Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last win­ter, I was asked to talk about Plan B Nation on New Eng­land NPR. I’d just launched the blog the month before. I was pretty thrilled.

As I pre­pared for the inter­view, I spent a lot of time think­ing about what to say and how to say it. What aspects of my Plan B Nation jour­ney should I focus on? What would lis­ten­ers find inter­est­ing? What would they find helpful?

One thing I wasn’t too wor­ried about was being caught off guard. I’d already writ­ten about unem­ploy­ment for the mega web­site Salon. The facts of my story were already out there. Or so I thought.

How old are you?” The ques­tion came at the end of the inter­view, almost an afterthought.

I didn’t answer right away. I real­ized that I didn’t want to say.

Is my age really impor­tant?” I finally asked (or some­thing equally lame).

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I balked at this ques­tion. I just knew that I felt strangely com­mit­ted to hold­ing back The Num­ber. And if I was unclear myself, my inter­viewer was baf­fled. “You talk pub­licly about unem­ploy­ment and AA, but you don’t want to give your age?”

I had to admit she had a point, but that didn’t seem to sway me.

It took some time for me to piece together what was going on here. The fact is, age has con­se­quences. These are less appar­ent when our lives are set­tled, with the big ques­tions of love and work at least tem­porar­ily resolved. But if you’ve been on a dat­ing web­site, or applied for a job lately, you’ll know what I’m talk­ing about. After a cer­tain point, num­bers rule us out far more often than they rule us in.

But even more significant—at least for me—is the issue of how age defines us as nor­mal, or, well not. Our cul­tural assump­tions around age are deep and per­va­sive. The “stage the­ory” pio­neered by Erik H. Erik­son and pop­u­lar­ized by Gail Sheehy in her block­buster 1974 best­seller Pas­sages is premised on the notion that our lives move through pre­dictable stages that cor­re­late with our ages. “The Try­ing Twen­ties,” “The Dead­line Decade” (that’s your thir­ties, y’all!), “The Flour­ish­ing For­ties,” “The Flam­ing Fifties”—Sheehy neatly labeled what are increas­ingly, for many of us, messy realities.

The more I think about it, per­haps the biggest rea­son I resist being defined by age is that the train of asso­ci­a­tions feels so pow­er­fully mis­lead­ing. For those of us whose lives have fol­lowed uncon­ven­tional patterns—for me that means not get­ting mar­ried, not hav­ing kids, and pur­su­ing a career path more mean­der­ing than directed—age can tend to put the focus on what we haven’t done rather than what we have (which for me includes, among other things, design­ing and co-founding the Mis­sis­sippi Teacher Corps, writ­ing and pub­lish­ing two nov­els, prac­tic­ing law, liv­ing in places rang­ing from the Mis­sis­sippi Delta to Man­hat­tan, and now think­ing long and deeply about the issues I’m explor­ing in this blog.)

And yet, despite every­thing I’ve just said, I do pay atten­tion to birthdays—though for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons than I did when I was younger.

For me, birth­days have become a point of reck­on­ing, a marker in the steady pro­gres­sion of days that helps me take stock. As I’ve writ­ten before, I’m some­one who tends to have a hard time appre­ci­at­ing how far I’ve trav­eled and what I’ve done. I tend to focus on “what next?” rather than “what then?” Birth­days help counter that. Like the New Year or any other reg­u­lar marker—and the more, the bet­ter, I say—they offer an oppor­tu­nity both to appre­ci­ate progress and to look ahead. (For me, this always involves a ram­bling foray through my trusty desk diaries.)

This past year: So much! Start­ing this blog, for one big thing. Writ­ing for Salon, the Chicago Tri­bune, Sec­on­dAct (where I have a new bi-monthly col­umn), and now, Psy­chol­ogy Today. Option­ing my sec­ond novel for film. Design­ing and lead­ing a writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids. Pick­ing blue­ber­ries. Mak­ing pesto. Hik­ing the Seven Sis­ters. Train­ing for a 5K. Mak­ing some really good friends and strength­en­ing ties with old ones.

Oh, and for the record, I’m about to turn 52. I really don’t mind giv­ing my age: I just don’t want to lead with it.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

  1. Pingback: Joyful Innovation with Plan B Nation - Innovation Abbey

  2. Pingback: 30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6) | Plan B Nation

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