Writer Coco Khan reflects on being born on February 29, and life as a leapling.
I think of birthdays in the same way I think about that famous thought exercise: if a tree falls in the woods with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Is it really a birthday without other people agreeing and going through the motions for you?
Twinkling smiles, arms out ready for an embrace, cards with another reference to prosecco, an impromptu office sing-song to make you blush. Without these sort of actions, birthdays simply cease to exist, remaining just an ordinary day.
Trust me on this, I am a leapling. I was born on 29 February, which arrives just once every four years – also known as a leap day. And when you have a birthday that’s sometimes there, but mostly isn’t, it gives you some perspective.
First, a quick bit of science: why do we have leap days? It takes the Earth 365 days to orbit the sun, so we call that a year. But the truth is, it actually takes 365-and-a-quarter days, because Mother Nature does not care for admin, nor the stories that we humans tell ourselves to make sense of her behaviour. And so, every four years, we add a day onto the calendar to round up those miscellaneous quarter days into a whole – and keep our very notion of time itself intact.
This year, according to your non-leapling standards, I turn 32. But I think my leapling age – eight – suits me better. That sounds strange, but having such a birthday makes you think about time differently. “How old are you really?” is the inevitable question that follows when I tell someone my birthday. And if you spend your whole life having people tell you you’re not really your age and implying that you must be younger, well, that rubs off.
A quick glance through The Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies – an online group for leaplings to meet and trade stories – shows that such a youthful feeling is knitted into the leapling experience: one member is having a kids-themed party for their 44th; another is producing a documentary film about leaplings called Forever Young.
Maybe it’s the lack of birthday definiteness that does it. When your real birthday hardly ever comes, it’s hard to see it as a milestone – the reason you give pause and take stock of your life. That said, most of us will choose 28 February or 1 March (or both) as our birthdays. Growing up, my mum would let me ‘choose’ when it was. I personally have no attachment to either; I go with what’s most convenient that year. Or whichever day Facebook puts up a birthday notification for me.
Does that sound sad? My birthday decided by a faceless tech company? It’s actually an improvement. Before the platform, birthdays would be drip-fed over two days, often lacking fanfare. In my school, the teacher would bring you a sweet on your birthday, but my teacher and my pals were never in sync. From the youngest age I knew that if I wanted that big, bombastic birthday feeling, where everyone uniformly says “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”, then I would have to notify everyone well in advance. As a nine-year-old, there’s nothing like project management to suck the fun out of things.
So when Facebook started to choose a day and posted the reminder for me (usually on the 28th), that’s when I got a real sense of celebrating the way non-leaplings do: waking up to dozens of texts, logging onto social to see at least three pictures of a dog in a party hat. It’s poetic really, and not to be taken for granted. And perhaps the universe was being kind to me by giving me this birthday; it is truly one for sensitive souls, where second chances are built in. Forgotten my birthday on the 28th? There’s always the 1st to make up for it.
I’ve heard stories of older leaplings experiencing problems with having this birthday, though. Insurance companies refused to register it and the first shops to introduce online delivery didn’t recognise it as a delivery day (no surprises in the post for leaplings then). My only issue came from my provisional driving licence having to have the 28th on it. Bouncers asking my date of birth wouldn’t believe the drunk 18-year-old telling them that, in fact, the ID was wrong. I think I’m still barred from some pubs in Romford.
Until recently, the biggest threat to my rare leapling celebrations were women who wanted to use the day to propose to their partners. But another brilliant upside of modern feminism is that women who do propose don’t wait for a day on which they’re ‘allowed’. Smashing the patriarchy is working out great for my birthday guestlist.
As for this year, I’m feeling the pressure. Not only is there a 29th, but it’s on a Saturday too. How will I share this special day with my partner, schoolfriends, family and colleagues? It’s a common dilemma for everyone, but one that I am feeling blessed to finally have. Because while it’s not a milestone birthday, it’s worth a big celebration.
This chance quirk of being born on the rarest of days has had a significant impact on me. It takes some people their whole lives to learn that you’re only as old as you feel. Me? I’ve known it from the beginning.
Images: Getty, Coco Khan