Birthday Presents

My sister’s birthday is this weekend, and my niece’s, too – lucky sis went into labor on her birthday.

Birthday’s have always been important to my sister. They’re also important to me but they take on some kind of weird, mystical importance to her, as if by constructing the perfect birthday celebration, she will, through sympathetic magic, somehow repair all the psychic wounds she received as a child, and experience a year in which the annoying things her sister/husband/children/cats/mother/politicians do suddenly stop and life suddenly becomes easier. Good luck with that, sis.

Mom hasn’t been well this year, her illness has kept her pretty isolated, especially with snowy sidewalks, and she’s been losing track of time. I don’t think it’s cognitive so far – just a result of not having a routine like work or volunteering that helps her stay engaged with the rhythms of the outside world. So when I was talking to her on Thursday I reminded her of Birthday Weekend, told her about the gifts I had sent, and asked what she had gotten the birthday girls. Pause. “Birthdays just aren’t that important to me anymore,” she replied.

It took me back in time to the funeral of a coworker’s father. One of my colleagues – a woman who has more emotional intelligence in her little fingernail than I will ever have in my whole body – asked if I would be attending our coworker’s dad’s funeral. I replied that I would not, because I was a very private person who wouldn’t want people from work seeing me grieve. She reminded me that it wasn’t my father’s funeral, and that our coworker was different from me (didn’t I know it) and it would be important to her. Although the coworker and I had been going through a struggle of our own (she was undermining me and what pissed me off more than anything was that I kept letting her), I took the morning off, put on my best blacks, and went to the memorial service, which was enormous. Her father had been a prominent figure in his field – as my coworker never ceased dropping into conversation — and several hundred people attended the service. But I was glad I had gone when I ran into her in the crowd. She was surprised to see me and said so. I blurted out something along the lines of, “I had to because he was important, to you.” which was awkward and I hope she knew that I meant that his importance in the world was really irrelevant to my attendance – what counted was the difference he made to her personally. We both teared up and went our separate ways. And I realized my colleague (who was also there somewhere, probably saying exactly the right thing very gracefully) was right: this was not about what I would want; it was about what was important to her.

To change the subject slightly, it’s like performance evaluations. When you treat a performance evaluation as a grading exercise, you do your employee a disservice and it becomes painful. I know good managers who believe that you should be giving continuous feedback throughout the year and that, if you do, you shouldn’t need to conduct performance evaluations. I disagree. It’s so easy, with everything going on, for the days and achievements to blend together and for the employee to lose the strategic perspective about the work they’re doing and their career. Done well, a performance evaluation gives the employee an hour or so where you’re talking only about them, reminding them of their successes throughout the year, and putting those accomplishments within the context of the organization’s success. It also gives you a chance to listen and find out how they perceive their performance – and to offer other perspectives if necessary — and what skills they’d like to develop to take their performance to the next level. I like to approach performance evaluations on two levels: what did you accomplish this year and how did it help the company; and what skills did you develop that enhanced your professional portfolio and what you want to work on next. I worked really hard to make the process about the employee and what they needed out of the situation, not only about the company and what it needed out of the situation; or what I thought I needed out of the situation. Did I always succeed? I’m sure some of my former employees will say No. But that was always my intention.

Back to mom: I reminded her how important birthdays were to sis, so disproportionally important in mom’s eyes, that every year she complains about it. I shared with her my sister’s desire this year to “not get more stuff” for her birthday, and how a nice box of chocolates would be easily picked up at the grocery down the block, wouldn’t cost much, and would make sis happy. And how, when she was the grocery, she could also pick up a gift card for my niece, thereby making the child – child no more, now at the age where gifts that grown-ups choose are Lame, and she’d prefer to pick out something all by herself or rather all by herself and her seven best friends – happy.

Hopefully mom took the hint. She agreed but with that tone in her voice that told me she didn’t really agree but just wanted me to stop talking about it. And, since I’m at the other end of the country, there’s not much else I can do about it.

There’s a great song called “Mother Mother” by Tracy Bonham which I have loved from the first moment I heard it on a car radio in a McDonald’s drive-through. My husband was with me and also felt it expressed some deep-seated feeling about mothers, so much so that he made the chorus his mother’s ring tone. Give it a listen some time. You won’t be disappointed.

Consider it my gift to you, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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