By Samira Sawlani
It’s my birthday on the 3rd of November.
Of course I won’t tell you how old I am, the patriarchal conditioning within me which I am trying to unlearn remains very much attached to the idea of concealing one’s number of years in existence, if only to cover up the shame I feel for ‘not being where I should be’ by ‘x-age’.
It’s like carrying a mixture of a stop and an apple watch on your person at all times, you can never get away from the tick-tock sound it makes while simultaneously seeing the notifications come up.
‘It has been two years since you got a promotion, where is the career progression?’
‘It has been 15 years since you started menstruating where are the kids?’
‘It has been 30 years since you arrived on this planet, time to buy a property?’
And before you know it you’re sitting in an Italian restaurant, weighed down by copious amounts of bread (if nothing else then your digestive system will definitely remind you of your age tomorrow), surrounded by friends and family singing an out of tune rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, about to blow out your candles, and in a blur of it all as someone shouts ‘make a wish’, and all you really want to wish for is a time machine.
So that you could go back in time and tweak a few things, okay maybe more than a few, okay fine you would change most of it.
If only I had avoided meeting that person, taken a different train, gotten off the bus, gone to the gym more, studied a different degree, not bought that overpriced (and now that you think about it, hideously ugly) red coat, turned left instead of right, begun reading Marx in pre-school, enrolled for French classes, dumped that guy, said hello to the postman… things would have been different. I would be where I ‘should be.’
The human mind seems to have a natural inclination to compare itself to other people, to measure its achievements and failures against those of those around us and the societal standards seemingly ‘set’ for us.
Comparing ourselves to others is a form of self-evaluation and a way to judge others, in some ways it is survival.
The modern-day entities that are social media apps, influencers, twelebs and reality stars and social media apps often aid this.
This is not to say that prior to this the pressures of achieving certain things by a certain age, were not a thing.
Growing up in India, my mum’s sisters and brothers were all married between the ages of 17-23, the earlier the better, and if you got there before 23, you were safe ‘married by 23- tick.’
My rebellious mother had decided that this was not a path she was interested in taking and so with every birthday that came her way, there was a reminder from the audience that was so invested in the movie of her life that she was falling behind.
It’s almost like a pressure cooker, you are like a pot, someone throws in ‘singleness’, another person throws in ‘still living at home’, in goes a sprinkle of ‘no savings’ and a garnish of ‘childless’, on goes the lid, they keep putting up the fire.
Throughout my childhood and early teenage years, I would struggle to sleep in the lead up to my birthday, excitement keeping me awake.
It was never about the presents or the cake or the party or the pretty dress I would wear.
It was always about having a day which was just mine.
After all your Date of Birth is kind if important is it not? Stated clearly on every important document you are ever likely to possess.
A year older, as a child it felt like one year closer to freedom.
Except at some point, it no longer felt that way.
All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, there came a slight feeling of dread on the day itself.
Perhaps it was from opening Facebook to see an array of ‘Happy Birthday!’ messages (from people you have not seen or heard from in about ten years, yet twice a year you interact online to wish each other using two words and an exclamation mark).
Somewhere on that newsfeed, you see someone announce a pregnancy, another person starts a new job, another invite you to the housewarming of a property they have just purchased.
And while you feel joy for them, you cannot quite push aside that feeling of ‘another year older, and what have I done with my life?’
In this space there is no room for challenging your thoughts, the speed with which you fall into that abyss, leaving behind the balloons and the cards and the unopened gifts because really, what does any of it mean when you aren’t where you should be?
And then one day you get a call, a beloved family member has died.
She was young.
It was unexpected.
Never again on the morning of your birthday will you hear her voice on the phone.
She was the colour yellow.
Absence is so heavy.
And in that moment you realise that the goalposts have been moved so far you can no longer see them.
There are no more timelines.
There is nothing.
All of a sudden, that morning you woke up and stared out of the window overlooking Nairobi, that afternoon walk in rainy London, the touch of a leather jacket, that time you chose to see a distraught friend instead of finish that job application, those moments take on a different meaning.
For while death may remind you of your own mortality and may push you towards staying on the hamster wheel of ‘achieving’, it also reminds you that there is more than ticking boxes, there is more than keeping up appearances.
On my first birthday since that loss, I tasted every morsel of food that went into my mouth.
I savoured every bite.
No longer governed by the thought of ‘I should be this weight by this age.’
I stood outside in the Autumn-Winter hybrid London air and felt the cold against my face and I held my breath.
I savoured living.
I savoured life.
Later there was candles and cake and the sound of out of tune singing.
No thoughts to drown these out.
(Picture credits: Larutadel Tumblr, Mirinda M Pinterest & Samira Sawlani)