Episode in which B celebrates his first birthday, and I suffer a crisis of consumerism.
This past week we celebrated B’s first birthday, and I have to say, what a weird leadup, unexpected feels aside (this isn’t intended to be a sentimental post). Rather I’d like to reflect on (I feel) the bizarre nature of birthdays in the context of consumer culture, ie. American culture, ie. my culture.
A friend recently made the comment that American culture is largely defined by its unfettered consumerism. The older I get, the more I seem to feel this, and the more I feel an aversion to the days on the calendar and their corresponding marketing schemes and must-have accessories.
But birthdays are the worst, in part because everybody has one, so talk about mass relevance.
I struggle with birthdays. Not out of fear of getting older, but something more personal and existential, something hard to define exactly as I’m still in the process of identifying it. It’s taken me until only just these last few years to figure out what to do with mine, which is to say I prefer privacy over publicity. I dislike the pressure of the day, the expectation that it must be not just a good day, but a great day, the obligatory emphasis, the attention. The ridiculous attention. This year I received a happy birthday email from a Seattle-based company I haven’t engaged with in 5+ years.
I’ve come to the realization I prefer to fly my birthday under the radar. In fact, I get a little rush trying to squeak by without any external acknowledgement on the day of. Instead, I’d rather jest that I’m an immortal being, older than birthdays. I simply am. Still my partner will ask me each year in the days leading up what I want to do for my birthday, and I’ll shrug and say nothing special beyond an excuse to order takeout, or to pick up a little box of cupcakes—there’s a running joke now re: cupcakes.
Since moving to Berlin, I’ve also begun a personal ritual where I try to visit a green space that’s just for me. Because green is lowkey my favorite color, and goth I may be, I still enjoy a brief little commune with nature.
So for B’s birthday my first inclination was to do similar, something to mark the day without being too ostentatious. HOWEVER, I belong to a number of mom groups on FB, and the past two months have been a tizzy of first birthday party-planning posts for May and June babies, which I’ll admit to lurking and snarking to myself from the comfort of my insulated suburbia, I just want to feel something.
But after a while, something about those posts seemed to infect me with a sense of guilt and anxiety. All these posts about party themes and guests and invitations and smash cakes and goodie bags.
Questions about what to get my kid who already has all of the toys.
Seeing a lot of links to ball pits and water tables.
“Books!” someone will inevitably chime in. “My baby LOVES to read.”
Another faction will stress the superiority of experiences over physical gifts: classes, lessons, a trip to a theme park or zoo.
Another will suggest donations to college fund.
And yet another will give the donations to this charity or that, best if it matches the party theme.
What altruism, what philanthropy. At the same time, I can’t help thinking, what impressive flow of funds that it must be harnessed and channeled thus like so much networked irrigation. By comparison, I envision B’s metaphorical landscape in relative isolation, that sad little untamed trickle of resources and feels, product of his mother’s party-planning animosity and compulsive railing against social constructs.
I find myself wavering in my convictions, torn between my natural impulse to downplay birthdays and, well, that shameless voice of consumer culture telling me my child needs a party. He needs me to make a big deal, to have a theme and a creative cake and presents and a birthday outfit and a proper photo session. And, yes, attendees for the affair, witnesses to our prosperity, because we’re supposed to be simultaneously celebrating one year of parenthood, one year of breastfeeding, one year everybody still alive and somehow thriving. Look at us thrive!
There’s inevitably an air of performance in the celebration. Likely even unconscious performance, tbh, it’s so baked in. And social media as our own personal PR campaigns. We’re expected to perform our prosperity, to demonstrate it through our individual “feast” day, donning our finery, commanding an audience, letting our table overflow for us, for our friends and family. The core idea still has its appeal, the sharing in abundance and good will, bringing community together. Such is the core of many holidays. But the trappings have become more distant from this, more distracted, more theatrical.
Or maybe that’s just me attempting to shrug off my own feelings of inadequacy, that I’m depriving B of the greater social experience of birthday culture because I personally can’t relate, or don’t want to relate. Because baggage. Is it just me being selfish then?
Certainly every parent wants to make their child feel special. At the same time, I resist this notion of spectacle and expenditure and unexamined consumption.
