In my youth, we had already been out of school for a week by the time my birthday arrived on Dec. 28. Very few friends were around. Most of them were busy with their families or away on vacation.
When it was my big day, Christmas and Chanukah had just come and gone. Mom handed me a gift — a doll, a dress or a toy. More often than not, it was unwrapped. She announced, “This is both your birthday and Chanukah gift.”
Even though this happened each birthday, it continued to hurt. I watched my brothers, both older and born in October, receive separate presents.
“Youth are sensitive to the ways that they are treated by their parents and compare their treatment to their brothers and sisters. They sense these differences as early as a few months to a few years,” says Shawn Whiteman, professor of Human Development and Family Studies and associate dean at Utah State University.
Comparing how I was treated to my brothers was — and still is — an ongoing theme in my life, even at age 66.
One common birthday tradition we had for everyone in the family was having Carvel ice cream cake. One birthday really stands out to me. My parents had friends over, two couples, with whom they played cards. My mother would usually serve Entenmann’s pecan Danish twist cake and coffee to her guests. This particular evening, my birthday was an excuse to have our traditional ice cream cake.
I was in the back den hanging out with two girlfriends who were able to join me for my birthday, when I heard my mother calling me: “Gayle, Gayle come and get your ice cream cake.” The tone of her voice made it clear to me that it was not a celebratory invitation.
As I walked into the kitchen where all the couples had occupied every chair at the round table, the ice cream cake remained uncut.
“Where are your friends?” Mom asked. “There’s enough for everyone.” By the time all three of us were in the kitchen, my mom had sliced the cake and handed out pieces to her friends. There were no candles on the cake for me to make a wish and blow out.
She handed each of my girlfriends a slice, and they stood there eating it. I waited patiently. “Here’s yours,” my mother announced, as she handed me a piece so thin that it completely melted as soon as it hit the plate. I just wanted to vanish, burrow into the wall and not be seen. It was obvious to me that she wanted to control my intake of sweets. As I aged into the double digits, my mother became very preoccupied with my weight. I was a slender child. However, in my mother’s eyes I wasn’t thin enough.
Mom’s endless digs were getting to me. Why couldn’t she show me love like she did to my brothers? My birthday only magnified this discrepancy.
“If a child views they are unequal to their siblings, it leads to poor outcomes, both in parent-child relationships as well as sibling relationships,” notes Whiteman. “Resentment can be evident long after the differential treatment.”
I discovered other December birthday girls had merrier stories. Ruth Seely, 65, was born five days before Christmas. She was an only child and had no siblings to compare herself to. “My mother was adamant that my birthday should be celebrated separately from Christmas and refused to allow the Christmas tree to be put up until after my birthday,” recalls Seely.
Maggie Caldwell, 58, was born on Dec. 24. The oldest of four, she has “happy memories” of being a Christmas baby.
“The day of my birthday was my day until dinner,” she says. “As a teen, Mom would warn me that she was giving me a combination gift. It was always one big thing. She was very interested in making this big gift something I’d have in my eventual home.”
Folksinger Christine Lavin, 69, is one of nine children, and her birthday is Jan. 3. “I remember (getting) Christmas presents that I was told were for my birthday, too,” she says.
What helped Lavin turn this disappointment around was to help others as a performer. “My feelings changed when I started addressing the birthday situation in my concerts, bringing two people in the audience onstage with the worst birthdays (around holiday times) to compete for a small gift bag of birthday presents.”
As we age, for most of us birthdays become less important. When I hit 60, I was grateful I woke up and all my parts worked. A custom I implemented back in my 30s — and continue today — was to give myself a party.
Since so many people go away during the Christmas season, I schedule my celebration before Dec. 18 and call it a combo birthday and holiday season party. One year, I even gave myself a surprise party and told everyone not to tell me. We all had a big laugh. For me, my joy is bringing my friends together.
As an adult I cherish this special time when I not only receive acknowledgement, but can give it to others, too. We don’t have control over what others do. We do have control over what we do and how we react. I went from dreading my birthday to loving it.