IT WAS my sister's birthday last week. She was 31, though most of the time I still think of her as being 15 (which means I must be forever 18 years old in my misguided mind's eye). Anyway, she invited us round to a tea party, and when we got there she was making egg sandwiches and looking a bit grumpy.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I haven't got any friends," she said. "Everyone has rung up to say they're going to be late."
"Well, we're here," I said.
"You're early," she replied crossly, as we ate our way through an entire plateful of neatly arranged cream cheese sandwiches and my baby smeared butter on the newly-washed floor. "It's all going horribly wrong."
In fact, the party was fine. She got some flowers and new clothes and we sang "Happy Birthday Dear Ruth" as she blew out the candle on her chocolate cake. Later that evening, she said to me, "I don't feel like I've progressed beyond the age of four when it comes to having a birthday. How old do you have to be for it to stop mattering so much?"
The answer, I think, is when you have children, and you start worrying about making their birthdays perfect. It's impossible, of course: they become nearly sick with anticipation in the lead up to the Big Event, and so do you, and no wonder the party usually ends in disaster (a combined effect of too much chocolate, and presents that break before the end of the day). And if anyone thinks they've failed as parents when it comes to birthdays, remember this: you are not alone in these failures. When my first child turned three, I was hardly talking to his father - who is now my husband - let alone living with him, but we decided to be together for the sake of the birthday celebrations. Things were just about okay until we tried to do a jolly puppet show behind the sofa. And then, various small children stormed the sofa and stole the furry animals. It ended, as anyone sensible might have predicted, in chaos: our son started crying, and so did I, and many, many more tears were wept before bedtime.
I was talking about this with my friend Polly, whose birthday was the day before my sister's. She had a party, too, despite the fact that her second baby was two-and-a-half weeks overdue and showed no sign of emerging. I thought that the best birthday present she could hope for was to go into instant, rapid labour, but no, she wasn't having any of that. "I'm far too selfish," she said. "I don't want to endure any pain today, and I certainly don't want to have to share a birthday with my own child. Organising a five- year-old's party is bad enough, but imagine having to haul snogging teenagers out of the wardrobe when it's your birthday too, and you're approaching the menopause. Wouldn't that be awful?"
Polly, like me and many others, charts the progress of her life in part through the memory of birthdays: good ones, bad ones, and total disasters. "The worst one was when I was 28," she said, "and my boyfriend gave me a packet of strawberry seeds. I tried to be tremendously New Agey and cheerful about how we could eat strawberries together, but then I saw that the packet was five years out of date, which meant he'd just found it at the back of a cupboard. That was really depressing." Perhaps coincidentally, they split up soon afterwards.
I felt pretty miserable myself last year, on my 33rd birthday, when my husband put his back out; after manfully hobbling around for a couple of hours, he had to retire to bed with a dose of 'flu. I spent the evening alone, eating cold sausages and telling myself not to be so petulant, but sank into gloom all the same. I'd had a picnic with my friends in the park the day before, but that didn't make up for the fact that this was my birthday, my special day, and someone should be acting accordingly.
This might be, I think, why astrology is so insidiously compelling. I don't mean the newspaper stuff, although that can have a charm all of its own ("You've got to be nice to me today: it says that's what Geminis need, look, right here in the paper"). What is infinitely preferable is the individual astrological chart based on exactly when and where you were born: with its gratifying implication that you are completely unique ("Wow, you've got a Virgo moon - that's why you're so interesting").
I discovered these idolatrous pleasures when I made friends with an astrologer called Jan, who used to live across the road. It wasn't that I believed her predictions - I just liked the fact that she would pore over her magical little book in order to chart your destiny according to the positions of the stars in the sky on that most significant of occasions, your birthday. Who needs therapy, when you've got an astrologer to lean on? (At last! Someone who cares.)
If you ask me, astrology - and birthdays for that matter - provide the ritual and romance that is otherwise lacking in our daily lives (all right, your life might be exciting, but mine could do with the occasional enhancement). I know the Pope say it's terribly wrong (astrology, I mean), but he would say that, wouldn't he? Too many horoscopes, not enough mass, the argument seems to go: though I don't see why a good Catholic can't enjoy both, along with cheerful parties and large amounts of birthday cake.
My husband takes a more pragmatic view. His last birthday was a complete failure, at least by any conventional measure. Our baby woke at dawn with a temperature that had risen to spectacular levels by lunchtime; just before tea, I took the baby to hospital, while my husband decorated the birthday cake to cheer up our five-year- old. Me and the baby ended up staying the night at the hospital, while my husband stayed at home alone. Until I came to write this piece, I'd never actually asked him what he did that evening.
"I ate some bread and tomatoes," he said.
"Did you get depressed?" I asked, prepared to start being sympathetic.
"No," he said. "I watched Match of the Day, and Manchester United won 9-nil. It was one of the best birthday presents ever." !
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies