Why It’s Time to Bin the ‘Surprise Party’ Ritual

This year, all I wanted for my birthday was a t-shirt that read “too old for this sh*t”, an apt summation of my standing.

Instead, I got a surprise party. After a pleasant evening of loitering in the park with my sister and daughter, I came home to a dark living room that lit up suddenly with a group of friends screaming, “Surprise!”

I stood there in mild shock, smelling of sweat, bidding goodbye to my plans of a soak in the tub and a cosy dinner with the family. Instead, I had to plaster on a confused smile. Two of my friends had gone all out to plan this and I thanked them profusely as adults and children swarmed about like bees, uncorking wine bottles, opening large packets of chips, and fighting over toys.

As I went to shower and change, all I could think about was the mess I’d have to clean up the next day.

Where is the appeal in throwing surprise parties for adults? Is it the effort that people put into tiptoeing around you? Or the satisfaction of discovering how loved you are — and being surprised by it? Is love…surprise?

I haven’t always been like this. In my twenties, I enjoyed surprise parties thrown for me and was part of planning some others. They were silly and exciting: you whispered, crept into homes with cakes and candles at midnight, and filmed reactions.

But now, I’m 37 and have more than a fair share of ‘adulting’ surprises to handle — creaking joints after a change in my exercise routine, white hair sprouting in my nethers, trusted people turning indifferent and forcing me to reassess my beliefs. The pragmatic me doesn’t like surprises anymore, they are terrifying. Enough of the unknown has come my way in the past three years to install worry and gratitude in equal measures. My desire for choice and control has grown stronger, especially when it comes to how I wish to spend my time.

My father never liked to celebrate his birthday. He gets annoyed when we make a big deal of it. On one occasion, he even walked away when we sprung a cake on him in a public place. I used to think he was a grouch but now I get it – he hates being the centre of attention.

Birthdays are more than occasions to celebrate; they are sacred and deeply personal, especially with each progressing year inching us closer to the realisation of our mortality. They are milestones for deliberation and reckoning. We should have the space to contemplate, if needed, instead of worrying about scrubbing spilt beer and clearing crumbs of chips off couches.

We ought to normalise the desire for privacy on this day and not pressure others into plans. No one should feel offended by how you want to spend your day — alone or with people of your choice — or thrust you into a party without explicitly asking, “Is this something you would enjoy?”

There are many movies and TV shows with the ‘surprise party gone wrong’ trope. I can relate most to one where Monica in Friends turns up drunk on her 30th birthday, fumbles with her keys while everyone waits for her in the dark, then gives up and slumps to the ground. Chandler goes to her discreetly and tells her she needs to act surprised, and oh, her parents are there as well.

Monica, who chose intoxication as a way of coping with the anxiety of getting older, spends the rest of the evening pretending to be sober in front of her guests. Not fun.

On the other hand, throwing someone a surprise party is a display of love. It’s like they’re saying, “Ha! You thought we forgot but see how much we care! Here, take a birthday whistle…”

They mean well so they take on the hullaballoo of making a list, getting a headcount, planning for food and alcohol, and ensuring there are no leaks in the plan. But here’s what they can forget to factor: Are they inviting the people you’d want to spend the day with? Do they know your headspace now? Have they considered if you’re up to the task of forced socialising?

Surprise is one of seven universal emotions and is said to arise when we’re confronted with sudden sounds, movements, or situations. Our nervous system is put under extreme stress in the first moments because we’re instinctually wired to process the shock and figure out if there is danger ahead. All this happens in a matter of seconds, then surprise can turn into pleasure, fear, or anxiety depending on the individual’s expectations and state of mind.

For me, it turned into irritation, then frustration. I felt like my day had been hijacked and yet I couldn’t get mad because people had taken the time out for me. Some had even gotten gifts. It would have been crappy of me to be honest with my emotions, so I spent a tremendous amount of energy all evening doing something I hate — pretending. I smiled, I drank, I ate, and when the last person left at 3 am, I rolled into bed, mad at myself. Again, not fun.

Nearly every second person in my life is in therapy or in denial that they need it. This is where we are now. No matter how well-intentioned the urge to encourage celebration, being mindful of our ignorance of one’s struggles comes first. Let us take consent, let us give space.

Sangeetha Bhaskaran’s work has been published at Himal South Asian, Arre, Women’s Web, and as part of the anthology – Khushk Zubaan Bebaak Jigar (Of dry tongues and brave hearts).

Featured image: Matheus Frade / Unsplash