"People say that expectations are resentments under construction..."
~Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy
The day I turned nine was perfect. I awoke the morning after, went downstairs before anyone else was awake, and recreated the entire thing. I rewrapped my presents. I gathered up the kitten I'd been given the day before (not exactly the one I wanted -- I got grey and white when I wanted the ginger kitten but still...it was a kitten!). And I felt that same sense of excitement and anticipation and delight that I'd felt the day before.
By my 12th birthday, my mother had abandoned any party planning. I invited a few friends over, cooked hot dogs, bought myself a cake in the frozen section of the grocery store. My mother, drunk but also sick with laryngitis, spent the entire party ringing a dinner bell to summon me to her bed for one thing after another. My friends exchanged looks. My helpless fury mounted. Finally, as my giggling mother requested that I get her water or fluff her pillows, I begged her to stop and let me just be with my friends. They left shortly after and I was left with my humiliation.
I've had a lot of birthdays since then. And for way too many years, I've been disappointed. However, as my old therapist would remind me, if your feelings are bigger than the situation calls for, it's always about old stuff.
My birthday is old stuff.
And yet...I can't seem to let go of those expectations.
For one day, I want it to be about me. For one day, I want people to spoil me. Just one day.
And though my family knows that this occasion takes place every. Single. Year. On. The. Same. Day. They can't seem to get their acts together to buy a card, bake a cake, choose a gift (or make one! I'm not picky!).
Over the years, I've worked to accept reality. I know my family loves me. And I know my expectations are about "old stuff". (Though I don't think they're unreasonable.)
And so I organize something annually to mark my birthday. We see a play (and my son has sat through many musicals). This year, I bought us all tickets for a baseball game. I sometimes make our dinner reservations. This year, I bought all the ingredients for a cake and simply announced that "at some point, I would like a cake." My husband and daughter argued over whose fault it was that they'd forgotten. I didn't take it personally. I managed to find their spat amusing.
I've come a long way.
I've learned that, rather than nurse those resentments disguised as expectations, to give myself what I need. What I need is to feel valued. And so I value myself.
It can look different depending on the year. I might buy myself an outfit that I'd otherwise tell myself I didn't need. I might take the day away from my computer. Last week, on my birthday, I sat outside in the gorgeous sunshine and read a few chapters of a devastatingly beautiful book (The Mercy Papers, by Robin Romm). I ignored that little voice that said I should be doing something productive, like making money or taking care of someone.
I was taking care of someone. Myself.
It has taken me more than five decades to see the value in the simple act of taking care of myself. The value in not letting resentments gain a foothold.
My family loves me. I know this. They show me in many ways, none of which involve having a cake made on time or carefully chosen gifts.
Instead they show me with last-minute promises, like my son's card that told me I'm the best mom "ever" and that he'll take me to lunch and then to the store that sells my favorite yoga pants and will buy me "anything". With homemade cards that, though created out of necessity more than desire, nonetheless are more beautiful than anything in the Hallmark store. With a cake that was, honestly, the best I've ever had, despite my daughter forgetting the eggs until the very last minute. I didn't taste even a hint of resentment in that cake.
Managing my expectations continues to be a challenge for me. People disappoint me all the time. But as I learn to go easier on myself, I'm able to go easier on others. It's not the same as letting people off the hook for bad behaviour. Rather it's about not expecting everyone to think and act like me. It's about letting them be who they are and to love me in their own way.
But mostly it's about getting clear about what I need and then finding a way to deliver it to myself. That's what being a grown up is about.
It's something I seemed to understand on that 9th birthday. That, even the day after, I was able to give myself what I needed, to remind myself that I matter. And, for the record, what I almost always need involves a cat.