Why Adoptee Birthdays May Be Difficult and What Parents Can Do
It’s a bright and sunny fourth day of August, back in the year 1950. In a back yard on Oakland Street, preparations are underway for a birthday party for a seven-year-old named Sharon Lee.
Dad and Mom move the picnic table to a shady spot under the big oak tree and then cover it with a colorful paper tablecloth. As Mom stirs the red Koolaid into the green and white polka-dot pitcher, her mind wanders back to adoption day and how thrilled she and Dad were when I came to live with them when I was only ten days old. Mom is determined to make this a special birthday, as she does every year. Nothing but the best for her daughter will do.
The kids arrive for the party one by one, dressed in their Sunday best, each carrying a gift. Giggles permeate the air. Hot dogs and chips are soon served and then it’s time for the cake. Mom quickly lights the candles in the kitchen and carries the cake outside singing, Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Sherrie, happy birthday to you! My friends join in the singing.
As Mom sets the decorated cake in front of me, my eyes get as wide as saucers. I jump up from my seat on the picnic table and dart in the back door, crying.
Strange behavior, you may be thinking. What kid wouldn’t want to be in your shoes? You had it made.
As you will soon discover, this was only the beginning.
Patterns that Begin Early in Life
The preceding reaction became my pattern for future birthdays. I would greatly anticipate them but then be overwhelmed with a mixture inexplicable feelings. Every year I ended up sabotaging the very event I was excited about.
Stay with me and fast forward your thinking to 1960. I am now fifteen and my parents ask what I would like to do for my birthday. Dad and Mom would have bent over backwards to make this a memorable birthday. They loved me so much.
I don’t want a party. I don’t like being the center of attention. I opt instead to go with my parents to a pricey restaurant in East Lansing for dinner.
After ordering our food, I feel crabby (this was how Mom described my moodiness). My parents don’t know what has come over me. They don’t understand my behavior and neither do I. The twenty-mile trip home is long and silent.
I feel so guilty for being crabby. What is wrong with me? I ask myself. How ungrateful can I be?
Now fast forward to 1970, I am a young married woman with two small children, ages two and four. It’s my twenty-fifth birthday and I decide to invite my parents to our home to help celebrate.
When they arrive, they’re carrying a pantsuit which I had admired in a hometown store window.
“Wow! What a present!” I exclaim.
Later in the afternoon, my husband and dad go out to play golf. As the hours tick by, I get angrier and angrier. How could they be so insensitive to me on my birthday? I fume. When they arrive a few hours later, I let them know of my displeasure in no uncertain terms. You could have cut the air with a knife!
The family is perplexed, to say the least. My parents have come all the way from Michigan to celebrate, they have surprised me with the clothing I admired, and my husband and children are planning dinner. What more could I ask for? But in spite of everything given to me, I am angry, critical, and disappointed.
One last time, fast forward to August 4, 1995. It is my fiftieth birthday–a milestone. I anticipate it with great excitement. Instead of having a party with friends, I request a “card shower” from friends across the country. That way, I won’t have to be the center of attention.
From my husband, I ask for a gold diamond “Mother’s bracelet” and for food to be prepared from my favorite restaurant for an intimate family gathering. Not too tall of an order, right?
All day long prior to the party, I feel anxious. Knowing weeks ahead of time that it is going to be a difficult day for me, I schedule an appointment with my therapist, remarking to the doctor’s secretary that my birthday is a difficult day for me.
“Sad on that day?” she questions. “Birthdays are supposed to be a happy day.”
What’s wrong with me? I wonder. Why are birthdays such a bummer for me?
The counseling appointment turns out to be a disappointment. Talking about my feelings to a professional doesn’t seem to help the chaos I feel inside.
Later that day, the family gathers for the meal which my husband has arranged. I open their cards and gifts, feeling nervous and self-conscious. Why would I feel nervous and self-conscious with my own family? I ask myself.
