Jenaiya Coleman’s birthday celebrations are never relegated to just one day. Coleman utilizes the entire month. Every week in April — her birthday is April 5 — Coleman, a 34-year-old victim witness coordinator, hosts a party catering to specific audiences and groups of friends.
This year, she took her 11-year-old son to Disney World, where she spent her mornings watching the sunrise over the resort. When she returned to Atlanta, where she lives, Coleman and her friends commemorated her birth with dinner at a steakhouse. For another party, she and her friends went to a bar.
In non-pandemic years, Coleman typically travels farther: Aruba, Cabo, California. In 2020, she had wanted to visit Jamaica, but the world had other plans. Instead, she hosted a New Orleans-themed virtual birthday party, complete with Mardi Gras beads and homemade Hand Grenade cocktails. She made sure every invitee had the recipe.
“We might’ve been on for three hours, and eventually, I made too many Hand Grenades and I disappeared and went to bed,” Coleman said. “The next morning, I woke up to all these messages: ‘Where’d you go?’ Guys, I tapped out.”
Somewhere along the path of life, whether because of personal indifference or a societal contempt toward aging, birthdays can lose significance. Once we’ve had enough of them, birthday parties are often less fun, less momentous, less meaningful, both to host and to attend. But for some women, another year around the sun is always cause for celebration. And, in the pandemic, when traditional modes of celebration might be unsafe, they’re still finding ways to honor another year of their lives.
“Society teaches women to feel a certain level of shame about getting older,” said Shontel Cargill, a Cumming, Ga.-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “Those who succumb to this shame may keep their birthdays secret, while those who refuse to attach their value to a number may choose to celebrate big.”
Women may feel as if their birthday represents the one day they’re given permission to celebrate themselves, Cargill said. “Sometimes, women pour themselves into every facet of their lives, but forget themselves in the process, because they care so much about the people around them,” she said. “It’s totally okay to celebrate others and celebrate ourselves.”
With a birth date two weeks after New Year’s Eve, 38-year-old Jennifer McDermott has always considered resolutions to be weighty. In her 20s, she challenged herself to get her driver’s license before she turned 25. Another year, McDermott, who’s a publicist based in Los Angeles, resolved to learn to sew.
Three years ago, McDermott’s personal goals shifted again. In July 2018, McDermott stopped drinking alcohol and began a fitness regimen to prioritize her health. As her birthday approached, she wondered what party options would appeal to imbibers and nondrinkers alike. Fusing her newfound love of fitness with the camaraderie of a shared meal, McDermott held the inaugural Jen’s Birthday Brunch ‘N Burn in mid-January 2019, featuring a Sunday-morning spin class followed by a brunch. The following year, the “burn” portion was a Britney Spears-themed dance party. Her 2021 Birthday Brunch ‘N Burn included a coronavirus-safe hike and brunch with her pod, she said.
For some women, the thought of aging can be complicated. Society still holds women to high beauty standards and unrealistic visages of youth; ageism still plagues women in the workplace and in the public eye. For McDermott, getting older has never been mired in shame; instead, it gives her an excuse to celebrate life — hers and those of the people she loves, she said.
Kiana Porter’s love of birthdays isn’t limited to just her own; she has been dubbed the designated birthday project manager for her friends’ bashes, too. The 24-year-old recently planned her friend’s birthday party in North Carolina all the way from Philadelphia, where she works at a consulting firm, coordinating every detail, including the cake, photo booth, straws and champagne flutes.
The first party Porter planned was her 16th: She arranged an afternoon of ice skating, outdoor winter games and lunch with her friends in Philly. (Porter also connected with each of her friends’ parents to organize the carpool, she said.)
As the pandemic stretches on, many people are learning to honor their lives absent the trappings of travel or mass gatherings. Chloe Xiang, a 20-year-old student in New York City, usually travels with her family over Presidents’ Day weekend for her birthday. This February, she hosted a small 1920s murder-mystery party with local friends and a Zoom gathering with pals based elsewhere.
“That’s something I would still want to keep as a tradition going forward,” she said of the Zoom party.
Kathryn Dillon, meanwhile, wasn’t quite in the mood to celebrate her birthday this year. The 49-year-old product manager living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has countless sentimental memories from past celebrations: the time her parents allowed her and her sister to drink wine coolers on her 16th birthday, or the sunset dinner cruise on Lake Erie that she spent with her husband when she turned 40. The ongoing whiplash of pandemic life paired with the realization that she’s approaching 50 made planning a birthday fete in late July less than inspiring.
“I don’t always feel great about the aging process,” Dillon said. “Overall, it’s become even more important as I’ve gotten older, because the alternative is to dread it, and I don’t want to dread it. I think that the whole celebration aspect of, ‘Hey, I made another trip around the sun, and that’s amazing,’ is even more important to me now than it was even 10 years ago.”
To honor the day, Dillon and her husband had lunch with her mother and ate dinner at a restaurant for the first time in months.
Age isn’t the primary motivating factor contributing to how people celebrate their birthdays, Cargill said. Perspective and life stage also play a role. “Some women simply sit in gratitude, because they feel blessed to see another year and choose not to do anything formal,” she said. “Regardless of age, a birthday celebration is really a reflection of where they are in life currently.”
Since college, Denise Powell has spent her birthdays road-tripping from her family home in Pearl, Miss., in a Ford F-150. For her 28th birthday on Aug. 3, she trekked to Memphis on a solo ride, visiting the Memphis sign, Stax Museum and Beale Street.
Last year, Powell’s challenge was safely traveling from San Francisco, where she now lives for medical training, to Mississippi for her road trip. Instead of a multiday excursion, Powell took day trips to neighboring towns and discovered local history and culture. In between, she spent time with her grandmother, catching up on the porch.
As she nears her 30s, Powell has relinquished some of the anxieties of her early 20s, of meeting milestones and checking obligatory boxes by certain ages. After having two birthdays during the pandemic, her perspective has changed.
“There’s beauty in every single day,” she said. “Bloom where you’re planted, find beauty where you are. Time can really fly by when you’re in a pandemic. Sometimes hopping in a car and going somewhere is the best way to get out of your environment, be safe and also do something nice for yourself and do something new.”