Portrait of a Birthday Obsessive let down on their special day. (Image: Archi Banal)
Portrait of a Birthday Obsessive let down on their special day. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietySeptember 14, 2023

Help Me Hera: My cousins almost forgot my birthday and I’m stewing

Portrait of a Birthday Obsessive let down on their special day. (Image: Archi Banal)
Portrait of a Birthday Obsessive let down on their special day. (Image: Archi Banal)

I got a half-assed ‘happy birthday’ minutes before the day was over. What should I do?

This week and next, Help Me Hera will be guest-written by me, Madeleine Holden. Please humour me by calling it Help Me Holden during this time. Hera will be back after that, so send her your questions at helpme@thespinoff.co.nz.

Hi Hera!

I want to emphasise that I know this question sounds stupid, but in total honesty, I don’t know what to do.

So, my birthday was a while ago, and I have two cousins overseas who are over the age of 20. When it was my birthday, my family here in NZ wished me well, but on the other side, nothing, which was fine as it was the day before in their timezone. 

The day after, my aunt messaged me at 7am and wished me a happy birthday, and my two cousins only did so a few hours later, minutes before it was the next day for them. I won’t consider my aunt because she had a lot on her mind and she is super busy trying to keep things afloat. My cousins, on the other hand, I had expected to message me at a respectable time, but they were posting all over their Instagram stories about going to the safari and other cryptic messages. 

Another thing to add is that, when it was their birthdays, I was able to deliver food from their favourite places in my home country as a way to celebrate. In return, I got a half-assed “Happy Birthday” from them to make the day better. They have done this also to my brothers and sister.

My parents are telling me to just not do anything for them anymore, but they’re my cousins and they are the last of my family (age wise) to talk to. What should I do?

Sad Birthday Boy

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I’m going to level with you, Sad Birthday Boy: your problem is not going to attract an outpouring of sympathy from readers. We’re weathering a devastating cost of living crisis and babies are dying from syphilis in this country, but you are stewing, weeks after the fact, about your cousins remembering your birthday in the nick of time and wishing you the very best. 

But I 100% feel your pain, and truly empathise with you.

A week before my 25th birthday, my then-boyfriend threw a 50 bag of weed into my lap with little ceremony. So far so good, I thought, pleased with my pre-birthday treat, but on the actual day, he bailed on my birthday dinner. I was wounded, but there was still time for him to make it up to me. But by around 8 or 9pm, I realised, with an increasingly knotted stomach, that not only would I not see him at all that evening, but the 50 bag was my entire present.

He was genuinely perplexed by how hurt this made me. Birthdays were just not a big thing for him, he explained: they were never celebrated in his family growing up, and for anyone above the age of seven he viewed them as a total non-event. He did wish me happy birthday in the morning, and he got me a present, a week early! Why on earth wasn’t that enough? We broke up soon afterwards. 

SBB, you and I are Birthday Obsessives, heaping way too much meaning on the day. We treat the anniversary of our birth as a referendum on our worth and lovability, closely monitoring our incoming messages for timing and depth of sentiment. Anyone who texts late in the day is duly noted; anyone who forgets altogether is sorely begrudged. Clearly they don’t care if we live or die, the cruel, cruel bastards. 

Is this a deranged way to live? Most right-thinking people, especially Birthday Minimalists like my ex, would answer with a resounding “yes”. They’ll no doubt perceive your question as bratty and out-of-touch. But I know there’s deep sadness behind your query; a gnawing sense that you aren’t cared for by the people you love most. For Birthday Obsessives, being an afterthought on the day you came into existence is enough to make you feel completely worthless. 

So: you extended a really kind gesture to your cousins on their birthdays, and they didn’t care enough to reciprocate. That hurts! I hope they enjoyed their stupid safari and saw lots of stupid big game animals.  

But satisfying as it might be to follow your parents’ advice and ice your cousins out, that kind of passive-aggressive, tit-for-tat approach to human relationships is a recipe for loneliness and endlessly hurt feelings. It’s time to stop using your birthday as a gauge for people’s love, because you’ll always get a faulty reading from people who think birthdays are for five-year-olds. Plus, even if your loved ones realise how fanatical you are about the day, they’ll celebrate it out of guilt and fear, not spontaneous joy. It is, paradoxically, very anti-birthday. It’s certainly no way to live. 

What you should do is clear, but difficult if you’re a passive person: tell your cousins you love them, want to remain close despite you moving halfway across the world, and feel hurt they almost forgot your birthday. Explain that birthdays mean the world to you, almost literally, and be prepared for them to be very surprised by this, and also not to reorder their lives around it. Your cousins will probably say they love and miss you too, but it’s possible your desire to remain close will be unreciprocated. Either way, you have to venture it directly, rather than using your birthday as a vague litmus test for how much they care. 

Regardless of how your cousins respond, you are worthy and lovable, Sad Birthday Boy, on all the days of the year. From the bottom of my heart: happy (belated) birthday! 

Keep going!