When the party is over and my husband and I are driving home, I begin criticizing him for not doing enough. Why was he so preoccupied? Why didn’t he show me more attention? Why? Why? Why?
Poor guy. He had given everything I asked for and then some. I feel angry, sad, and guilty all at the same time.
It is embarrassing to give you a glimpse of my birthday history, but I do so to illustrate some of the internal dynamics that many adoptees experience on their birthdays.
“I had no idea,” I’ll bet you are saying. Why is it that birthdays are so difficult for some adoptees?
Why Birthdays May Be Difficult
Let’s back up for a moment and think about the concept of birthdays. What does a birthday represent for the non-adopted person? For most, it’s a happy time, built on the foundation of being welcomed into the world. A time for birthday cakes, parties, and balloons.
Now consider an adoptee’s birthday. What does a birthday represent for him? It represents the day of his greatest loss, the day he lost his birth mother and all that was familiar. It was not only his birthday, but his loss-day.
For the child who was adopted later in childhood, it reminds him of the wrenching-apart day–the day that the past, as he knew it, was to be no longer. For the baby adopted as an infant, the loss happened before he had words to describe it, but it was real, nonetheless. The present-day birthday serves as a trigger, reminding him of past loss.
Nancy Verrier says in The Primal Wound of the child adopted at birth, “There seems to be an anniversary reaction (also felt by the birth mother), which sends many adoptees into despair around their birthdays… is it any wonder that many adoptees sabotage their birthday parties? Why would one want to celebrate the day they were separated from their birth mothers? The adoptees, of course, have probably never really understood, themselves, why they do this.”
With the best of intentions, those who love the adoptee celebrate the day as if she were a non-adopted person. However, in the midst of the parties, in the midst of the celebration, many adoptees feel churned up inside. They know they are supposed to be happy, but a nagging thought plagues them: “I wonder if she (the birth mother) is thinking about me today. If she does on any day of the year, certainly it would be today.”
Weighing heavily upon the adoptee as well are society’s romanticized views of adoption. Be happy. Be grateful you have a family. Don’t disappoint your parents.
The adoptee’s response to all of the above? More often than not, he slips into the role of the “good adoptee,” following through with what others expect. Shoved aside is his true self, sometimes wanting only to cry and be comforted. Or he does what I did by acting out my chaotic feelings and sabotaging everyone’s effort to show me love.
I don’t know about this, you may be thinking. I have never witnessed these behaviors in my child. Maybe not, but before you reach any conclusions, listen to the experts–adoptees themselves–and hear what they have to say.
What Adoptees Say About Birthdays
Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher describe a scene between a three-year-old and her adoptive mother in Talking with Young Children About Adoption:
“Is she coming? Is my lady coming?” the child asks.
“Which lady?” the mother asks.
“You know,” child replies, “the lady I grew inside. It’s my birthday, isn’t it?”
“I purposely go out of town on my birthday because I don’t want any attention,” said a thirty-year-old male adoptee. “So I was born. Big deal. I don’t want any attention.”
“I hate my birthday,” Trisha confessed to her support group.
Reflecting on his teen years, Bob said, “Birthdays made me feel awkward when I was an adolescent.”
Dan said that birthdays were always bittersweet for him. As a child, he said he felt like he was living in a gap, or a changing room. Birthdays were a time when he remembered his birth mother and felt like the two of them were kindred spirits. Whenever he communicated these thoughts to his adoptive family, they had difficulty relating to what he was trying to say. He confessed, “On birthdays, I wished I could have been a better child for my adoptive parents.”
When Sarah turned eighteen, she felt very melancholy as she thought about her birth mother. All day Sarah ruminated: “I wonder what she is thinking.”
“My birthday is the blackest day of my year,” Melinda said. “My husband would always know because I would either lay in bed at night and cry or soak in the tub and sob. I wondered if my birth mother knew what today was.”
