I have been married for seven years, and for all of them I have dreaded the same day in April. It’s my wife’s birthday — and my mother’s. My wife and my mother each think that the day should revolve around them, and they don’t really like each other. (I’m putting it nicely.)
My mother insists that since she is the matriarch — she actually uses that word — we should celebrate with her every year, and my wife says that she deserves to be my number one priority. Joint birthday celebrations don’t work, and I can’t see how to celebrate their birthdays separately.
How do I make them both happy on their shared birthday?
Did you not see the name of this column? It’s “Ask Philip,” not “Ask Miracles of Philip.”
You, sir, (with apologies to Taylor Swift) will never, ever, ever make your spouse and your mother happy on the same day under these circumstances. The math is pretty simple: they don’t like each other + you’re the person they have in common = lifelong death struggle to establish primacy.
In other words, neither your wife nor your mom probably care much about how their birthdays are celebrated. Instead, they’ve turned the day into an annual test of their relative importance to you. Study all you want; you’re still going to fail. That’s how the test is designed.
Make your mom the center of every birthday celebration, and you’ll spend the other 364 nights sleeping with someone you’ve relegated to second place. Insist that it’s your wife’s night, and you can look forward to a steady diet of guilt sandwiches, served lovingly by the woman who gave you life and indirectly (or maybe directly) reminds you of that during every phone call.
My advice? You can’t fail the test if you drop out of the class. Don’t try to make them both happy on the same day, each year. It’s not possible, and your efforts to appease one will only annoy the other.
The key to solving this lies in thinking of your wife and mother — in this instance, only! — as if they were toddlers fighting over the same toy. You don’t mention children, so on the chance you don’t have any, here’s Parenting 101: when the kiddies can’t share nicely, an adult steps in and lays down a fair and equitable distribution.
Janey, you can have the toy for the next half—hour, and then it’s Johnny’s turn. Johnny, after your turn, march across the playground and hand it back. If you two decide you can share it, terrific. If not, we’ll keep to the schedule.
You’ve got some time until April, Fool, and I’d suggest imparting a new birthday rule soon, so that you don’t allow either side to make plans that might then have to be changed. Here’s what I’d say to them, were I in your shoes: “I’ve been thinking about your joint birthday, and it occurs to me that it’s not possible to give both of you the amount of attention that I’d like to on the actual day. This year, mom, we’d like to take you to dinner on the night before — or the night after, your choice.
Next year we’ll celebrate your birthday on the actual day, and we’ll just continue switching off.”
See what you did, there? You’ve told both of the women in your life that you want to give them enough attention. You’ve also told your wife that she’s the common denominator: “we” would like to take you out, Mom — but the other night is for the two of us.
Neither of them will be thrilled, but both of them will likely be placated. The key is to stand firm, and to meet protests with the truth: This is not an ideal situation, so here’s a fair way to deal with that fact. It’s also a way that subtly puts your wife first — by including her in all celebrations AND by giving her the day this time ‘round — without denying your mother the thoughtfulness and respect she deserves.
Also? Giving your mom a really nice present this year couldn’t hurt.
Enjoy both cakes,
Philip Van Munching is a New York Times bestselling author of advice books, and was a finalist in the Good Morning America nationwide “advice guru” search. You can find his previous columns at askpvm.com, and email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org