward the couch.
I envisioned spending my birthday together at home, minus the blood and guts of “Criminal Minds,” and suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. It wouldn’t solve my birthday anxieties, and I still felt like I was giving in to Valentine’s Day. But at least I was a step closer to having my cake and all of those heart-shaped chocolates, too.