The link between my birthday depression and the end of the Bridges M&C CSR campaign on World Mental Health Day.
My mother, a teacher, gave me a Sheaffer or a Parker on my birthday every year while I was in secondary school, with my name engraved on each one. I either lost or stopped using them simply because they stopped making the ink refills. Meanwhile, covetable exotic holidays and concert tickets were withheld from me with the same consistency I scored an A for Additional Mathematics.
As a young adult, I learned about reciprocity, and having zero expectations.
My second boyfriend was a gadget-crazy civil engineer by day and a musician by night. So for his birthday I saved up to buy him an iPod Nano in blue, his favourite colour, and filled it with his favourite tunes. I can’t remember what I got for my birthday. Rumour has it he still hangs on to the iPod Nano even if it is no longer functioning.
When another boyfriend turned 30, I threw a party for him at a chalet for 30 of his favourite people. I cooked for all of them, took pictures of the party, and copied them onto thumb drives, which I sent to each guest with a personalised thank you note. Everyone had a great time; many were talking about the party for weeks afterwards. When he asked what I wanted for my birthday, I shrugged and said 'flowers and lingerie'. So I got exactly these on my birthday; fair enough. Except he overestimated my size. By three sizes.
For her birthday, a former staff invited me and my husband to a champagne brunch at the Hyatt Mezza9 with a few friends, without informing us we were going Dutch. The bitter pang of having to foot a nearly $500 bill — including her share, because the other guests had gifts for her, and we hadn’t — was soothed only by the excellent food and service at the establishment.
Since then, I didn’t want to have anything to do with her so was not expecting her to do anything for my birthday, but a few days before my birthday that year, she insisted on meeting me to drop off my birthday gift. We agreed to meet. I thought it would be a good opportunity to catch up over coffee, until I realised her gift to me — presented unwrapped — was a plastic pearl trinket, the sort you see at airport souvenir stores.
While these incidents (and several others) gnawed at me, I didn’t — couldn’t — complain, at the time.
So, while I didn't bother with others' birthdays, and nobody bothered with mine, birthdays remained a time of personal reckoning for me.
Much like I consistently didn't make the grade in my teens for that London trip with a young and adventurous aunt, or a front-row concert ticket to see Pearl Jam, I consistently didn't hit my personal and/or business targets for a time.
For many years, I escaped my birthday by going away to Bali. As it seemed highly unlikely anyone (other than my husband) would remember my birthday, let alone have anything planned for me, it seemed the best time to take an annual break.
Perhaps this was the reason my birthdays in Bali were often happy.
It’s now 2021, and my birthday has come around again. It has been two years I have not travelled to Bali because of the pandemic, and two years of no escaping the birthday blues.
But I have so much more to celebrate and be grateful for.
Firstly, Bridges M&C has achieved a second record-breaking turnover year in a row; a second 'A' on my business report card.
And this year, I’ve been given the opportunity to give back to society in a way I had never expected, through Letters To My Mother, an anthology of letters written by daughters and sons to their mothers.
If it had not been for editor Felix Cheong who approached me to contribute to this anthology, I would have never thought about adopting mental health as the cause for Bridges M&C’s inaugural corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative.
The amount of money raised through this initiative — which officially ended today, on World Mental Health Day, a day after my birthday — is not high, especially by corporate fundraising standards. But it is special in that we exceeded our target at least twice over.
I've been so moved by those who have contributed to this campaign; journalists, clients, former teachers, classmates and schoolmates, social media acquaintances, the handful I consider family, strangers who’ve heard me on radio shows, and so many more.
The bonus came a few months later when Felix decided to hire Bridges M&C to promote his own books as he was impressed with the publicity we've generated for our CSR campaign! He loved the idea of us channelling some of the fees from promoting his books to the Singapore Association of Mental Health and Befrienders KL who are our campaign beneficiaries.
Then there were the messages from people who have bought the book.
The most memorable one came from a foster mother preparing her two-year-old foster daughter for her adoption by another family. Like me, her foster daughter has three mothers: her biological mother, who has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, her foster mother, and adopted mother.
In an email, she told me she had bought a copy of Letter To My Mother, which she had wrapped and packed with her foster daughter’s belongings. She had bookmarked my story with a note for her foster daughter, which moved me close to tears.
I'm writing this just after I've returned from a birthday dinner at one of my favourite restaurants Gaston, organised by my husband as part of a weekend staycation at the Grand Hyatt.
While riding on the endorphin rush from my afternoon workout, I was feeling jubilant at being able to fit into a favourite 20-year old dress I've not worn since the start of the pandemic ,and having a probably considerably younger man glance at me over his shoulder several times during his dinner.
That stuff never gets old. Happy birthday to me.
PS: Not all birthdays are happy. And that's ok!