While I'm away, readers give the advice.
On fielding difficult personal questions: I'm grateful to those who write in about how painful it is when people ask them if they ever wanted to have children and related painful questions. It's important that we keep in mind these are sensitive questions for many.
At the same time, I have to wonder, if we can't ask each other about emotional topics, then why are we having conversations? I understand the desire to avoid difficult topics in certain situations, particularly in the workplace. But if I ask someone questions about their personal life, it's because I wish to make a personal and, yes, emotional connection.
In my opinion, it only benefits us to open up possibilities for sharing emotions, whether positive or negative. No one is alone in having experienced pain or suffering. Being honest about the difficulty of certain topics gives the listener/inquisitor the opportunity to understand you a little bit better and to show compassion. If the listener doesn't respond with compassion, then it reflects poorly on her/him, not on the person who is opening up.
I hope that we can all strive for more emotional honesty in conversation, even when sharing our pain and sadness makes us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, or when we are worried we will make our conversational partner feel uncomfortable. These opportunities to make meaningful connections with others are far too rare to pass up.
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On wanting others to fuss over your birthday: I was a December baby and even as a child my birthday always got lost in the distractions of Christmas preparation or (later) end-of-term exams. Gifts would often be "half for birthday, half for Xmas" and Christmas cards often had a "P.S. Happy Birthday."
Since I became a grownup (at about 25 or so), I started my own birthday celebration. I buy toys. When I was a poor grad student, I bought one or two. Now that I'm older, I buy more (and take a tax deduction). They go to Toys for Tots or the local charity's giving tree. I really enjoy going down the aisles and grabbing whatever catches my eye, and the buzz lasts for several days as my living room fills with cool stuff. The buzz is twofold since the whole thing is my own little secret that I don't share with anyone else.
Perhaps someone else's buzz would be to do this with a group. Maybe there is a social service group that collects clothes or school supplies for foster kids. Don't you love that schoolgirl rush from buying new binders, backpacks and pencil cases? New pink sweaters and hair clips? Maybe there is a food bank that needs a carload of baby food or diapers. Or maybe you can celebrate a milestone birthday (40?) by starting to sponsor a child through Plan or World Vision. I offer these not to push the charity aspect, but to pass on the message that this really can give people the celebration feeling they think is missing.