For instance, this whole ordeal has made me realize how deep my own conditioning in terms of the importance of the birthday present(s). Though surely my FB group lurking hasn’t helped my psyche in this regard. I feel like I’m in conspicuous rebellion against those few neighborhood parties attended in my own childhood. Experiences which conjure anxious images of white suburbia, the near-fetishized process from the accumulation and display to the rapt semi-hush of the unwrapping, followed quickly by obligatory thank you’s and all that wasted paper. Not to mention, for small birthday peers, there’s often the goody bag filled with little nothings sure to trigger that hit of dopamine but ultimately just more sugar or plastic clutter. Maybe things have evolved since then. But I wouldn’t know, it being more than 30 years since attending my last children’s birthday party.
Meanwhile here come the would-be guilt feels again. Maybe I indulge too much in cynicism, my perverse pleasure. And what of B? All these toys marketed as learning tools. The temptation. In weaker moments I wonder, will B lag behind other kids if I don’t expose him to the bright colors and flashing lights, voice recordings and animal sounds? Are his senses adequately engaged? Are our classic little wooden toys and ribbons and plastic boxes enough to stimulate him? But then I try to remember that marketing is predicated on cultivating insecurity, so by allowing my self-doubt to flare, I’m succumbing to said marketing.
The day before B’s birthday I go with him to the toy store. Very mainstream place filled with loud plastic, but they have one endcap with a few wooden toys. Unfortunately I’ve already bought most of these, so it would just be permutations on the same.
Anyway, my thought is maybe to get B a car, like one of those matchbox cars we played with in the 80’s. Classic. But I can’t find anything simple. Everything is themed, like “Batman Villains”, and the thought of already buying into movie franchise tie-ins just makes me more nauseous. Same with the thought, oh, I’ll get him a little ball to play with, but not only are they divided into boys vs girls, but the only choices are between Frozen-themed balls for girls, and Pixar’s Cars for boys. I mean, it’s different if your kid is requesting this kind of thing, but B isn’t even watching TV yet, let alone falling prey to their merchandising. Nooo.
So I attempt to move on to my last idea, which is to find something like a little plastic bucket and shovel for playing in the sand, but the only things I can find are these big ugly plastic sets with clunky extra pieces or jarring design. What am I looking at, is this supposed to be a castle?? The aesthetic asshole in me is weeping. Like, I’m not ready to have these kind of things in my home. What’s wrong with meee??
Nearly 45 minutes in this store picking up things and putting them back down, kind of muttering to myself all the while as B chuckles and hoo-hoo’s to himself, and eventually we just leave emptyhanded, defeated. This is a world I’m not ready to inhabit. I don’t know when I will be ready to inhabit it, honestly. And I don’t know if that’s a problem or not. Because so much of our culture is entwined with the marketing and with consumerism. Products and experiences which promise to make our kids happy, to entertain them, to educate and enrich them, to give us a break. I’m honestly struggling.
I leave the store a bit flustered, relieved to be putting all that business behind me but also feeling kind of like a lowkey failure. I mean, how hard is it to get your own child a birthday present? It’s not that complicated. At the same time I’m feeling hostile, because the worst kind of present is the one that’s given for the sake of giving something, the flimsy ambivalence embodied by the word itself: “something”.
I’m hostile to a world that thrives on instilling inadequacy for the sake of propagation of useless objects.
If I succumb to that pressure now, what does that say about all the birthdays to come? This is the first one, the one that sets the tone if I’m not careful.
You know, maybe it’s something about how the older I get, the more I realize I hate shopping. And by shopping I mean the act of going to a store (but more and more it’s online too, tbh) without a plan, without a need or a want already in mind, and therefore having an “openness” or receptivity when it comes to the ample suggestions. It’s about allowing merchandising and deal-seeking opportunism to guide your wallet, tapping into your ancestral hunter-gatherer brain circuits to give you that imaginary sense of achievement.
Maybe it’s something about how I hate pulling out my wallet, the way it feels vulgar, that in a way the wallet and the transaction indicate a weakness on my part, a feeling that I fell for the Greater Ruse, which was to get me to pull out my wallet in the first place.
That’s not to say I don’t waste my money on frivolous shit just like everybody else. But there’s something inescapably irksome about systemic consumerism which inspires such angst in the consumption of things ephemeral and irrational, ESPECIALLY where kids are concerned. Not to mention the classist aspect in which said angst is surely amplified for those without the means to provide all those frivolities in the first place. And yet the call to buy, buy, buy rings on and on and on unabating.
In any case, for B’s birthday it was just the four of us (including the hund): takeout for lunch followed by cupcakes (natürlich), and a little red ball that Haku was more excited about than my son.
Now for a little respite before Christmas.