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Life

Lessons From My First Birthday Party

After a lifetime of subpar celebrations and parental neglect, I decided to plan my own event at 29.

'happy birthday' crown cut into pieces
Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

“This seems like a lot of work,” my friend Frances observed while watching me blow up balloons in my tiny studio apartment for my birthday party the next day. “Why didn’t you just get someone else to throw you a party?” she inquired. “It wasn’t that simple,” I snapped. At nearly 29 years old, I was gearing up for something that I had dreamed about my whole life.

A birthday party may not seem like a big deal to most people, but a full-fledged celebration is something that always eluded me as a child and adolescent, and even as an adult. More often than not, my birthday came and went with little fanfare, with a few particular years being more of a letdown than usual.

I still remember the nothingness I felt upon turning eight years old. It was a school day in the dead of winter — so already, not much was to be expected in the way of celebration. When my mother picked me up from school that afternoon, the drive home was mostly a silent one. Things went from middling to terrible when, upon entering our apartment, we discovered the electricity had been cut off. Flustered and embarrassed, my mother drove us to Ms. Dede and Mr. Frank’s, the parents of her boyfriend at the time. I sat in the family room watching cartoons while she and Ms. Dede made a cake and my mother wept.

Around the same time, my father had begun dating a woman he would later marry, who had a daughter, Alexis, two years my junior. Born on the Fourth of July, Alexis had birthdays that were always a festive occasion. I was completely enamored with the way her family would do birthday celebrations. Over the years, there were big family affairs on the lake with pizza and store-bought sheet cake, outings to Disney on Ice performances, trips to theme parks, and countless other blowout bashes.

For Alexis’s seventh orbit around the moon, a backyard barbecue was the order of the day. My father dressed up as Barney. Despite being a bit too long in the tooth to actually really want the entertainment of a giant stuffed animal, I seethed with jealousy. Why didn’t he ever dress up as Barney for me? I thought. I like Barney! Or at least I had a year or two prior. A spectator with envy in her eyes, I went into hater mode, whispering to any kid at the party who looked on at the purple dinosaur with wonder and awe that it was all a ruse with my daddy at the helm.

“Why wasn’t I special enough for a birthday party?” repeated in my head for years to come. Low self-esteem combined with an unstable home life didn’t help quiet these whispers, and the question became something of a mantra as the party dream took on a life of its own. To me, a birthday party signified a type of normalcy, security, and love that I craved from my family but rarely felt.

With my childhood slipping away, I made one more last-ditch attempt, requesting a Sweet Sixteen. By that time, I was living with my father and then-stepmother, and they agreed to a modest party in our basement. Part of me was surprised they gave in, but I was happy nonetheless. Finally! I thought I’d get the celebration I’d been waiting for. Ecstatic, I went into high gear, telling all the friends and acquaintances I could round up about my upcoming event. My happiness was short-lived, though; my stepmother soon informed me that the party was canceled for reasons that were and still are unclear. Part of me was crushed, but I’d also figured as much.

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When I discussed the cancellation with my father, he said he didn’t really know why I couldn’t have the party*. Typical,* I thought. He always letting these women treat me any kinda way. Call it entitled, but I couldn’t help think that if this were Alexis’s birthday at stake, a way would have been made.

After that, I put the birthday-party dream to rest. In its place were nightclub outings with chocolate-cake-flavored shots and classier, more adult birthday dinners and brunches. For a while, this satisfied me, but every now and then, I’d think of the birthday party that never was. I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing, like a piece of my childhood wasn’t complete, and as if my family’s resistance to celebrating my life was a direct reflection of my worth. Despite trying my best to convince myself that birthday parties were for children, I simply couldn’t shake the desire to have one. So on the eve of my 29th year on Earth, I decided enough was enough and that I’d have to take the initiative myself.

I settled on a boozy tea-party theme. I wanted something feminine and whimsical, an event that would allow me to cook and play hostess to a few choice individuals. Despite the desire to have a party, a big celebration didn’t appeal to me, so a daytime event like this was the perfect choice. I reveled in combing the Internet for drink and food recipes while simultaneously curating just the right music playlist. Still, I was insecure — I felt slightly silly for putting so much energy into a self-thrown party at my age. But I reminded myself that I couldn’t wait another 30 years for someone to celebrate me. I soldiered on through the anxiety and on January 31, in my favorite vintage party dress, I was ready.

I welcomed a revolving door of friends who came throughout the late afternoon and early evening to oblige me with drinks, food, grown-up party games, and the obligatory birthday-cake-candle blow-out session. While I had fun that night, of course one party didn’t erase a lifetime of neglect and feelings of inadequacy. Throwing my own birthday party did, however, teach me a few lessons that I was desperately overdue to learn.

For a lifetime, I was so fixed on this idea of needing others to celebrate me. I thought that if no one around me had taken the initiative, then there must have been something wrong with me. As I would come to learn, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. If you build it, they will come, and if they don’t, well, fuck ’em. Build it anyway and party with those who show up. Ultimately it’s not about the number of celebrations one has in their honor or the number of people who are there to witness it. Quality over quantity definitely applied in this case, which is a theme that was enforced even more the next year, when I celebrated my 30th birthday with my girlfriend over dinner, drinks, chocolate cake, and then dessert.

Niesha Davis first began writing love poems as a teenager but then she grew up. Since then, she has published articles and essays for: Bust, Bitch, Women's Health, The Establishment, The Awl, Narratively, and many other publications. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she currently resides in Shanghai.