Beth says, “As I look back at my childhood, I think I felt the uninvited guest at my own party. I was there but disassociated. I was in the midst of some kind of script and moved through it, but without any heart, without any sense of connection or aliveness. I’m not sure why I cringe when I hear about the celebrations of Adoption Day. For me, the joining with a new family carries with it the separation from another family. This is a gigantic double bind: celebrating joining and simultaneously grieve leaving. I think this is impossible.
“As an adult, when I came to realize the hopelessness of trying, trying, trying to enjoy a birthday party, for a few years I allowed myself to do whatever pleased me on my birthday. One year I asked a friend to reserve the day. I knew that she would be with me if I just wanted to sit and stare, if I cried, if I wanted to get out of the city and cruise the countryside. She would simply support me in being. If friends wanted to take me out for lunch… whatever… we did that on a day other than the anniversary of my birth.
“Now, after much therapy and after being at the births of four of my grandchildren, I can genuinely celebrate my birthday. It took a lot of work on my part to be able to be glad I was born!”
Even though your adoptee may not verbalize similar thoughts and feelings, she may feel like the adoptees just cited. Of all the adoptees I have met, there is only a small minority that couldn’t identify with some of the above statements.
Why isn’t this written about in adoption literature? you may be wondering. Good question! I believe that for the most part it is uncharted territory. Perhaps that’s because adoptees rarely, if ever, talk about it, and parents or caring therapists might not have a clue that it is a problem.
What Parents Can Do
Recognize Distress Signals
Even though most adoptees don’t talk about it, I believe there are clues parents can look for in assessing whether their child is struggling with birthdays. Some of the symptoms you can look for in your child are:
• feeling sad and angry at the same time
• feeling like they can’t enjoy themselves
• trying extra-hard to please you
• wanting to run away and hide
• criticizing those who give gifts
• criticizing the gifts themselves
• feeling victimized by expressions of love–none of them are enough
• daydreaming (possibly wondering about birth mother)
• being disgusted with themselves for acting angry or critical
• feeling an unusual level of anxiety
• minimizing the importance of their birthday–“It’s is no big deal”
• sabotaging birthday celebrations
If your child demonstrates any of these symptoms of distress, respond in some of the validating and comforting ways you’ve learned in other chapters. But don’t look for problems where there are none. Not all adoptees have a difficult time on their birthday. Many aren’t phased at all.
One female adoptee said, “Mom always made everything so wonderful. One year she let me invite my whole fourth grade class to my birthday party.”
Twenty-seven year old Bill said that his parents celebrated both adoption and birthdays. “I felt like I had two birthdays. It was great.”
Establish Special Birthday Rituals
Bill said his mother established certain rituals that brought a sense of continuity and belonging for him. Special dinners with all the family members present. Celebrating adoption day as “miracle day”–the day they brought him home to be their own.
Another thing you may want to consider to help your child deal with the mixture of feelings is to pull the grief box off the shelf at birthday time and add another item–perhaps a birthday candle. Go through all the emotions described in an earlier chapter to help the child get in touch with her feelings. Then put the grief box up on the shelf until it is needed again. If using the grief box doesn’t seem appropriate, perhaps you could pull your child’s life book out and go through it from day one, reading the welcoming letter you wrote to your child.
Ask questions of your child preceding and on his special day. “What would you like to do on your birthday?” “How are you feeling about your birthday approaching? Some adoptees feel sad or even angry on that day. Do you ever feel that way? If you do, it’s okay to talk about it with us. We will do our best to understand and help you work through the mixture of feelings.”
Give Your Child Extra Attention
Think about some of the things that soothe your child. If he likes back rubs, give him one. Children need to calm their bodies, which are keyed up with tension.
Beefing up bedtime rituals can also be soothing: an extra story, a massage, a night light, thinking together of some good dreams to have, or a tape recorder to play some favorite music.
There is no sure-fire way to predict how your child will handle birthdays, but at least now you will be sensitive to the possibility that he may have unspoken needs.
There is another topic that can bring up a myriad of emotions and experiences for the adoptee–that of not knowing his full medical history. We’ll examine that issue next.