Let’s think about the concept of birthdays for adoptees. First, 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,” sid 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.
Reflectiang 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.
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.